Like millions of other people who were recently media-blasted about the new Madonna video featuring Beyonce, Chris Rock and Miley Cyrus, I finally gave in and watched it. Historically, I’ve liked many of Madonna’s songs and feel there’s a real musician buried under all her “stuff.” The new song reminded me of one of her best musical traits, which I’ll get to later in this post. But first I want to highlight what I didn’t like about the new “product,” since it all but buries her musicianship under mounds of gloss.
Watching the new video, titled B***h I’m Madonna, I was at first saddened by the fact that there’s very little of “Madonna” in there. Visually and musically, it could have been made by any young producer these days who is after today’s 13-year old audience. Madonna began her career with a thin, nasal voice and has worked very hard at developing into a fairly strong singer. (In fact, I’ve coached actresses who ran into her in their voice teacher’s waiting room as she prepared for her own lesson.) But in the last year or so Madonna has thrown all this “out the window” by electronically altering her voice to sound like many of today’s whiny vocalists. She seems more desperate than ever to remain in vogue. (Yes, musical reference intended and to me she’d do much better to embrace a more mature sound and sell to the baby boomers who made her famous to begin with.) In the past, even her most blatant commercial pursuits seemed to include at least some of her artistic persona.
The look of the video follows the same pattern: candy-colored filters remove most of her artistic persona and make her indistinguishable from a certain type of over-produced teenybopper video we see a lot of this year. Of course these choices are her perogative to make and I’m of course coming at this from my own opinion. I’m just a little saddened to see someone of her talent discard so much of her uniqueness. She used to be a trendsetter; now she’s a follower.
But at the same time there IS something that shines through bright and clear, however, and I’ve only expressed my opinion about the aspects outlined above to throw this quality into high relief: Madonna has an excellent and well-developed melodic sense. She can write a melody with the best of them!
Listen to the verse to B***h I’m Madonna (I’m just speaking about when you first see her on the video. The melody that goes up and down the scale.) It instantly reminded me of the type of melody we hear in children’s songs like nursery rhymes. Catchy, well-constructed, and melodic in a compelling way. This is the part of the song that a 13-year old would not write these days. In fact, I don’t think many people who set out to compose a pop “hit” would write something like this. Sure, she framed the melody in the most commercial and non-personal way possible, but there it is, nevertheless. A strong melody only partly disguised by all the studio gimmickry. (BTW, I realize that her co-writers contribute a lot to her songs, but this melodic sense permeates so much of her work I think it must come from her personally.)
I went searching through interviews with her to find sources for her melodic sense. Madonna doesn’t like to talk about her songwriting much, but I found a quote from someone who did; her collaborator William Orbit. In an interview, Orbit relates how Madonna loves classic musicals and in fact, knows all the verses to many of the old Broadway songs. He’s heard her sing them at social gatherings. (From what I’ve heard, Billy Joel does too.) In other words, Madonna has steeped herself in a much broader musical tradition than the commercial type of music she makes. She’s playing the game professionally but doesn’t limit her musical interests in her personal life. She knows her stuff, and it comes through even in a song like B***h I’m Madonna.
I think we can all learn from this, no matter what kind of music we ourselves enjoy. Go back. Go WAY back to the roots of what you play and get to know that material so well it begins to influence everything you do. In fact, one could argue that today’s young jazz musicians could take a cue from Madonna in this respect! If you play jazz, go back to Lester Young and learn all of his solos. Don’t just start with Charlie Parker. If you play rock, go back to early blues and 1940’s R&B. Don’t learn the classics just because they are “classic,” but learn them because they will give your musicianship layers upon layers of depth that you otherwise wouldn’t have.
I was surprised by how much I was drawn to Madonna’s melody, at the very same time I recoiled from everything else about the production. Now I know why.
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