The Number Ones: Madonna’s “Music”
In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Madonna is a survivor. That’s true in the most obvious and literal sense; she’s the only member of the Holy Trinity of ’80s pop who’s still alive today. It’s also true in every other way. When Madonna scored her 12th and final #1 hit in 2000, her former peers Michael Jackson and Prince had been absent from the chart’s upper reaches for years. That doesn’t make Madonna better than Michael Jackson or Prince; you would strain all bounds of credulity if you tried to argue that she’s somehow a superior musician to Prince. But that long string of chart-toppers is a true testament to Madonna’s drive, her hunger, and her ability to understand the moment. While Michael Jackson was disappearing into his self-created bubble and Prince was increasingly playing to his cult, Madonna was still trying to make hits. And she was succeeding.
Madonna gets a lot of credit for being a chameleon, and she deserves that credit. For nearly 20 years, Madonna was able to surf the zeitgeist, to anticipate trends and react to changing tastes. But Madonna wasn’t just a chameleon. She was a great fucking songwriter, too. And she didn’t just bend her style to suit whatever was happening in popular music. Sometimes, she bent popular music to suit her. Sometimes, she landed on a certain sound many years before that sound would go fully mainstream. That’s what she did with “Music,” her last #1 hit.
Before she took “Music” to #1, Madonna had gone six years without topping the Billboard Hot 100. But “Music” wasn’t a comeback; Madonna had been omnipresent in the years between “Take A Bow” and “Music.” She starred in the 1996 musical Evita, and she took the soundtrack ballad “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” to #8. (It’s a 7.) She had a kid. She got really into various forms of mysticism, and she embraced late-’90s dance music. Also, she made Ray Of Light.
You could make a strong case for Ray Of Light as Madonna’s best album. It wouldn’t be my pick — that’s still Like A Prayer, player — but Ray Of Light is still some kind of miracle. Madonna managed to tap into the sonic sweep and woo-woo spirituality of that particular era of rave culture without coming off forced or obnoxious. She had, after all, gotten her start in the New York club landscape of the electro era, and this next-generation dance music was probably less of a leap than the Babyface-aided quasi-R&B of her Bedtime Stories era. With Ray Of Light, Madonna also unlocked a new level as a singer, nailing an icy and precise calm that probably came from the vocal training that she’d done for Evita. And she sounded mature, which wasn’t anything that anyone expected of Madonna.
The maturity couldn’t last. Ray Of Light had a couple of serious hits. Madonna got to #2 with the gothed-out ballad “Frozen,” and then she took the dizzily utopian club-jam “Ray Of Light” to #5. (“Frozen” is a 10, and “Ray Of Light” is a 9.) Ray Of Light also went triple platinum — better than any Madonna album had done since Like A Prayer — and earned levels of critical respect that she’s arguably never had before. Even after the album cycle died down, Madonna cranked out more hits. “Beautiful Stranger,” a pretty great song she’d done for the soundtrack of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, made it to #19. Madonna also covered Don McLean’s “American Pie” for the soundtrack of her own 2000 cinematic flop The Next Big Thing. That song didn’t get a single release in America, and it peaked at #29 on radio airplay alone. Elsewhere in the world, that cover topped charts, even though it was pretty bad.
Madonna had wanted to tour behind Ray Of Light in 1999, but she made The Next Big Thing instead. She still wanted to take those songs out on tour, but the bosses at Warner thought that it had been too long since Ray Of Light, and they suggested that Madonna capitalize on her momentum and come out with another album instead. Madonna was down. But Madonna doesn’t make the same album twice, and she didn’t want to go for that Ray Of Light maturity again. Instead, she wanted to ditch the mysticism and make some full-on dance music. For a while, Madonna played around with the idea of making an album with the big-deal trance DJ Sasha, which would’ve probably been awful. Instead, for 2000’s Music, she went in a very different direction.
Sometime in the late ’90s, dance producers in France figured out a playfully thumping minimal style that came to be known by a few different names like filter disco and French Touch. That sound drew on disco, funk, and Chicago house. It had big, booming, uncluttered beats and heavily vocodered vocals, and it was silly and glamorous at the same damn time. The French producers didn’t have any use for breakbeats or new-age philosophies. Instead, they just wanted to blast strobe lights in your eyes. That style became hugely popular all through Europe, but it didn’t take hold in America for years.
Daft Punk managed to reach #61 on the Hot 100 with their iconic 1997 banger “Around The World.” The Daft Punk side project Stardust also made it to #62 with the 1998 classic “Music Sounds Better Than You.” Modjo, another Parisian duo, just barely scraped the Hot 100 when their 2000 single “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” made it to #81. Other French Touch stars — Mr Oizo, Cassius, Étienne de Crécy — never made it anywhere near the Hot 100. These dance tracks were topping charts all across Europe, but the sound was a little too continental for most of us — or, at least, it was until Madonna got ahold of it. (Daft Punk eventually became Hot 100 conquerers in America. Their highest-charting single, the 2013 Pharrell/Nile Rodgers collab “Get Lucky,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8. Daft Punk will eventually appear in this column as both a featured guest and a sample source.)
Madonna’s prime collaborator on Music was only a minor player in that whole French house scene, and he was only a couple of years younger than her. Mirwais Ahmadzaï had been born in Switzerland, the son of an Algerian father and an Italian mother. In the ’80s, Mirwais been a guitarist in the Parisian new wave act Taxi Girl, who’d influenced later French groups like Daft Punk and Air. Mirwais started making solo tracks in 1990. In 1999, the French photographer and director Stéphane Sednaoui made the video for Mirwais’ Breeders-sampling house track “Disco Science.” Sednaoui gave a copy of the track to Guy Oseary, head of Madonna’s Maverick label, thinking that maybe Oseary would want to sign Mirwais. Instead, Madonna heard the track and decided that she needed to work with this guy.
The collaboration wasn’t easy at first. Mirwais barely spoke any English, and Madonna barely spoke any French. Mirwais’ manager needed to translate for him, and the awkwardness of the process infuriated Madonna. Eventually, though, Madonna and Mirwais figured out how to lock in with each other. Madonna made a few of the tracks from Music with her Ray Of Light collaborator William Orbit, but Mirwais was her main guy. For Music, Madonna and Mirwais co-wrote and co-produced six of the 10 tracks, and the sound was very much Madonna’s take on the whole French house phenomenon.
Madonna got the idea for “Music,” her new album’s first single and title track, from an experience that she’d had going to see former Number Ones artist Sting at New York’s Beacon Theater. Madonna later told Rolling Stone that she thought Sting’s audience was “pretty well-behaved and enthusiastically polite,” but when he played the older Police songs, they started to come unglued:
Suddenly, people lost their inhibition and their politeness, and everyone was singing the songs and practically holding hands — you know what I mean? I mean, it really moved me. And I thought, “That’s what music does to people.”
At this Sting show, music had made the people come together. I don’t know how many people at the Sting show were bourgeoise and how many were rebel — I’d love to see a demographic breakdown on that — but the power of those Police joints had made them one and the same. That’s a simple idea, and “Music” is a simple song. Madonna tells the DJ to put a record on; she wants to dance with her baby. When the music starts, it’s never gonna stop; it’s gonna drive her crazy. She doesn’t think of yesterday, and she doesn’t look at the clock. She likes to boogie-woogie. It’s like riding on the wind, and it never goes away. It touches everything she’s in; she’s got to have it every day.
If you were feeling uncharitable, you could see desperation in Madonna’s embrace of the dance floor, her refusal to think of yesterday. When Madonna made “Music,” she was about to have her second kid, and she was 42 years old — the same age that I am right now, as it happens. When you’re 42, you’re a whole lot less likely to find ecstasy in a nightclub. It can happen, but you have to work harder at it. “Music” sounds a little like work, or like determination. But that single-minded drive lines up very nicely with the bleep-stomp simplicity of the track that Madonna and Mirwais concocted.
A year before “Music,” Cher, a woman 12 years Madonna’s senior, enjoyed a freak comeback smash with “Believe,” a club track full of robotized vocals. On “Music,” Madonna goes even heavier on those vocal filters, smearing vocoder all over her voice while she asks if you like to boogie-woogie. But Madonna doesn’t sound like she’s playing catchup to Cher, even though I’m sure she’d watched the whole “Believe” situation with great interest. Instead, it sounds like Madonna’s riding the Daft Punk train, which was still very much a culty hipster thing in America. She was right on that boundary between making trends and chasing them, two activities that are not mutually exclusive.
For me, the harsh, clipped directness of “Music” really works. The lyrics are knowingly caveman-simple. There’s a bit of a wink to that simplicity, and Madonna accentuated that wink by dressing up in kitschy retro-cowboy getups for all the promotional stuff surrounding Music. But the cleverness never feels like the point. Instead, the point is the spartan intensity of the track itself, the coiled energy in that lockstep boom. “Music” is repetitive as all hell, but it’s the kind of repetition that goes over huge in a club or at a party. The track sounds like a clarion call, a signal to get up and boogie-woogie.
For the “Music” video, Madonna went hard on the song’s silliness. She brought in Jonas Åkerlund, the Swedish director who’d once been in the black metal band Bathory and who’d become notorious for the edgelord abandon of the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” video. (“Smack My Bitch Up” peaked at #89.) Madonna was hugely pregnant when she made the video, but she didn’t want to look pregnant, so she devised a whole scenario where she could run around and look cool without showing her belly. In the clip, Madonna and two of her friends, the actor Debi Mazar and the longtime backup singer Niki Haris, ride around in a limo that’s being driven by Sacha Baron Cohen in his Ali G character. Ali G was already a huge deal in British comedy, but HBO wouldn’t start airing Da Ali G Show until 2003, and Cohen wouldn’t become truly famous over here until Borat came out in 2006. When the “Music” video arrived, I had no idea what the fuck this guy was supposed to be.
The whole Ali G thing only really works when he’s surrounded by cluelessness, not when he’s around people who insist that they’re in on the joke. So all the slapstick stuff in the “Music” video — Ali G trying to rap on Madonna’s song, Ali G breakdancing in the club, Ali G failing to get into the strip joint — is pretty obnoxious. But I like Madonna as a cowgirl pimp riding around and raising hell with her friends. There’s silliness in its glamor, and there’s glamor in its silliness.
In a way, “Music” tapped into the shared collective memory of Madonna; after all, she’d sung about that same kind of dancefloor liberation on “Into The Groove” 15 years earlier. In a way, its harshness also lined up with the teen-pop of the era. That may have been accidental. Madonna made out with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera onstage at the VMAs a few years later, but in that Rolling Stone interview, she literally rolled her eyes about the new wave of TRL stars. (Madonna thought they were taking valuable attention away from, like, Massive Attack. That’s 42-year-old thinking, Madonna!) Still, “Music” cut through the air in a way that reminds me of the tracks that the Max Martin factory was cranking out at the time. It’s got that same sense of confident flash.
Music was another hit for Madonna. The album went triple platinum, and Madonna got to #4 with her next single, a radically reconstructed version of a Tom Waits-esque acoustic ramble that her brother-in-law Joe Henry had written. For me, “Don’t Tell Me” is the real monster on Music — a jittery and spaced-out ballad that manages to be disorienting and beautiful at the same time. (It’s a 10.)
Madonna had been seeing Guy Ritchie, the British director of cartoonish gangster capers, since 1998. Just before “Music” reached #1, Madonna gave birth to Richie’s son Rocco, and the two got married a few months later. (They divorced in 2008.) The third single from Music was the William Orbit-produced ballad “What It Feels Like For A Girl.” Ritchie directed the song’s video, which aimed for instant controversy by showing Madonna on a violent crime spree. The video overshadowed the song, which peaked at #23.
It wasn’t really surprising when the 42-year-old Madonna returned to #1 with “Music.” It just seemed like the kind of thing that she would do. It was surprising when Madonna entered her flop era just a few years later. Madonna followed Music with the 2003 album American Life, which sweatily strained for social significance and electroclash sharpness. The unpleasant title track peaked at #37. Remember when she tried rapping on that song? Whoof. None of the other singles from American Life made the Hot 100. Madonna righted the ship with her less overthought 2005 album Confessions On A Dancefloor and especially with “Hung Up,” the ABBA-sampling banger of a lead single. (“Hung Up” peaked at #7. It’s an 8.)
“Hung Up” was the end of something. Madonna has reached the top 10 a couple of times since “Hung Up,” but she’s only done it by working with hot young collaborators. In 2008, she peaked at #3 with the Justin Timberlake/Timbaland collab “4 Minutes.” (It’s a 5. Timberlake and Timbaland will both appear in this column.) Madonna also tapped M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj for 2012’s “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” which reached #10. (It’s another 5. M.I.A.’s highest-charting single as lead artist, 2008’s “Paper Planes,” peaked at #4. It’s a 10. M.I.A. will eventually appear in this column as a featured guest. Nicki Minaj will also appear in this column; she’s got the #1 song in America right now.) Those songs were both hits, but they felt like capitulations, or maybe like panders. Madonna wasn’t leading anymore.
Madonna isn’t making hits anymore; her last time on the Hot 100 was 2015, when “Bitch I’m Madonna,” another Nicki Minaj collab, peaked at #85. But Madonna has never left the public eye. It’s impossible to imagine her ever leaving the public eye as long as she’s alive. You already know all her recent-ish exploits. She played the Super Bowl Halftime Show. She adopted a couple of kids from Malawi. She said something about blowing up the White House when Trump was president. There’s apparently a biopic on the way, with Julia Garner from Ozark in the Madonna role. None of that is particularly bothersome, but I still wince a little bit whenever Madonna pops up in my feed these days.
Honestly, though? That’s not Madonna’s problem. That’s my problem. Madonna spent an unfathomably long time as one of the world’s greatest pop stars. She made dozens of songs that I love without reservation. If she wants to be a kooky and vaguely irritating rich lady today, she’s more than earned the right. I can’t imagine we’ll see Madonna in this column again, but if she does somehow fuck around and score another #1 hit, who’s going to be mad? She’s Madonna. Let her do what she wants.