Heard on the radio yesterday, in this order…pick the punk. Don’t worry, there’s a right answer, but it’s easy (hint: it’s not the one who was an actual punk):
“Borderline” came out in 1984, a couple of years before the others, the last really great year for American radio singles. It was the fifth single off her first album and wasn’t her first big hit (“Holiday,” fantastic, had gone Top 20, and “Lucky Star,” desultory, had gone Top 5). But, accompanied by her first striking video, it was her first cultural “moment.”**
It was only hearing it in this context that I realized how clean a break it was. I always thought of Madonna as an assimilator, a natural hit machine, gathering up previous strands into something fresh-but-still-recognizable in the manner of Tom Petty or Prince.
And in most respects–the cheesy, airless dance track, the hummable melody, the Supremes’ style beg in the storyline–“Borderline” is just that.
But the vocal has an off-hand quality that, in 1984, qualified it as a new direction. People had put that flat, affectless tone on the charts before, but usually as a novelty, not as an expression of passion. And nobody had made both an American hit (that thing that was always evading punks, which was why Belinda Carlisle stopped being one, hooked up with an ace rhythm section–that other thing punks kept not getting–and left her five thousand imitators, including the hundred or so who have been “critically acclaimed” somewhere along the way, writhing in the dust) and a great record out of it.
The affectlessness was affected, of course. If “Holiday” didn’t prove Madonna could sing, then her version of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” from her second album offered proof in spades. (I kept waiting for something that proved she could dance–that never happened.) “Borderline” now sounds like an attempt to capture the spirit Diana Ross breathed into “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which meant it was Madonna’s first successful attempt at bringing the girl group ethos up to date.
But without the old power the Motown/Red Bird/Philles machinery provided for Ross or Ronnie Spector or Mary Weiss–with just an early eighties’ standard issue dance track carrying the bottom and the middle–even Madonna’s “Love Don’t Live Here” voice would have sounded fake by comparison. Too professional, too not-a-teenager-anymore, too Reagan-era ready, too much of what the rest of her second album would sound like. Not so much a grab for the charts (she already had hits) as for cultural power.
Too much of that too soon, and the record might have still ridden high by the numbers–sort of like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” which made Number One and signaled that Belinda Carlisle was about to disappear. Madonna’s real power was that she could sit in the middle of the slickest piece of crap on earth and still be true to her dual selves.
That was why she she was able to redirect John Lydon’s nihilistic “No future for me/No future for you” into the hyper-nihilistic, truly revolutionary, “Future? Who cares about the future?” even as her lyrics were mostly clever updates of pop platitudes. Affected or not, that voice was the first pure expression of a vision a pop star could live up to without either killing or exposing herself.
For a while anyway.
Long enough to become iconic.
Hearing “Borderline” in the middle of a standard Jack-style eighties’ run on the radio in this new environment made me realize that was the record where she set the edge she was still trying to stay on when she talked about blowing up the White House last week in the slickest possible “of course we all know I both mean and don’t mean every word I say….who cares about the future?” way, only to be outdone by Ashley Judd going all Weatherman on her and sticking both Madonna and “Madonna” safely and securely in the consumable past.
That’s the problem with even fake nihilism. Sooner or later, somebody–some sad Sid Vicious type–takes it seriously and pushes you to a place neither of your dual selves really wants to go.
The only way Madonna can ever get back in the game now–ever be more than a celebrity or a cash register again–is to start making great records again.
I’d love to hear it.
I won’t hold my breath.
**(I still recall a quote by Belinda Carlisle’s Go-Go’s’ drummer, Gina Schock, from a magazine I stupidly threw out somewhere along the way because I thought the quote was in another magazine I saved. Asked about Madonna, she said: “Well, she’s probably undermining everything we’re trying to do. But every time ‘Borderline’ comes on the radio, I turn up the volume.”)