Suffice to say that 2018 has been a year of major milestones for Madonna, most notably including her 60th birthday last month, the 35th and 20th anniversaries of her eponymous 1983 debut album Madonna and 1998’s Ray of Light respectively, and the forthcoming release of her fourteenth studio LP. Well into her fourth decade of recording music, the iconic Ms. Ciccone continues to provoke and, in some cases, perplex our collective senses, as most recently evidenced by her infamously misguided “tribute” to the late Aretha Franklin at the MTV Video Music Awards a few weeks ago.
Despite her occasional misstep, whether in the public eye or within the creative realm, Madonna nevertheless remains one of the most accomplished and dynamic figures in the world of music. And with Michael Jackson and Prince sadly no longer with us, she is the lone surviving member of the “big three” that ascended to worldwide pop music domination during the 1980s.
Celebrating a noteworthy milestone of his own, Albumism’s resident pop music guru Quentin Harrison has just released the fourth installment of his Record Redux book series, an ambitiously exhaustive assessment of Madonna’s prolific discography to date. Following the previous volumes devoted to pop music mavens The Spice Girls, Carly Simon and Donna Summer, the meticulously researched Record Redux: Madonna aims to recalibrate our attention back to what ultimately matters most about Madonna: her music.
“The sonic journey Madonna continues to take me—and all of us—on has yet to become boring,” Harrison explains in the book’s introduction. “It’s disappointing then that so little of the conversation about Madonna rarely extends to her craft. However, I’d like to believe that despite that hurdle, the continual interest in this fascinating woman is because of her many songs and albums.”
I recently had the chance to connect with the author to learn more about the inspiration that fueled Record Redux: Madonna and the highlights of our conversation appear below, followed by a special excerpt from the book. An essential addition to the book shelves of all Madonna and pop music aficionados, Record Redux: Madonna is now available in physical and digital formats for you reading pleasure.
Justin Chadwick: Congratulations on the release of Record Redux: Madonna! This is the fourth volume of your Record Redux series, following the previously published Spice Girls, Carly Simon and Donna Summer editions. What inspired you to devote your fourth book to Madonna’s discography?
Quentin Harrison: Like all of the books earmarked from my series, it comes from an intense affection toward the music for whatever artist I’m focusing on. So, with the fourth volume, I figured the time was right to put my feelings and various theories about Madonna’s canon onto paper.
JC: Madonna has always been a dynamic yet divisive figure, with respect to both her public persona and her music. Regarding the latter, while she obviously has no shortage of champions, she also has more than her fair share of detractors who are dismissive of her musical output. What do you think the biggest misconceptions about her music are?
QH: Many openly dismiss her as a vocalist and as a songwriter. Further, there are those that wrongly assume that she just “buys” a song and slaps her name on it for a writing credit, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
JC: Which of Madonna’s studio albums do you consider to be her most underappreciated or misunderstood, and why?
QH: For me, probably Bedtime Stories. It tends to get lost between the controversy of Erotica and the transcendence of Ray of Light. Bedtime Stories sort of set the stage for the latter because it put Madonna back into the public eye, so to speak, as a singer and a songwriter versus just an event maker.
JC: Conversely, which of her albums are the most overrated, in your opinion?
QH: I’ve never particularly understood the affection for Erotica. When it gets down to the content, the songs just aren’t there on the whole. There are some highlights, however a few great songs cannot rescue an entire long player. But you’ll need to read my book to see what I mean.
JC: Based on the breadth and depth of each Record Redux book, it seems that quite a bit of discipline and rigorous research is required to bring the books to fruition. Can you talk more about your approach to writing them?
QH: Yes! [Laughs] It is very much a rigorous process. It usually takes eight months from conception to completion and entails reviewing and researching everything from interviews, documentaries, liner notes, books, et cetera. Throw in that I often have my own formed views on these different discographies too, so I work hard to articulate and back up my points, provide context and the like to bring the reader into the realm of whatever record I’m addressing within the book at any given time.
JC: What are some new dimensions of Madonna’s discography that her fans will discover in reading Record Redux: Madonna?
QH: I think for the first time, readers can immerse themselves in a real long form discussion about Madonna as a recording artist, not just a visual artist or pop culture icon. In that respect, Record Redux: Madonna is a first. Also, this is the first book about Madonna to be penned by an African-American and I think with Madonna’s continued use of and involvement with R&B music, the critical conversation benefits from having someone step in who has a cultural connection—as well as an affinity toward—both R&B and pop music.
JC: OK, word association time! I’ll list each of Madonna’s studio albums and you share the first word that immediately comes to mind. Cool?
QH: Got you!
JC: Madonna (1983)
JC: Like a Virgin (1984)
JC: True Blue (1986)
JC: Like a Prayer (1989)
JC: Erotica (1992)
JC: Bedtime Stories (1994)
JC: Ray of Light (1998)
JC: Music (2000)
JC: American Life (2003)
JC: Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005)
JC: Hard Candy (2008)
JC: MDNA (2012)
JC: Rebel Heart (2015)
JC: Whew, well done sir! So rumor has it that Madonna’s fourteenth studio album—the follow-up to 2015’s Rebel Heart—will arrive before the year concludes. Where are you hoping (or anticipating) she’ll take her music on the new record?
QH: I don’t know, which is part of the fun with Madonna. You never know what she has in store for you until it is here!
JC: So with book number four now—pardon the pun—in the books, do you have your sights set on the fifth installment? Anything you can share with us about that?
QH: Oh yes, Kylie Minogue. That book will be ready in October or November of next year. Get ready!
Excerpt from Record Redux: Madonna | Bedtime Stories
[KEY TO CREDITS: (w) = writer (p) = producer (w/p) = writer/producer (w^) = original writer on a cover song/sample credit (w^^) = adaption credits]
Release Date: 10/25/94 US, 10/24/94 UK
Label: Maverick / Sire / Warner Bros.
Singles: “Secret,” “Take a Bow,” “Bedtime Story,” “Human Nature”
Chart Placement: US (#2), US R&B (did not chart), UK (#3)
Certification: US (3x platinum), UK (1x platinum)
Songwriters/Producers: Dallas Austin (w/p), Raymond Calhoun (w^), Madonna Ciccone (w/p), Lou Donaldson (w^), Kenneth Edmonds III (w/p), Walter Maynard Ferguson (w^), Grant Green (w^), Björk Guðmundsdóttir (w), Dave Hall (w/p), Herbie Hancock (w^), Nellee Hooper (w/p), Robert Kelly (w^), Shep Pettibone (w), Marius de Vries (p), Colin Wolfe (w)
3. I’d Rather Be Your Lover (with Meshell Ndegeocello)
4. Don’t Stop
5. Inside of Me
6. Human Nature
7. Forbidden Love
8. Love Tried to Welcome Me
10. Bedtime Story
11. Take a Bow
Synopsis: Beginning with True Blue, Madonna locked her sights on the stratagem of the “album’s album.” The ambitions of each record were loftier than those of the previous one, as evidenced by their respective successes and failures. By then, Erotica was the gravest miscalculation of them all. Deciding to step outside of the shock slums, Madonna put her songwriting and singing abilities back into public view.
An exciting group of guests answered Madonna’s call to help her realize her seventh album Bedtime Stories: Dallas Austin, Dave Hall, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Nellee Hooper and Björk. The only lingering collaborative trace from Erotica present on the record comes from Shep Pettibone, whose coarser tone Madonna chose to keep at a bare minimum.
Contemporary R&B stayed on deck for Bedtime Stories, this time with a sonic pleat and pattern made from silk instead of houndstooth. At the time, the grooves and melodies of Bedtime Stories held the strongest sense of cogency on any Madonna record; the penmanship could stand eyelevel to the production too, if one pardons the likable fluff piece “Don’t Stop.”
For the most part, Madonna looks inside of herself to tell her tales. There are stories about adversity (“Survival”), longing (“Forbidden Love”) and love lost (“Take a Bow”). She steps her game up on “I’d Rather Be Your Lover” (with bassist/vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello, one of her Maverick label mates), “Inside of Me” and “Love Tried to Welcome Me” by uniting her voice to the arrangements and the lyrics in a way that escaped her on Erotica.
As the record nears its conclusion, Madonna switches things up. Beginning with “Sanctuary,” an electronic tinge creeps in and abides on the following title track. “Bedtime Story” should have been the LP’s coda with respect to the superlative, Eastern R&B-pop of “Take a Bow” that would have sat better next to “Forbidden Love.” Allowing for the album to conclude on the electronic high of its namesake track would have fulfilled its unconscious prognostication for Ray of Light. Still, it would be an understatement to say that the second half of Bedtime Stories is perfection, despite the last gasp of Erotica’s dourness present in “Human Nature.”
Lost between the spectacle of Erotica and the transcendence of Ray of Light, the empirical intimacy of Bedtime Stories is cruelly unremembered despite being the first record by Madonna meant to be consumed—and appreciated—in its entirety.