The Anniversary

Music Turns 20

“This is the future of sound.” This was Madonna, talking to Billboard in August of 2000. She was describing the French producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï, her main collaborator on her new album Music — and, by extension, she was describing her new album itself. Madonna has a long history of making imperious and slightly ridiculous statements, and this one certainly seems like it belongs on the list. But she wasn’t exactly wrong.

Music, an album that will turn 20 tomorrow, anticipated a lot of things: Thudding big-room electro-house, aggressive vocal manipulation, ecstatic lyrical meaninglessness, acoustic guitars chopped up and refracted into unrecognizable shapes, joyous hedonism, robot voices, the half-ironic embrace of cowboy kitsch. Madonna didn’t invent any of these things, but most of them had been just about absent from mainstream pop music around the turn of the millennium. Madonna dove giddily into all of them, and many of those decisions would prove prescient. Looking back at the past 20 years of pop music, you will see a whole lot of Music. Maybe this stuff wasn’t the future of sound, but it was the future of something.

Music followed just two years after Madonna reinvented herself as a spiritual dance-music mystic on Ray Of Light, an album that at least gestured toward singer-songwriter profundity. Madonna had just become a mother and gotten interested in things like Kabbalah and Hinduism, and she sought to actively move past the plastic excess of her ’80s roots, working with the English producer William Orbit to find something softer and deeper. This was a canny move in a career full of them; Ray Of Light was a tremendous success. But two years later, Madonna made another hard pivot away from that, and her decision would prove just as canny.

Madonna had played around with the idea of touring behind Ray Of Light. Instead, she acted — first taking a role in Wes Craven’s Music Of The Heart, then dropping out of that and starring instead in the mostly-forgotten 2000 romance The Next Big Thing. Along the way, she got pregnant once again, and she spent her pregnancy working on a new LP. Madonna’s son Rocco was born a month before Music came out; she was five months pregnant when she shot the video for “Music,” the most recent of her 12 #1 hits. (Rocco’s father was Madonna’s future ex-husband, the British crime-caper filmmaker Guy Ritchie. Later on, Ritchie would direct Madonna in her “What It Feels Like For A Girl” video and in the disastrous 2002 flop Swept Away.)

Madonna again worked with William Orbit, who produced most of the least-interesting songs from Music. But the main force behind the album’s sound was Mirwais, a 40-year-old French producer who’d once been in a new wave band called Taxi Girl. Mirwais’ sound — sleek, robotic, rooted in house and disco, clean to the point where it was almost harsh — owed a whole lot to the French filter-house of the late ’90s, Daft Punk in particular. But then, Daft Punk probably owed something to Taxi Girl, so maybe it all comes out in the wash. Guy Oseary, the co-founder of Madonna’s Maverick label, had given Madonna a Mirwais CD, thinking that maybe Mirwais would be a good signing for the label. Instead, Madonna instantly decided that Mirwais would be the ideal collaborator.

At first, things didn’t work out quite so smoothly. Mirwais spoke no English, and his manager had to translate for him at the recording sessions, which drove Madonna nuts. Eventually, though, things clicked. Early in her career, Madonna had been a product of early-’80s club culture. Working with Mirwais, she recaptured some of that euphoric frivolity. Her lyrics on the clubbiest Music tracks can sometimes verge on gibberish: “Do you like to boogie-woogie?,” “I like to singy-singy-singy like a bird on a wingy-wingy-wingy.” But that meaninglessness worked for her. She sounded like she was having fun.

Mirwais put Madonna’s voice over mechanized thumps and fed it through voice-warping filters, giving her a cyborg sheen. On some level, this gleaming artificiality may have been a reaction to Cher, who’d had a global late-career smash with “Believe” a year and a half earlier. Cher had sung over Euro-house thump and used the brand-new Auto-Tune plug-in to make herself sound practically alien. But Cher was still working within a pretty standard ’90s dance-pop framework. Madonna’s hard, blocky sonics were fresher and cleaner, and they gave her a weird resonance in an era of dominant teen-pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. (Kylie Minogue, Madonna’s fellow ’80s survivor, pulled off something similar on her Fever album a year later.)

Not everything on Music has the future-shock power of the album’s best tracks. Many of the tracks that Madonna recorded with William Orbit are so supremely late-’90s that they were practically dated by the time the album came out. (“Amazing,” for instance, sounds uncomfortably similar to “Beautiful Stranger,” Madonna’s own single from the soundtrack of the 1999 movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.) Also, there are ballads on Music, and many of those ballads are pretty boring. One of them, though, is among the most sublime singles that Madonna ever recorded.

Joe Henry, a culty country-rock singer-songwriter who happens to be married to Madonna’s sister, had written a Tom Waits-ish song called “Stop”; he later included it in his 2001 album Scar. Madonna heard Henry’s demo of the song, and she loved the lyrics. So she and Mirwais radically reworked the track, rebuilding it around an acoustic guitar that stops and starts in jagged, disorienting ways. “Don’t Tell Me,” the resulting Madonna song, builds and builds, layering on film-score strings and twangy accents and robo-whine backing vocals. “Don’t Tell Me” is pretty, but it’s also strange and itchy and ungainly. It sounds like sentient-droid alien life forms intercepting Earthling radio waves and then attempting to write their own Sheryl Crow song. The track delights in its own artificiality; in the video, Madonna swaggers down a dusty desert highway that turns out to be a studio screen-projection. For my money, it’s the last truly great Madonna single.

That artificiality was front-and-center all through the Music album cycle. In the “Music” video, Madonna played a fur-coat pimp, riding limos to strip clubs and sometimes turning into a cartoon character. (The British stunt-comic Sacha Baron Cohen, in his Ali G guise, got his first real taste of American exposure as the limo driver. Without the “Music” video, maybe Borat doesn’t happen.) In the goofily provocative “What It Feels Like For A Girl” clip, the second of Madonna’s videos to be banned from MTV, Madonna goes on a cinematic femme-fatale crime spree.

On the Music album cover and on tour, Madonna wore campy cowgirl gear, getting as far as she could from the gothy earth-mother looks she was rocking in the Ray Of Light era. It all feels like a conscious effort to strip away any lingering shreds of ’90s-style sincerity. Smart move. Very few of Madonna’s peers — maybe Kylie Minogue, possibly Janet Jackson — were able to handle the new-century zeitgeist that intuitively.

It didn’t last. Music was a smash — a triple platinum album that debuted at #1 and launched two top-10 singles and a lucrative global tour. But by the time she made her next album, the forced and grating 2003 flop American Life, Madonna was playing catch-up to electroclash. Madonna has had hits in the past 20 years, but most of those hits have been attempts to pander to the tastes of the moment, not to drive those tastes. Still, give Madonna credit. In the summer of 2000, 17 years into her pop-star career, a 42-year-old Madonna could talk about “the future of sound.” And she could be right.

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