One of the first-ever mentions of Madonna in a national publication came in March 1984, when the new wave magazine Trouser Press ran a feature on DJ Jellybean Benitez, who was then remixing tracks for the singer. The article notes Benitez was “engaged to remix three tracks by disco/pop/rock crossover hopeful Madonna.”
Madonna may not be a “hopeful” anymore, but with her March 10 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inching closer, people are again arguing about what kind of music she makes. In a recent msnbc.com commentary, Michael Ventre claimed Madonna’s music wasn’t rock and her induction would “undermine the credibility” of the Rock Hall. But that’s not a feeling shared by all rock fans. Madonna might not be your standard rock performer, but she’s rock-oriented enough to justify getting inducted (we’ll get to the topic of the Hall’s “credibility” later).
Contrary to Ventre’s assertions, Madonna’s early career trajectory did, in fact, follow that of rock bands like the Beatles. She started out playing New York clubs in 1979 as the drummer for the rock band Breakfast Club, before moving to lead vocals. In 1980 and 1981, she fronted the dance rock band Emmy. You don’t play rock for three years without it having some influence.
After Madonna signed with Sire Records, she continued working with Breakfast Club keyboardist Pat Leonard and Emmy drummer Stephen Bray to write some of her biggest hits, including “Into the Groove,” “Express Yourself,” “Cherish” and “Like a Prayer.” None are rock per se, but all use rock as a jumping off point. Audible evidence of Madonna’s rock roots can be found on the collection of early demos “Pre-Madonna.”
Madonna’s vocals are the key to her rock roots. Pop vocalists usually sing songs “straight,” but Madonna employs subtext, irony, aggression and all sorts of vocal idiosyncrasies in the ways John Lennon and Bob Dylan did. The ambiguity she brought to songs like “Like a Virgin” and “Holiday” never lets you know whether they were supposed to be happy, sad, satirical or all of the above. Even Madonna’s early “Minnie Mouse singing” style can be traced back to rock: the Beatles made use of similar sped-up vocals starting in 1966.
When Madonna hit the big time, her shock-your-mama presentation incited outrage like it was Elvis’ hip shakin’ heyday all over again. This caused Baby Boomers to dismiss her music as lightweight in much the same way the generation before them dismissed early rock and rollers. But in retrospect, there’s little that’s lightweight in the social commentary of “Material Girl” or “Like a Virgin,” or in the personal issues Madonna tackles in “Live to Tell,” “Keep it Together” and countless other tunes.
A corporate affair
Now let’s look at the Rock Hall. And let’s admit that it’s largely a high-level corporate soiree for record industry business people and their top-earning employees and associates.
To find out why this is, look to the Hall’s governing “foundation” (a word, by the way, that should never be used in conjunction with the phrase “rock and roll”). In 2001, Fox News’ Roger Friedman reported on how foundation director Suzan Evans was looking to get big names inducted so the Hall could sell tickets to the dinner. That explains why Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Paul McCartney have been inducted multiple times as band members and solo acts.
This is because the induction process is influenced by Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner, who helped conceive the Rock Hall. Last year there were accusations of Wenner engaging in vote fixing in order to ensure rappers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five an induction.
So any questions of Madonna’s ruining the Rock Hall’s “credibility” are beside the point. What credibility is there, really? Critic Joel Selvin has pointed out that selections are also based on the personal tastes of a bunch of East Coast industry types. More and more, these people have given us a Rock Hall filled with critically correct “artists,” who thrill Baby Boomers but bore everyone else. Just in case anyone was wondering why Black Flag hasn’t been inducted yet, there’s your answer.
Considering all of this, Madonna’s induction is refreshing. Unlike some of the above names, her induction (and exhibit) should bring a sense of excitement to the Rock Hall. Will she say something crazy in her speech? Wonder what her performance will be like?
It’s this spirit that rock and rollers — not pop stars — brought to mainstream culture back in the day. Madonna’s persona has been called calculated, but if you do a little research, you’ll find there was also calculation in the way the Rolling Stones and countless other “scandalous” bands were presented to the public. The difference is there was less behind-the-scenes media documentation of celebrities back then.
Having the nerve to title an album “Like a Virgin” in the conservative early 1980s is the type of thing rockers do, not pop artists. A lot of Madonna’s career moves seem, in retrospect, logical or inevitable, but at the time they were anything but. By mapping out her work on her own terms (another rocker characteristic) Madonna often risked commercial and artistic disaster. That’s likely a big reason Madonna has served as a touchstone for so many performers that followed her and it has gotten her songs covered by artists from John Wesley Harding to Sonic Youth to Tori Amos.
It’s ironic that Madonna’s Rock Hall induction stands a better chance of causing a commotion than would appearances by any numbers of bona fide rockers. But then, that’s the sort of thing that made the one-time “disco/pop/rock crossover” a definitive rock star.
Tony Sclafani is an East Coast entertainment writer and music critic.