Madonna – I Want You
Hands up who has a complicated relationship with Madonna. Everybody? Good.
Myself, I tend to veer wildly in my opinions, and this is because she has been in my life for so long now that I view her as a family member – the kind of family member who I used to think was super-cool but now drinks a little too much at weddings and tries to start the dancing when nobody’s really ready yet.
Being Madonna in 2015 is probably the hardest job in show business because – as I touched on when I last discussed her in this piece on 1987’s Spotlight – she is sailing in uncharted waters. If you consider a typical pop career, ten years is a long time. But now, like Elizabeth I at the end of her long, long reign (minus the black teeth and lead poisoning), Madonna has outlasted all her rivals and has no-one around her brave enough to say no. Even Liz Rosenberg, her very own William Cecil, has gone. I was rather counting on Lourdes, Rocco, David Banda and Mercy to have a quiet word, but clearly they’re as in thrall to Nicki Minaj and Diplo as their mother. That being said, there are some really good moments on Rebel Heart – and mostly these are the quieter ones. I have no objection whatsoever to Madonna remaining on the dance floor, but it needs to be with a decent record, preferably made with someone we’ve never heard of and on the condition that she accepts she is no longer Cha Cha DiGregorio.
In 1995 I barely thought any of this would become an issue, for at this point in time it appeared that Madonna had been tamed and was settling into a long-lasting, more mature and certainly more quiet phase. The chief reason for this was the slightly odd collection of ballads that was released in time for Christmas, Something to Remember. I’m positive that the chief reason for its existence was an awkward meeting, whereby sales figures for Bedtime Stories and Erotica were positioned alongside market research and the few remaining copies of the Sex book to politely explain that perhaps now was a good time to put some pants on and exude niceness. Now, nice isn’t something that comes naturally to Madonna, but to her credit she clearly saw the sense in a project which would remind people that she wasn’t always hitch-hiking in the nuddy and did in fact have a terrific catalogue of slowies to exploit. It would also mark her as a more serious proposition for her upcoming role as Eva Peron in the movie version of Evita. All in all it was a pretty clever idea, and it worked spectacularly well.
When VH1 still showed music videos and I still watched VH1, it was apparent – due to endless showings – that the first single was going to be the Marvin Gaye cover version I Want You, a collaboration with Massive Attack that achieved the previously unthinkable – it succeeded in making Madonna sound utterly and irretrievably heartbroken.
This rippling, jagged and gloriously slow-paced masterpiece surrounds her with a sparse orchestral arrangement that gives her absolutely no place to hide – and it remains her all-time best vocal performance. I think by this point she was well underway with voice training for Evita, but not so much that all her Madonna-isms had been ironed out. So when she sings “Don’t play with something you should cherish for life / Oh baby / Don’t you wanna care? / Ain’t it lonely out there?” it’s both beautifully controlled and still imperfect enough to convey that “I’m having a total breakdown here” feeling. Clearly the union of Madonna, Massive Attack and producer Nellee Hooper was a magical one. Not all such collaborations work, as the earlier, just-plain-terrible Nile Rogers hook-up on Rose Royce‘s Love Don’t Live Here Anymore quite emphatically proves. I once saw Robert Del Naja shopping in the Scoopaway on Gloucester Road in Bristol, and I desperately wanted to go up to him and say thank you for a brilliant pop moment. But being meek I just paid for my red split lentils and left.
I don’t know a single person who didn’t absolutely love I Want You – so it came as a bit of a shock when You’ll See suddenly emerged as the lead single from Something to Remember instead, apparently due to Motown throwing a wobbly over rights issues – someone over there really needs to chill the f**k out. You‘ll See was of course lovely and a huge hit, but it was entirely non-threatening and meant that it wasn’t until 1997’s Frozen that this darker and more sinister version of Madonna would appear on the singles chart.
The ten year period between 1995 and 2005 saw Madonna make probably the best decisions of her career – and yes I AM including American Life in that – which is why the ten since have been so intermittently painful. Madonna in the last decade seems to have become all about proving a point – but she’s forgotten that she’s always best when she has absolutely nothing to prove. And that is definitely Something to Remember.
Entered chart: was not released
Who could sing this today and have a hit? I’ve given this a lot of thought, and for the first of the X Factor live shows this year I want a completely darkened stage accompanied by a slow but deafening heartbeat, while a fully dressed Rihanna emerges from the gloom to completely blow us away with a stunning rendition of this, complete with actual tears and LASERS. And at the end she will slowly climb into a cannon which will then eject her spectacularly over the London skyline whilst still going “da-da-da-da-da-aah-ah”. GOOSEBUMPS.