Madonna’s self-titled debut album, Madonna, was a bit of a slow burner. It was released in the summer of 1983 after a couple of modestly successful dance singles, “Everybody” and “Burning Up,” hit the radio and dance floors. Her record label, Sire, was ready to unleash the full length on the world in July of 1983 but there wasn’t a built-in audience….yet. Sire wanted to bill Madonna as a Disco Queen for the 80s. A fresh face for a fresh, new style of dance music that utilized the latest in technology. Her singing style would be part Betty Boop and part ethnic-neutral dance party goddess. Make no mistake, Madonna, is a disco record meant for sweating to at dance clubs. Or at home. Your choice. Luckily for Madonna, this record did a lot more for her career.
Madonna kicks off with one of the album’s biggest hits, “Lucky Star.” Probably one of the most popular and successful songs and music videos released from this record, “Lucky Star” opens with the instantly recognizable shimmering synth before the drum beat kicks in and lets you know this is going to be a hell of a jam. The best part of “Lucky Star” would have to the “starlight, starbright” chorus where the jangly guitar really makes an impression and adds much depth to the track. It’s certainly a strong opening track to lead off a debut album but I always thought it was a little too simple and repetitive (a word that will be heard often in this review) to be as popular as it was. Nevertheless, there’s no way I can refuse singing along to “you may be my lucky star, but I’m the luckiest by far” whenever this song is played.
As strong as “Lucky Star” is, my personal favorite song on the album is the second track, “Borderline.” The song is a bit more midtempo and about as close as this album gets to a ballad, but still with a propelling drum track and synth line that pushes the song forward before slowing down slightly during the chorus. “You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.” “Borderline” was Madonna’s first Billboard Top 10 hit as it was the fourth single from the album in the U.S., following the Top 20 success of “Holiday.” This song was another 1984 MTV staple that put Madonna on the pop culture map, “Borderline” will go down as one of the best songs of the 80s. However, if there is a knock against the album version, it’s the length of the track and the fact that the producers didn’t do anything different with the extra 2 minutes of run time. This is one of the only times you’ll ever hear me declare that a radio edit is better than an album cut.
The album’s third track, “Burning Up,” brings the pace back to a disco frenzy. Released as a single in early 1983, prior to the album’s release, “Burning Up” did quite well on the dance charts but failed to make a huge mark on the Billboard Top 100 pop chart. Regardless, once Madonna became a big name, the music video found airtime and remains my favorite video from this album. Madonna grinds and crawls around on the ground while an attractive man drives in a car towards her. The last shot of the video is of Madonna driving the convertible all by herself, the man no longer in the picture. “Burning Up” is another drum machine, synthesizer and guitar combination pulled off to winning effect while Madonna tells her suitor that she’s burning up for his love. A perfect song with perfect (simple) lyrical content to grab an attractive partner and get the job done on the dance floor. “Burning Up” would have been a big hit if it had been released after Madonna finally broke through a year later as its one of the album’s strongest offerings.
“I Like It,” the album’s fourth track is an opportunity for Madonna to briefly play the victim, something she rarely did in her career, before telling the man who is leaving her that she’s not going cry over him. A melodramatic track with a melodramatic keyboard line that’s equally catchy and haunting, “I Like It,” also includes a insanely catchy vocal hook. “I know you’re gonna take your love and run. I know you think I’m the foolish one. I know you’re gonna turn around and say goodbye.” It’s simple enough that you can memorize it and sing along after hearing it just once and that’s the mark of a great chorus if you ask me. Despite the sing-along hook, it ultimately is still just an average song that sticks out a bit from the rest of the tracks in terms of production quality.
“Holiday,” which was my very first introduction to Madonna, is the fifth track on the album and the track that would have kicked off side 2 if you had the vinyl copy. Released in the fall of 1983, “Holiday” is a party jam about feeling good, taking a break from stress and enjoy life. I like that this song isn’t about boys and relationships, it’s a needed change of pace from side 1’s redundant lyrical content. This is the most upbeat song on the album in terms of music and lyrics, and “Holiday” made a splash on the Billboard Top 100, reaching #16, which explains why it was my introduction to Madonna’s music. I was a religious (no pun intended) listener of the Top 40 countdown that would air Sundays on the local pop radio station. “Holiday” broke me into Madonna similarly to how “Little Red Corvette” broke me into Prince earlier that same year. My favorite part of the song was then and remains the piano breakdown towards the track end which unfortunately would get cut off by the annoying radio DJs.
Track six is “Think of Me,” another foray into the upbeat yet still somewhat midtempo style she pulled off on “Borderline.” While “Borderline” had faster verses than choruses, “Think of Me” takes the opposite approach by employing a slower beat for the verses before speeding up for the chorus. Madonna just wants you to think of her before she’s long gone and it’s too late. This track introduces a tenor saxophone to the mix, a nice change of pace but ultimately, “Think of Me,” is a nice yet slight addition to the album.
By the time that the album’s seventh track, “Physical Attraction,” comes on, you might be starting to get fatigue from the constant synthesizer/drum machine sound that each song employs. “Physical Attraction,” like “Think of Me” before it, is a pleasant and well-crafted track, but neither are going to light the world on fire with their innovation. Madonna does a brief spoken word on the track’s second half, which gives you a chance to hear her speaking voice, which is noticeably lower than her singing voice (obviously). “Physical Attraction” goes on a bit too long (6:39) and for that reason and due to its positioning on the album’s track listing, it’s a song I’m most likely to skip (although I never do).
The album’s eighth and final track, “Everybody,” is the track that really launched Madonna’s career. After her band, The Breakfast Club, disbanded, she intended to go it alone and create dance music. “Everybody” was the track she made that got her noticed in the New York dance clubs back in 1982, which ultimately led to her signing a record deal with Sire. “Everybody” is a solid song and very catchy and upbeat (yeah….so is pretty much the whole album). Madonna’s vocal performance on this track set the tone for her early career and while the song may not have charted on the Billboard Top 100, it was a local dance hit, and it served its purpose to launch an icon.
In summary, Madonna is a solid and very exciting debut album. The positives are many. The songs are well crafted, catchy and danceable. The embellishments (e.g. sax, electric guitar) add much needed warmth and ultimately make the songs more than just cold drum machine and synthesizer tracks. Madonna’s singing, never considered one of her strengths, is serviceable to the music found on her debut. There’s probably a reason there aren’t any ballads to be found as that may not have been a something Madonna could have pulled off this early in her career. She was smart to craft an album of dance tracks and the voice she carries for this record is absolutely perfect.
If I had to throw some negatives at the album, the most obvious ones would be the lyrical content and the repetitive prevailing synthesized sound of all the tracks. The lyrics on Madonna were never going to be “the point” of the album anyway. They only needed to provide a bit of story or theme to sit on top of a song’s musical track and then get the hell out of the way. Madonna goes for plenty of romantic cliches and simple rhyme patterns in her lyrics on this album, but honestly, that isn’t why this album still resonates 35 years later. It was always about the music and Madonna’s attitude.
The track listing could have used a couple of different sounding songs, maybe a ballad and a true midtempo song (sorry “Borderline”) to mix with the disco and dance bullrush that the rest of the songs hit you with. Replace “I Know It,” with a slower tempo song on side 1 and shorten “Physical Attraction” so another song of varying tempo could be inserted on side 2. I might be nitpicking a bit though, as neither of these “negatives” truly detract from the overall enjoyment that Madonna brings to fans of dance music, 80s music, or pop music in general.
Memory Bank Withdrawal
As I mentioned earlier, I listened to the weekly Top 40 countdown as a kid, which was hosted by Casey Kasum at the time Madonna’s debut album was released (1983). There were a number of popular and successful female dance music makers at the time, such as Donna Summer, Deniece Williams, Irene Cara, Shannon, etc. but Madonna seemed to set a trend for white musicians to step out of their rock and country based comfort zones and create music traditionally being made by black artists. By the end of the decade, Madonna’s influence had helped usher in the female teeny bopper scene that most famously included acts like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany in addition to influencing a generation of women on everything from speaking for themselves, confidence, style, attitude, and turning feminine sexuality into an empowering attribute.
I recall making the assumption that due to the dance sound of the song that I heard on the radio, “Holiday,” Madonna must be a black artist. I did not have MTV at the time and I’m not sure the music video was getting a lot of play on that fledgling station yet anyway. I learned of my mistake once I finally saw the video for “Borderline” months later. It made no difference to me, but it definitely opened my eyes to the fact that dance music could be made by anyone. Madonna isn’t the best dance album of the decade and isn’t Madonna’s best album of the decade either, but it holds a special place in my memories due to it being the introduction of the icon I grew up with and always followed, even if I didn’t always enjoy every new musical avenue she traveled down.
My order of preference (from most favorite to least favorite) for the songs on Madonna.
- Borderline 5/5
- Burning Up 5/5
- Holiday 4.5/5
- Lucky Star 4/5
- Everybody 4/5
- Physical Attraction 3.5/5
- Think of Me 3/5
- I Know It 3/5
Overall Score: 4/5