(This article is part of a series that will examine seminal albums released a decade ago and attempt to reevaluate their impact and significance through the lens of history.)
One of the most oft-used clichés associated with Madonna’s prodigious musical output has been the declaration that she is a ‘cultural chameleon’ who is capable of morphing her own sound to mimic and match the popular trends emerging around her. This is the same sort of misguided label that was originally directed at David Bowie, a man whose desire to explore new genres and push the boundaries that had been imposed on him by critics, fans and the expectations of the industry frequently caused him to move in seemingly unpredictable directions.
I have never bought into the idea that Madonna’s ability to remain relevant through several of the seismic shifts in musical taste that occurred during her reign as a pop icon was anything other than her continued growth as an artist. However, I do believe that as she entered the new millennium she became increasingly concerned about connecting with the youth market that she was no longer a part of chronologically. This desire was reflected in her work from the year 2000 on, resulting in a definite alteration of her image as an artist and arguably a similar change in the quality of her music – a change that began with the album Music.
Music hit stores in September of 2000 and while it continued the definite electronic inflections of Ray of Light which had preceded it in 1998, it took those influences in a very different direction. In the two year gap between the two albums the dance music universe that Madonna had once been a paragon of had been invaded by a revitalized house music scene. At the forefront of this new wave of music were French producers such as Daft Punk and Cassius. The harder-edged, less melodic sound was very funky and very danceable, and Madonna was definitely paying attention to the wave that was about to crash over North America and Europe, crested by Daft Punk’s crossover Discovery album in 2001. At the same time, the more underground, grainy sounds of electro were starting to gain momentum in clubs around the world, and Madonna also had her ear turned in this direction when it came to drawing inspiration for her new album.
Madonna’s Music featured a number of producers, which was part and parcel of her customary studio process. While she retained the services of William Orbit, whose influence had helped to make Ray of Light one of Madonna’s least mainstream records of the 90’s, she also enlisted the more radio-friendly talents of Mark Stent. However, the most important contributions would come from in-house Maverick talent and Madonna protégé Mirwais Ahmadzai, a French producer who would author (among others) the title track and Don’t Tell Me. Each of these songs, in addition to being successful singles would also help to push Madonna’s music style for the next 10 years in a completely new direction.
What did the future sound like to Madonna in the year 2000? While the album offered several nods to her past – the ballads I Deserve It and Nobody’s Perfect, and the Austin Powers-esque Amazing (essentially a less catchy reprise of Beautiful Stranger) – it was clear that the soaring vocals and breakbeats that had dominated Ray of Light had been cast aside. In their place the new Madonna shone through loud and clear in between the stop / start rhythms and chunky baselines of the album’s first track Music, a vocoder-laced entreaty to the DJ to ‘put a record on / I wanna dance with my baby’. Rough around the edges without the sheen afforded to Ray of Light, the track was designed to hit dancers hard in the hips and offered compressed mid-range tones, crushed percussion and a pulsing single-note bass line. Dynamically monotonous, Music also predicted the loudness wars that would soon sweep over the pop charts.
Two other standout tracks from the album – which were of course also singles – were less enthusiastic in their presentation of Madonna’s new musical agenda, preferring instead to gently guide loyal fans through their idol’s fresh sonic landscape. Don’t Tell Me featured a straightforward structure with synth string highlights, but it also provided deftly processed vocals, a watered-down stuttering beat and the same droning bass found underpinning Music. What It Feels Like For A Girl was slightly more ambitious in expanding horizons, combining a drum track composed from an electro artist’s beginner sample kit with a slightly glitchy main melody, tied together by Madonna’s ambiguously androgynous lyrics.
Overall, when taken together even with the filler ballads and pseudo-experimental tracks such as Paradise (not for me), the album presents the most mature portrait of Madonna available both to that point and beyond to present day. While the effort made by the track Music to connect with both electro and French filter house was in no way subtle, both Don’t Tell Me and What It Feels Like For A Girl feature none of the musical stunts or self-importance that would litter her later work. The more subtle approach taken by these songs when it came to breaking new ground in partnership with her core audience would be completely abandoned on the empty concept album that followed three years later (American Life).
What is the legacy of Music? It could be said that this album represents the last time that Madonna took a calculated risk in the studio without resorting to the tired attention-getting devices of sampling the hooks of dance hits hailing from another era (Confessions on a Dance Floor) or awkwardly teaming up with pop stars half her age (Hard Candy) in order to generate hits. More importantly, Madonna’s Music introduced American audiences to the French and electro influences that had been bubbling just under the surface of the mainstream (Fischerspooner, Peaches, Ladytron and Thomas Bangalter) and which would emerge more fully into the musical consciousness within the one to two year window following its release. As for Madonna, while sales remained at the level expected of a superstar of her caliber throughout the decade, Music would mark the last time she could count herself as being genuinely positioned as the herald of any musical trend.