Near the start of Madonna’s song ‘Hung Up’, released in 2005, an irresistibly catchy riff is introduced. If it sounds familiar on first listening, it means you were alive and listening to music in the 1970s. For it’s a riff borrowed, with permission, from an ABBA hit from 1979: ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)’. It’s wonderfully appropriate – a pop queen in the ‘Noughties’ paying a kind of musical homage to pop powerhouses from several decades earlier; a bit like Beethoven acknowledging the influence of Mozart on his own musical development (which he did). Earlier on, Mozart himself had learned a few things from JC Bach. A counter interpretation of the Madonna/ABBA nexus, however, is that it smacked of desperation: by 2005 she had been in the spotlight for well over 20 years and seemed to be trying too hard to retain some shock value – as when she pashed Britney Spears on stage at a 2003 awards show. Once she’d created her own music, now she was recycling other artists’ hooks, from a song that had already been a hit. And yet…it worked. ‘Hung Up’ was a huge hit for Madonna. Another one.
I can’t recall exactly when she sashayed into my consciousness. Probably with one of her early singles ‘Holiday’ or ‘Borderline’, both of which were on her first, self-titled album, released in 1983. Coincidentally, Cyndi Lauper released her debut album, the mega-selling She’s So Unusual, that same year. For a while there, Madonna (born in Michigan) and Lauper went head-to-head in a kind of contest to decide who was more unusual. Lauper, from Queens, New York, made the early running. But by 1984, when the girl from the Midwest released Like a Virgin (while perfecting a signature look that was, well, not at all virginal; a look she showed off with impressive panache in the 1985 movie Desperately Seeking Susan) the two were heading in different directions.
Both have been on Big Issue covers – Lauper, who has turned her hand (successfully) to musical theatre recently – starred in Ed#437, almost three years ago. That cover-story, like the one in this edition, was written by Clem Bastow, our go-to girl on pop culture. This is the third time Madonna has been our cover-subject – not surprising, really, when you consider the length of her career. She was a trendsetter before many of our readers (come to think of it, several of our staff) were even born. It’s interesting now to go back to those old stories. Her first cover appearance was in 2002, and came with a barbed question: “Has Pop’s Bad Girl Gone Soft?” Inside, the story described “the disintegration of Madonna the icon, the myth, the woman who invented girl power…” She had allegedly “stopped being Madonna the celestial being, the icon…and swapped it for Madonna the missus”. (She was, at the time, married to British film director Guy Ritchie.) Fast-forward seven years and Madonna was again being sold on Australian streets by Big Issue vendors – this time as the face of our edition on cover-versions. Madonna, it is often argued, is responsible for one of the worst cover-versions of all time: her crack at Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’. But people have stopped giving her a hard time about that (it came out in 2000, after all). And as she prepares to tour Australia for the first time in 23 years, it’s hard not to give her points for career longevity, at the very least. As she heads towards 60 she can still sell out huge arenas and, from all reports, put on quite a show. Perhaps her problem, as our story explores, is that she is still desperately seeking stardom; still trying too hard to be popular. Instead of – to pinch one of her early song titles – simply expressing herself.
Alan Attwood, Editor
This article first appeared in Ed#506 of The Big Issue.