Happy 30th Anniversary to Madonna’s third studio album True Blue, originally released June 30, 1986.
When Madonna’s breakthrough sophomore album Like a Virgin was released in November 1984, I was merely a wee lad of seven years. Hence my musical palette was admittedly rather narrow. Growing at full-speed, mind you, but certainly not as expansive as it would become as I approached my teenage years.
My musical naiveté notwithstanding, upon hearing Like a Virgin—both the lead single and full LP—for the first time, my ears instantly registered that Ms. Ciccone’s songs were a totally different and uniquely thrilling breed of pop.
At its fundamental core, Like a Virgin is pop music unabashedly designed to make bodies move and monopolize radio airwaves. There’s nothing overly cerebral on offer here; it’s simply Provocative Pop with a capital “P.” An arresting song suite that challenges the listener to contemplate not just Madonna’s overt sexuality on full and glorious display, but also his or her own feelings about sexual freedom, repression, and the thin line that often separates the two.
So yeah, without a doubt, Madonna was my first bona fide pop star crush, and Like a Virgin—coupled with the ubiquitous images of her splashed across MTV and virtually all other media in the year following its release—sealed the deal for me. Granted, at such a young age, I didn’t really comprehend the meaning of it all, and understandably, the more subtle innuendos and subtext in the lyrics were largely lost on me. What I did appreciate was that Madonna commanded a stage and screen unlike any performer that came before her, and most importantly, her songs were catchy as all hell.
Nearly twenty months later, on the final day of June in 1986, Madonna released Like a Virgin’s highly anticipated follow-up, True Blue. Though my memory of thirty years ago is bound to be a bit hazy, I’m pretty sure that True Blue was the first album I ever purchased with my “own” not-so-hard-earned cash, or more accurately, the monthly allowance my parents gave me at the time. I bought it while on vacation at my grandparents’ home in Livonia, Michigan, and I wore the cassette out that summer on my Sony Walkman. Played it multiple times a day, every day, for three months straight.
Even though it seems completely ridiculous now, I recall feeling a loose sort of kinship with Madonna for our shared familial roots in the Great Lakes State (she was raised in Pontiac, twenty miles north of Livonia, which is twenty miles west of Detroit). At the time, I figured the fact that our families hailed from the same metro area must mean that only a few degrees of separation existed between her and me. Not to mention that she and my mother both attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which further reinforced my admittedly dubious connection with her. Wishful thinking on the part of my innocent and impressionable eight year-old imagination, I suppose.
Relative to its erotically-charged precursor Like a Virgin, True Blue tempers the sex vixen aesthetic in exchange for a more calculated focus on Madonna’s evolving songcraft. True Blue’s subject matter is not a wholesale water-down job, mind you, as its songs are still provocative and, particularly in one case, proved controversial. But the messages and tones that define the album are noticeably more substantive, less superficial. Even the Herb Ritts orchestrated cover imagery, an obvious homage to the classic Hollywood glamor and glory days of Jean Harlow, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe, among others, is emblematic of Madonna’s newfound elegance and refinement.
Showcasing a more sophisticated strain of her dance-pop disposition, True Blue offered the first inkling of her development into a more mature, multi-dimensionally adept talent, a transformation that would come to even greater fruition three years later with her creative watershed Like a Prayer. Indeed, with True Blue, Madonna aspired to be taken more seriously as an artist and squash any persistent skepticism that her success was of the ephemeral, flash-in-the-pan variety.
A year later, Madonna acknowledged that naysayers remained, insisting to Rolling Stone that “There are still those people who, no matter what I do, will always think of me as a little disco tart.” Despite her lingering critics, however, True Blue proved a career tipping point that forced many of her detractors to reevaluate her artistry and embrace a newfound respect for her undeniable contributions to the pop music landscape.
Madonna dedicated True Blue to her then-husband Sean Penn, as evidenced by the line in the album’s liner notes that reads “This is dedicated to my husband, the coolest guy in the universe.” Originally titled Live to Tell after the emotionally gripping ballad Madonna offered for Penn’s 1986 crime drama film At Close Range, but subsequently changed to True Blue prior to its release, the nine-track album was overseen by her ‘80s go-to production team of Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard. More interestingly, and for the first time ever, Madonna co-wrote and co-produced each song featured on the album, an achievement that further signaled her creative coming of age.
Album opener and Grammy-nominated second single “Papa Don’t Preach” is arguably the most unforgettable of True Blue’s many memorable moments. From the opening intro replete with a swelling, suspense-laden string arrangement, you know that sonically speaking, this is a different kind of Madonna album, relative to the two that preceded it.
The song’s taboo subject matter is what really distinguishes the song, however, as Madonna inhabits the fraught yet forthright conscience of a teenage girl coming clean to her father about her unintended pregnancy and difficult decision to keep the baby. She implores him to avoid judging her too harshly and asks for his support, while naively rationalizing—as many teenagers are prone to do—that her partner and she “can raise a little family / Maybe we'll be all right, it's a sacrifice.”
Not surprisingly, the song and accompanying video ignited heated debate throughout the country at the time. Politicians and organizations such as Planned Parenthood condemned what they perceived as Madonna’s endorsement of teenage pregnancy, while pro-life evangelists applauded “Papa Don’t Preach” for what they interpreted as implicit anti-abortion sentiments.
Tipper Gore, a founder of the Parents Music Resource Center, supported the song’s more practical implications. “To me, the song speaks to a serious subject with a sense of urgency and sensitivity in both the lyrics and Madonna's rendition,” Gore contended to the New York Times. “It also speaks to the fact that there's got to be more support and more communication in families about this problem.”
To her credit, and presumably to the collective chagrin of the more opinionated factions, Madonna has avoided aligning herself with any one side of the ideological spectrum of so-called family values. Shortly before True Blue arrived in stores, she explained to the New York Times that “‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is a message song that everyone is going to take the wrong way. Immediately they’re going to say I am advising every young girl to go out and get pregnant. When I first heard the song, I thought it was silly. But then I thought, wait a minute, this song is really about a girl who is making a decision in her life. She has a very close relationship with her father and wants to maintain that closeness. To me it’s a celebration of life. It says, ‘I love you, father, and I love this man and this child that is growing inside me.’ Of course, who knows how it will end? But at least it starts off positive.”
Nearly as emotionally gripping as “Papa Don’t Preach” is the aforementioned “Live to Tell,” though the specific source of the pain and heartache Madonna examines here is never explicitly identified. A gorgeously produced ballad with prominent percussion juxtaposed with keyboard, synth, and electric guitar flourishes throughout, “Live to Tell” presents a confessional narrative that finds the song’s protagonist acknowledging and attempting to reconcile the skeletons in her closet. While Madonna perhaps intentionally shrouds the ambiguous “secret I have learned” in mystery, the surrounding context suggests a history of abuse or alienation at the hands of a man who has betrayed the central figure’s trust. Regardless of one’s interpretation, “Live to Tell” is one of the most riveting songs not just on True Blue, but across all of Madonna’s albums to date.
“Papa Don’t Preach” and “Live to Tell” aside, the bulk of True Blue is fueled by more buoyant, whimsically romantic fare. Originally written for but rejected by Cyndi Lauper, the yearning “Open Your Heart” is a straightforward love song that explores concurrent feelings of vulnerability, desire, and innocent longings for companionship.
The midtempo groove “White Heat” is simultaneously a declaration of empowerment in relationships, an homage to the 1949 film-noir classic White Heat (with dialogue from the film embedded throughout), and a nod to the film’s star James Cagney, to whom Madonna dedicated the song. Another standout is the feel-good anthem “Where’s the Party,” which echoes her 1983 hit “Holiday” in celebrating the many virtues of escapism from the mundane.
True Blue is admittedly not without its campy, borderline contrived moments. These arrive in the form of the doo-wop indebted title track (a musical love letter to Penn), the overwrought, Latino-flavored Spanish lullaby “La Isla Bonita” (which was originally offered to and turned down by Michael Jackson), and the rather simplistic yet well-intentioned clarion call for unity and understanding, “Love Makes the World Go Round.” I suspect that each of these songs fall within the “guilty pleasure” bucket for most Madonna fans, myself included.
Madonna’s eponymous 1983 debut album announced an electrifying new talent to the world. The following year, the massively successful Like a Virgin transformed Madonna into a household name across the globe. But it was True Blue that solidified her blonde ambition, cemented her worldwide superstardom, and, once and for all, extinguished any remaining doubts about her potential career longevity.
Still her highest-selling studio album of all time based on worldwide sales that exceed 25 million, True Blue is an essential component of Madonna’s prolific canon and a permanent, fondly recalled fixture of my younger days.