Friday, July 22, 2011

Flashback Friday: True Blue

25 summers ago, I started working for the first time. I was 14 years old and living in Fulda, West Germany. My family had moved there the previous summer when my Air Force officer father was stationed at the weather station. The Army base we lived on had a summer work program for teenagers called "Summer Hire." I was assigned to work in the Civilian Personnel Office, which was in a building in the town of Fulda, far from the base (at least far in terms of walking, but I biked it to work in about 30 to 45 minutes, if memory serves). I worked with women and loved it. These women were a mix of Army wives and German nationals. I particularly enjoyed working with the German ladies. I made $2.90 an hour.

This was the summer that Madonna released her third album, True Blue, which single handedly changed my impression of her. To this day, this album remains as my favourite Madonna album. It is probably the most perfect pop album ever made. In the summer of 1986, I remember being very excited about her new album and couldn't wait to buy it as soon as it appeared in the PX (the Army's version of Target). Madonna arrived on the music scene in 1983 with her trio of hit singles: "Borderline", "Lucky Star", and "Holiday." I liked those songs well enough. Her follow-up was the provocatively titled album Like a Virgin, with a title song that I did not care for too much. I did like "Material Girl" and "Angel", though. Those songs, along with "Crazy For You" and "Into the Groove" make me think of my seventh grade year, which was one of the best school years of my life (second only to my senior year: 1989-1990).

I wasn't a fan of Madonna, though, despite liking those songs. When I was in the 7th grade (the fall of 1984), I did not even know what Madonna looked like (my parents did not have cable TV, so no MTV for me). On the first day of German class, one of my friends said that the teacher looked like Madonna. He was only joking, though, but the joke was on him. When a beautiful young lady walked in the classroom, the first thing I asked him was, "That's what Madonna looks like?" His jaw was so far open that he couldn't respond. It turned out that we only had a substitute and practically every boy in class was drooling over her. The actual German teacher looked more like a typical teacher.

During my seventh grade year, there were quite a few girls who dressed like Madonna and all of my friends and myself had crushes on them. These Madonna "wannabes" wore fingerless gloves, mix-matched outfits with undergarments on the outside, and neon coloured clothing (basically the look that Madonna had in her "Borderline" video). My impression of Madonna was that she was a bit slutty. So, I liked her some of her songs but not really her. Until the summer of 1986 when she released the single "Live to Tell." I was completely blown away! I have never been a huge fan of ballads, but this one was absolutely perfect. I don't know what it is about this song, but even today when I hear it, I just feel it at a deep level. The song is profound and musically perfect. This one song turned me into a fan of Madonna instantly. It was so unlike her previous songs. Based on this one song, I was excited to buy her third album with money from my first job.

When the album was released and I bought it, I was stunned by the fact that I actually liked every song on there. I only felt that way about two other albums: Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA and Blondie's Autoamerican. Most albums I heard, I only liked a few songs and saw the rest as "throwaways." Not True Blue! It was perfect pop at its very best. This album even impressed the leader of the Protestant Youth Group that my dad made me participate in. In the summer of 1986, we had made a trip to visit an amusement park (our bus broke down, though, so we ended up spending it on another U.S. military base). The girls in the group were thrilled that I had Madonna's True Blue with me and asked the youth group leader if he would play it. He objected at first, because he did not like Madonna's values. The girls told him that this was a very different Madonna and there was nothing objectionable about it. He relented and played the cassette. When the tape got around to "La Isla Bonita", the youth group leader (who was also driving the bus) was moving to the rhythms of the song and admitted that he liked that one. So, it wasn't just me whose opinion of Madonna changed because of this album.

The lead-off single was "Live to Tell", which I thought was from the Madonna - Sean Penn film Shanghai Surprise for the longest time. Its actually from Sean Penn's film At Close Range. The song and video showcases a more mature Madonna. She had been married for a year and seemed to have put behind her outrageous sexually forward persona (though we know now that it was just a brief respite as far more outrage was in her future). This song is simply beautiful, lyrically and musically. To this day, it still ranks as my all-time favourite Madonna song.

The second single, "Papa Don't Preach" was considered a "sequel" of sorts to her "Like a Virgin" song, in which she was "touched for the very first time." This "sequel" is about a pregnant teen who decides to keep her baby instead of getting an abortion. Were Evangelical Christians pleased by such a pro-life song? Uh, not really. The criticism on this song was that she was telling her father to basically shut up. That his opinions did not matter. Her mind was made up. This would be considered "disobedience" and maybe even "insubordination." After all, evangelicals tend to be authoritarian in their leadership style.

The song is catchy and in the video, Madonna does look really good in her super short hairstyle. She also wears a T-shirt extolling the virtues of Italians in bed. Madonna's ethnic heritage comes from Italy (her last name is Ciccone, which is probably why she was destined to be a one named superstar). Is the song realistic? Probably not. She sings about making her decision to keep the baby, that her boyfriend plans to marry her and they will raise a little family. In real life, this often causes guys to drop out of school so they can start to work in order to provide for the child and its mother. This obviously did not work with Bristol Palin and Tripp's father Levi Johnston.

The third single is the retro-girl pop of the 1950-1960s, "True Blue." In the video, Madonna is bopping around with her girlfriends, including Debi Mazar who is best known for her role on the HBO series Entourage. Its a fun song and as pure pop as a song can get. I love the knowing wink that Madonna gives at the end of the song.

"Open Your Heart" was the fourth single released from the album. The video was a bit controversial, as Madonna stars as a stripper at a peep show, where we get glimpses of the pathetic guys who pay money to lift the curtain for a look at Madonna in her routine. Perhaps this video proves Madonna's foresight and vision. Two of the men happen to be in the same viewing booth and wearing the uniform of a Naval officer. Back in 1986, Madonna promoted gays in the military.

Perhaps worse than all that is Madonna having a very inappropriate relationship with a boy. I can't believe that was allowed to stand without being edited out. In the end, Madonna runs away with the boy, leaving behind her sleazy boss and the peeping Toms.

The fifth single was "La Isla Bonita", with its calypso Caribbean rhythms. The song was released in the spring of 1987, which was when my family went on a vacation to Lloret de Mar, Spain. This song always makes me think of that trip as well as Puerto Rico. In the video, Madonna is wearing a dress that is often worn by flamenco dancers. During that family vacation to Spain, we did get to watch a flamenco dance show at the hotel and it was impressive.

After that song had its run on radio and the charts, I thought for certain that "Love Makes the World Go Round" would be the next single. That's a great closing song on the album and deserved to be a single. However, Madonna had a brand new single that was not from the album. In the summer of 1987, she had a new movie coming out, which was originally called Slammer but was changed to Who's That Girl?

The lead single was none other than:

I really loved this song (and still do). Like her "La Isla Bonita" song, Madonna had cool phrases in Spanish for "Who's That Girl?" It was a good follow up to "La Isla Bonita." I heard the song a lot during a family vacation through the United Kingdom, so this song always makes me think of that vacation and country. I remember seeing an ad in 1987 for Madonna's "forthcoming album." However, when the album was released, Madonna's name is attached like its an official studio release, even though she only had four songs on that soundtrack.

In the summer of 1986, I listened a lot to Madonna. It was such a milestone achievement. According to a Wikipedia entry about this album, True Blue had put Madonna's ascending star into a superstar / supernova status. The album received plenty of good reviews. There's no doubt that this record stands as an outstanding achievement in pop music perfection. Interestingly enough, there were at least two other albums released that year which featured the word "True" in the title: rival Cyndi Lauper with True Colors (which did not live up to Lauper's surprising debut album: She's So Unusual) and the Brit-pop group Bananarama, True Confessions. Though I rarely listen to Lauper's or Bananarama's albums, Madonna's True Blue is a classic and a masterpiece. I can't believe it is now 25 years old. That's a quarter of a century worth of awesome pop melodies.

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