There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just come right out with it. As Madonna’s 50th birthday approaches on Aug. 16, it’s looking like her influence on pop music has outshone that of the Beatles.
Let me qualify the above statement before all the peace-and-love baby boomers start hating. It’s Madonna’s impact on the course of pop music that bests the Fab Four, not her sociological importance, songwriting skills or recording innovations. Influence means an artist has an effect on the future direction of music. While the Beatles influenced scads of artists in their time, after their breakup, their sound became yesterday’s news. Artists that tried to copy them (Badfinger, the Raspberries, Squeeze) seemed quaint or quirky.
But a quarter century after Madonna emerged, artists still use her ideas and seem modern and edgy doing so. Beyond the obvious Madonna wannabe 1980s singers, Madonna’s influence is felt in artists from Gwen Stefani to Britney Spears to boy bands, who found in the 1990s there was an audience beyond the old rock crowd.
Madonna, like Elvis, recast the focus of popular music. By emphasizing modern R&B grooves where most singers used rock beats, she was the catalyst that changed music from being rock-centric to being dance and R&B-oriented. (Disco, which influenced Madonna, might have done the same thing had it not died because of rock resentment.) It’s worth noting that before Madonna, most music mega-stars were guy rockers; after her, almost all would be female singers.
Combining genres, inventing styles
How did this happen? Let’s scroll back to 1983, the year of Madonna’s first album.
Like Elvis and the Beatles, Madonna combined genres. So her first two singles (“Everybody” and “Burning Up”) may have been lost on people because of the way they didn’t quite fit in with R&B or rock. Top 40 and MTV back then treated black music like a subgenre — not the backbone of 20th century American music, as it’s recognized now. With her music and videos, Madonna sliced away at genre straightjackets like a surgeon, opening the doors for the future hip-hop explosion.
Madonna lookalikeAs for style, well, Madonna’s rag-tag early clothing get-up defined much of what was to come in the 1980s. She was also perhaps the ultimate video pioneer, because her videos were integral to her presentation, not an appendage of it.
Her career highlights came early on. She famously rolled around on the stage singing “Like a Virgin” in a wedding dress at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards. She had a featured role in “Desperately Seeking Susan” and got a huge hit out of that with “Into the Groove.” She topped the charts with “Crazy for You,” which wasn’t even on one of her albums. Forbes recently dubbed her the richest woman in music. The Billboard Book of Top 100 Hits lists her as the top female pop artist of the 1980s. (For a roll call of her accomplishments, check Wikipedia or Madonnalicious.)
The word “female” is significant in that assessment of Madonna because she presented herself in a fresh way for women artists. She didn’t try to be one of the boys, but she wasn’t a girly-girl or a singer-songwriter.
When the Beatles hit America, they changed the paradigm of performer from solo act to band. Madonna changed it back — with an emphasis on the female. With female artists everywhere these days, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary her success was (historically challenged Millennials especially seem not to realize this). But look at old music magazines or Billboard charts for proof that in the pre-Madonna era, women were the aberration, not the norm.
Video: Madonna one-on-one Madonna’s countless hit records opened people’s minds as to how successful a female artist could be. Nineties artists such as Tori Amos and Bikini Kill have zilch in common with Madonna, but benefited from her opening the ears of teen-female pop fans to something other than the usual heavy metal shouters (trust me, teen girls in the 1980s loved that stuff).
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Her early audience was the recipient of some panic-stricken journalism early on, much of which took the tone of: “Madonna’s come to ruin your daughters!! Arghghgh!” The consensus then was that Madonna probably wouldn’t have the longevity of Cyndi Lauper (who immediately preceded her) and would disappear like other recent suggestive singers (remember Dale Bozzio? Terri Nunn?).
But Madonna also had the Beatles-like tendency to anticipate the maturing of her audience and also the ability to reinvent her style. Her personal life became fodder for 1989’s “Like a Prayer,” just when her audience was looking beyond dance music. When Gen X grew more mature, she told erotic “Bedtime Stories” and unleashed her “Sex” book on the world.
Still in vogue
Madonna’s no-holds-barred example broadened the palette of what artists — especially female artists — could attempt. Liberate yourself, Madonna seemed to say, and the rest will follow. When her popularity didn’t fade, as predicted, people — especially skeptical Boomer critics — were forced to take her seriously.
Madonna was also responsible for throwing off some of the unconscious modesty of pop music. Peripheral artists had attempted this, but Madonna was unique in that she brought a no-apologies approach to sex to her music. As she sung in “Burning Up:” “Unlike the others, I’d do anything / I’m not the same, I have no shame.” She could be calculating one minute and coy the next. Her concert tours, like 1992s “Girlie Show,” brought this to the fore, blurring sexuality, satire and social commentary.
The late rock critic Lester Bangs observed in 1975 the Beatles’ jangly sound and somewhat naive worldview was unable to transcend its 1960s origins. Bangs never gave the band enough credit for their songs, but he was right that some of their continuing appeal was fueled by hippie era nostalgia. That’s still the case.
It’s hard to get nostalgic about Madonna, though, because her influence stayed current. Not bad for someone who is about to hit the half-century mark.
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