PopOff! Retro Reviews: Intro

I have been trying to work on a piece about music standoms for some time but can never find a through line or the angle that feels right to me other than writing that comes off like letters to the editor. But here it is the 25th anniversary of the release of Ray of Light and lord knows Madonna has her Stans. It is also the 25th anniversary of two other albums by artists that hit an evolutionary crossroads in the 90s, Kylie Monigue’s Impossible Princess and Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope.

So I think it’s time to revisit these albums and what came before and after for the names on the album covers. All three albums try to say something beyond just being complacent pop and I will get into those similarities and differences in how each album achieves that further down the word road.

Of these three albums the only one I owned was Ray Of Light and I owned it more so because I felt I was supposed to. Rather than because I was a Madonna fan. It is often hailed as her best album. I certainly think it is her most mature album (American Life may be close on its heels if not tied). But I haven’t listened to Ray Of Light straight through since well- since I first bought it. And while it might be her most mature, it is by all accounts not her most fun record *Confessions on a Dancefloor enters the chat*. But we’ll get to all that soon enough.

Aside from wanting to revisit Ray Of Light and review it I also got to thinking about the musicians I love and crown with labels like, “queen” or “husband” – Ahem, “Why hello, Mr. Palmer”. Out of all the people I’ve ever given a label or any kind of high status in my musicdom Annie Lennox came the closest to having any official title. And recently I was thinking about all her work and I started to wonder why was I calling her my “queen” all these years.

Her work with Eurythmics is fun and amazing certainly those first 3-4 records have tons of great material. Her first solo album Diva is an all time album for me. But I don’t connect to Lennox the person outside of the music. Whatever Annie does beyond the music seems to matter very little to me. In fact this seems true for all the music I listen too. So while her music definitely delivers overall, how did she ever become my “queen”. By all accounts I play more Kylie Minogue on the day to day than Annie. And in terms of musicians as people The B-52’s whole crew I resonate with more strongly than anything Annie, Kylie, Madonna or any of the other classic “gay icon” divas do as people. I suppose she is queen because as a queer I have to have a queen. It’s in the rule book on how to be a flaming fairy I was given in the early 90s.

I mention all that because Madonna for many is, “Queen of the Gays” (also Queen of the Clubs, Queen of Pop). And she has been for decades. And in terms of sheer fan numbers worldwide until we elder queers start to croak and die off in mass quantities, I don’t see that crown being taken anytime soon. But I was never into that part of the Madonna sphere. Yeah, I’m queer but she never did anything that I connected with as a queer other than some great songs to dance too. And there are some GREAT songs. But my Madonna exposure started with The Immaculate Collection and specifically the song, “Cherish”. One of her least offensive and most pop, pop songs ever. The kind of song you’d expect from Debbie Gibson or Amy Grant at that time.

It is stained with 1989 codiments. That greatest hits compilation is one of the biggest selling albums of her career and of all time and is notable for being one of the few albums without Madonna on the cover, coincidentally so was Ray Of Light originally. And surprisingly you KNOW every song on that hits package but it doesn’t even have all of her hits, some like, “True Blue” & “Causing A Commotion” that I actually prefer to what is included. Also I just noticed I came to this album before I came to, I’m Breathless the quasi Dick Tracy soundtrack that gave us, “Vogue” and the top 10, what I lovingly call a hit from from hell, “Hanky Panky”. Plus the Oscar winning, “Sooner Or Later”. But both came out the same year so I guess cashing in on almost a decades worth of hits was coming sooner rather than later.

Following this she released the album Erotica where she took all that Justify My Love/Truth Or Dare sexual energy and channeled into one whole album. I supposed this was an attempt to push herself away from the typical pop fluff that had branded her and into something more mature in the 90s and in her 30s. The album did not go over well… And I will defend this as one of her strongest and most Madonna albums but that is another story. To quell the backlash she came out with the inoffensive single, “I’ll Remember” from the film With Honors. But then in ‘94 with the help of Babyface she dropped Bedtime Stories containing her longest run at number one with, “Take A Bow”. It also contained the title track written by Björk, which came with it’s surreal music video and house beats.

Side note: This was before the age of social media so all the hoopla and fan wars over Madonna doing a half-ass Björk was not much in the fandom conversation outside of serious music nerds. But it definitely was different for Madonna. And considering every album cycle she was always different… It was rather memorable. Most importantly, though the album featured, “Human Nature”. A song with the lyrics, “Oops… I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex…” and “I’m not sorry, it’s human nature…” Once again owning the template she laid down on the song, “Justify My Love” and the Erotica album. Her DGAF was very much still intact at this stage keeping her in the media sphere thought pieces regularly.  And surprise, surprise… not yet even being 40 I remember people saying she was too old to flaunting such sexuality.  Not much has changed there.

This album was followed by her second compilation, Something To Remember. It was a mix of hits and deeps cuts pulling mostly from her 90’s period and the ballads. “Live To Tell”, one her best songs ever in my opinion was present as well as, “Oh Father” off Like A Virgin. The title comes from the song, “Something To Remember” off I’m Breathless, one of the stronger tracks on that entire album. The critics praised this as great showcase for Madonna  in a less mainstream pop vein. And it produced another hit, “You’ll See”.

So up until this point I liked Madonna and her music fine. But as I’ve said elsewhere I was REALLY down a rabbit hole of 50s/60s pop at this time. Plus I was still obsessed with The Police and Sting’s first few solo efforts. Note to self: Work on piece about personal Sting fandom.

Update: That piece is done and can be read by CLICKING HERE.

But the “oldies” aside, the album from that late 80s early 90s period that was still dominating my rotation was Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. And if I were to have crowned a queen at that time it would’ve been Gloria Estefan because she made me dance with all those remixes PLUS she was always the pop queen underdog in the US and I LOVE the underdog.

Still, I’d seen some of Madonna’s publicity stunts. I’d seen Dick Tracy and A League Of Their Own, you could not escape her but like Mariah at the same time I wasn’t falling over everything she did. And I guess this really does restate how much I hate and avoid hype… Everybody needs to just- Calm. Down. Sheesh… It’s just music. The, “it’s just music” mentality definitely changed in 94/95 for me and you can read about that journey by CLICKING HERE. But pop always remained pop to me. It had a job and often did the job well.

That said, within her best songs, Madonna had one quality that I find is not so easy to come by in mainstream pop as much these days. I find a lot of pop today lacks vulnerability. With so much emphasis on artists being a brand, perfection/being flawless, and just the overall bonkers nature standoms falling over everything a musician does… And then falling over themselves to take down another musician and it’s fans… Music today seems way to calculated. It also definitely lacks any risk taking or people willing to tell an artist, “no”. Songs like, “Live To Tell”, “Something To Remember”, “Take A Bow”, “Erotica”, whatever you think of them, all resonate as coming from a flawed person taking a risk of some kind. Doing what they want to do without much thought to public or even fan response. And it feels to somebody like me who grew in peak 90s MTV era that now more than ever mainstream pop acts today put the music second and the branding first. And that kind of focus group ethos results in music that largely feels inauthentic to me personally.

Madonna was always very business savvy and knew how to keep her name in the trades but when she went chameleon on us it’s wasn’t for branding reasons it was because she never wanted to repeat herself and because she had moved on to the next thing that interested her. She wasn’t mixing it up because it was expected. All this talk of “eras” with pop stars today is so clichéd to me. Every artist now wants to have eras… Well, thank Madonna for that and more importantly, Bowie before her of course. But Madonna was really the first major pop star to pull from the Alice Cooper play book and bring theatrics to arenas. And not that it needs to be said but, Madonna doesn’t just have eras she has DECADES of eras.

Whatever your feelings are on what Madonna “stole” she definitely made it global and mainstream before anyone else and led the charge back in the 80s and 90s. All that history is so long ago now (YIKES) that is is easy for younger generations to have no frame of reference for just what a cultural powerhouse she was then. And just how much the conversation was centered on and directed by her. She was so HUGE that even in the 90s grunge and gangster rap couldn’t end her chart dominance and those two ended A LOT of careers in the 90s. AND she out lasted both and many of the pop stars the 90s produced.

Before 1998 Madonna takes on a very divisive role in the film version of the musical Evita. I liked the movie fine, actually. I’d never seen the musical on stage. I did know the music beforehand having gone through an, I must know every great musical ever! phase. I definitely worked it out to the remix of, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” that was a hit at the time. And Madonna did fine, she clearly trained with a vocal coach. And it is CERTAINLY better than the awful speak singing people do now in film musicals because most actors can’t do Broadway singing and don’t want to take the time to train properly.

Fun fact: The filmmakers originally sought out Gloria Estefan for the role of Eva Peron. She declined feeling Eva Peron was too controversial a person for her to take on as she had such a large fan base in the Latino community. And I will say as a Gloria fan, Madonna’s voice is definitely better for the role than the more nasally tone that Estefan has. Madonna got shit for the whole thing much like she has for just about every new thing she does outside her “lane”. But how can she be outside her lane when was never in any one lane to start with.

To quote Madonna herself, “The most controversial thig I ever did was stick around.”

And honestly, regarding musicals specifically, Hollywood has often preferred a name/face over the ability to sing in almost all their movie musicals since the industry started (i.e. Natalie Wood as Puerto Rican and Audrey Hepburn as a Cockney).

Whatever your feelings on her detour with Evita. One thing that cannot be denied is all the vocal training for that role definitely carried over to Ray Of Light, which would come two years later.

But before Ray Of Light dropped on the world in early 1998 in October of 1997 both Janet and Kylie dropped their statement records. As I said, Janet had been making statements all along since her 2nd album Control. I was addicted to Rhythm Nation 1814 every song on that album seemed to be a hit. And 7 of the songs went top 5 an astounding feat in the age when you had to go buy physical singles and albums at record stores.

This was really my introduction to Janet, I was in middle school and it was inescapable. And with this album and it’s music videos you saw the evolution from the album Control to Janet. (Her sexiest album in my opinion). Her transformation from Michael’s sister to a sex goddess and pop powerhouse in her own right. For whatever reason Rhythm Nation 1814 consumed my all in terms of the music of Janet Jackson. So even by the time The Velvet Rope came out I had largely ignored her other hits and albums. In particular the song, “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” hits me places her other songs did not in the 90s. Coincidentally, that was the music video that saw Janet evolve from cute kid sister with shoulder pads and Jeri curls to sexy standout with straight hair and exposed midriff. But again that whole album took up a huge chunk of my listening space, (that wasn’t dominated by oldies) so there just wasn’t room for other things. And in 1989 Madonna had dropped Like A Prayer and had a back catalog of singles like, “Papa Don’t Preach” so she was already well into turning heads and raising eyebrows and trying to put out deeper pop messaging. And while she did influence just about every way a teenage girls dressed in the 80s she was never seen as a sex goddess like Janet nor would she ever be seen as one, from what I saw. Meanwhile both Janet (and Kylie) would hit their 30s and become major pop pinups.

Kylie Minogue’s first major US chart success came with a cover of Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion”. She reached the top 20 with the following single, “I Should Be So Lucky” but even with all her S/A/W production behind her she couldn’t break through in the US the same way she dominated the UK, much of Europe, and Australia. And she gave up trying to cater to the US market from then on out. It was just unfortunate timing, the pool of pop divas was just overloaded. Aside from Madonna & Janet we had Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, and Taylor Dayne riding high. Also 88/89 was the peak of the Debbie Gibson/Tiffany war. There just wasn’t any more room on the charts. And this was before the oncoming dominace of Mariah Carey for the entire 1990s. The other fact is that the S/A/W/ team itself had overloaded the charts with hits from acts like Dead Or Alive, Bananarama, Rick Astley, & even Donna Summer’s comeback. It wasn’t meant to be. And for me I didn’t even really know or hear Kylie’s cover of that early 60s staple in my life. So she was definitely NOT on my radar.

It wasn’t until I was going to gay clubs and my friend had some compilation of “queer anthems” that I got curious about Kylie. That compilation had Bananarama and oddly The Tourists (Annie Lennox’s band before Eurythmics) among other hi-nrg dance material. One of the hi-nrg hits was Kylie’s, “Better The Devil You Know (The Made March Hare Mix). Look, the lyrics are VERY simple it’s a pop rave up like much of her work in the 80s and 90s. Though apparently the song was a thank you/love letter to the S/A/W team as she moved onto other producers. But is was not long after that I was compelled to hear more and I picked up a two disc remix compilation of some of her early hits.

At the time in the later 90s remixes were hit or miss for me. Sometimes, I liked a good extended version other times they felt too different from what I originally was dancing it out to in my bedroom. But that compilation definitely had the stamp of the S/A/W with a couple new jack swing tinged tunes. Kylie must’ve known that this UK brand of Motown assembly line production would not live on forever and if she wanted staying power she had to go elsewhere.

After releasing the 1991 album Confide In Me, a remix album, and a greatest hits package by 1994 she had a new production team a new look for her self-titled album. Dressed in an over-sized suit wearing glasses crawling on the album cover with her tongue out. The was the shift, again a girl with curls, this time to a kind of pantheress that is stalking you.

She gets one co-writing credit on the album and it is overall a decent pop record and was received as such at the time. Songs like, “Confide In Me” hint at the sounds to come two years later on Impossible Princess. But before I EVER got around to that album I encountered the world wide club crusher “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” another song with practically no lyrics and yet throbs so good and hard you can’t deny it. In fact I reviewed the entire Fever album, which you can read by CLICKING HERE. And then there is the song, “All The Lovers”… a song I came to ten years after it’s club dominance during pandemic. That song now holds a spot as one of my all time favorite songs ever for a variety of reasons. Sometimes time and place really do make a musical moment that changes you.

Also, at that moment in the pandemic Kylie dropped her the album Disco. As if to remind us all what she does best. I liked that album a lot but like much of her work, lyrically, it is at times weightless. But now I’m curious about the black sheep in her discography.

In 1997 she made an album she wanted to make, to prove she wasn’t just pop fluff and had something more to say. By all accounts this came off to the public and fans as trying too hard or being fake or a poser. Meanwhile for Madonna it was just another chameleon move to make an even MORE “mature album” and Janet was just continuing the template she started with Rhythm Nation 1814 of becoming a more sexy, mature, & political pop star.

I dodged any of the media circus around all these albums for the most part. So I am not colored by consensus at the time or even consensus now. It is almost a blind tasting. And I will say before I get to each album individually, having heard them all twice now my initial responses are each album is fantastic in their own way, they find a soundscape and more or less stay true to their chosen sonic devices and even overall lyrical themes. They are all three quite different but picking a favorite at this time, I give the edge to The Velvet Rope. It feels like a whole album with well placed and paced song order. The other two albums feel like they could’ve dropped 1 or 2 songs to make them both tighter and stronger overall. But I’ll have more to say on that going forward.

Starting chronologically let’s get in the limo waiting outside and head to the party for Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope released on October 7th, 1997.

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