The Number Ones

February 7, 1987

The Number Ones: Madonna’s “Open Your Heart”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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People notice Madonna. This would’ve been the case whether or not she ever got famous. There are tons of stories about people meeting Madonna before she ascended to stardom, and that’s because people have always remembered her. Some people radiate self-assurance so powerfully that they change the chemistry of the air whenever they walk into a room. That’s Madonna, and that’s how Madonna has always liked it. If someone does not notice Madonna, it’s a problem. That problem is the story of “Open Your Heart.”

The entire message of “Open Your Heart,” one of the best singles in a career full of great ones, is this: No. Fuck you. You will love me. The song’s narrator seems to be lost, spiraling, because this guy she likes can’t pull his head out of his ass long enough to notice that Madonna is right there, looking at him. That ignorance seems to be a source of great frustration for Madonna’s narrator. It also seems to be a turn-on. “I follow you around, but you can’t see! You’re too wrapped up in your-selllf to no-tiiiice!” This cannot stand.

It’s not that the poor chump in the song doesn’t like Madonna. It’s that he doesn’t even seem to realize he has any kind of a shot. Madonna realizes this: “I think that you’re afraid to look in my eyes/ You look a little sad, boy, I wonder why.” I’ve been this fucking guy so many times in my life, and maybe that’s why “Open Your Heart” strikes such a deep chord for me. “Open Your Heart” is a truly masterful pop song, a glittering example of what you can do with keyboards and congas and funky little guitar-ripples. But it’s also a beautiful image of a determined woman bulldozing her way through someone’s life-killing anxieties. “Don’t try to resist me,” Madonna sings. It’s a command.

“Open Your Heart” wasn’t written with Madonna in mind. Songwriters Garner Cole and Peter Rafelson were thinking about Cyndi Lauper when they came up with the track, though they never played it for her. For a little while, the Temptations were planning to record it — or, at least, that’s what Cole claims in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits. Originally, the song was called “Follow Your Heart.” In the Cole/Rafelson demo, it sounds like a pretty generic mid-’80s synth-rocker.

Cole got a demo tape of some songs to Madonna’s managers, and he was surprised when they picked out “Follow Your Heart” as a song to record. Cole thought Madonna was a dance-pop singer, and he didn’t think the song suited her. But what he didn’t realize is that he’d written the bones of an absolutely spectacular dance-pop song. Upon request, Cole recorded a new version of the demo with his girlfriend Donna De Lory singing, and Madonna liked that demo so much that she hired De Lory as a backup singer on her 1987 tour. (I wish that De Lory demo was online, but I can’t find it anywhere.)

Madonna and her “Live To Tell” collaborator Patrick Leonard reworked the Cole/Rafelson song, turning it into a dizzy, driving dance-pop jam, and Madonna rewrote the lyrics enough to get a songwriting credit. But even if she hadn’t changed a word, Madonna would’ve earned that writing credit. The gulf between the “Open Your Heart” demo and the final version is vast. Madonna and Patrick Leonard took this just-OK song and spun it into gold. It’s remarkable.

Musically, “Open Your Heart” is a beautiful piece of architecture. Everything about the song seems to rush — the constant percolation of the programmed drums, the hard strut of the bassline, those sighing keyboard notes. If “Open Your Heart” is Madonna demanding that this guy let her in, then the music speaks to the sheer joy that awaits. There’s a straight line from the post-disco dance-pop of Madonna’s early years to “Open Your Heart,” but the track is busier than those older tracks. “Open Your Heart” bubbles and sparkles in new ways, and in its dizzy syncopations, I hear a lot of the Latin freestyle that was only just starting to become a pop-chart force.

But even more than that production, Madonna’s vocal just owns “Open Your Heart.” It’s funny: Cyndi Lauper is a powerhouse with a ton of character in her voice. On a whole lot of levels, she’s a much better singer than Madonna. And yet I can’t imagine Lauper handling “Open Your Heart” with the panache or the nuance that Madonna brings to the song. Whether the writers knew it or not, that song was built for Madonna.

I love every little choice that Madonna makes on “Open Your Heart.” I love the way she whispers “watch out” as the drums start to kick in. I love the overwhelmed sadness of that opening verse: “I see you on the street and you walk on by/ You make me wanna hang my head down and cry.” I love how it sounds like passion is just bursting out of her, like she’s struggling to contain it: “My desire burn-ing in-siiiide of me.” And I love how she just fully gives into the groove when the chorus hits, letting the pure need of the song leak all over her voice.

In a lot of ways, “Open Your Heart” is a sex song. “I hold the lock and you hold the key” is not a subtle metaphor. Madonna wants to get laid, and she’s frustrated that this guy won’t hurry up and make a move. But “Open Your Heart” is also a song about pure determination for companionship. Madonna just refuses to lose. She makes that clear again and again: “I’ve had to work much harder than this.” “Don’t try to run, I can keep up with you.” “I’ll make you love me.” Why would you argue with that?

Unlike a lot of Madonna’s early hits, “Open Your Heart” is not a statement song. Madonna isn’t building a persona or forcing her way into the cultural consciousness. Instead, “Open Your Heart” is just a love song, rendered in dance-pop form. Compared to a lot of Madonna singles, it’s pretty low-stakes. But in the way she delivers the song, Madonna turns it into a rich text. She finds urges and motivations and nuances in it. I like Madonna just fine as a movie star, but I think her best acting performances have always been on songs like this one. She uses her voice to let you know everything you need to know.

“Open Your Heart” was the first song that Madonna recorded when she was working on her True Blue album, and the songwriters Cole and Rafelson worried that it would be cut from the final tracklist. Instead, Madonna saved “Open Your Heart” as the fourth single from the album. The first two True Blue singles, “Live To Tell” and “Papa Don’t Preach,” both reached #1. The third, the girl-group pastiche “True Blue,” peaked at #3. (It’s an 8.) Even though “Open Your Heart” wasn’t exactly new by the time it became a single, Madonna still drove it straight into the brains of anyone watching MTV at the time.

Even if “Open Your Heart” isn’t a statement song, it’s a statement video. Madonna made the music video with director Jean-Baptiste Mondino, a French fashion photographer who’d famously done the stately black-and-white clip for Don Henley’s 1984 hit “The Boys Of Summer.” (“The Boys Of Summer” peaked at #5. It’s a 9.) Mondino and Madonna used the video as a way to pay tribute to some of the glamorous stars of Hollywood’s past: Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Liza Minnelli. They also used it as a chance to get seedy. (The “Open Your Heart” video uses a slightly shittier version of the song, which is why I didn’t embed it up top.)

At the beginning of the video, a little kid tries to get into a strip club. He can’t, but we can. Madonna is in there, dancing in a peep show. It’s one of those stylized old-timey strip joints where nobody actually gets naked or makes contact. Instead, Madonna puts on a sort of Broadway burlesque act, wearing the conical bustier that would quickly become a huge part of her iconography. Men leer at her through windows while she hoofs around the floor.

The “Open Your Heart” video courted controversy, and it got some, but it’s nowhere near as porny as its reputation. Madonna is at the center of the video, and she’s completely in control. The people watching her don’t always conform to gender codes, either. Two sailors watch her, and they sure look like a couple. A butch woman watches her, too. Out in the lobby, the little kid tries to do her moves in the mirror. He doesn’t want to jerk off to her. He wants to be her. He gets his wish, too. At the end of the video, Madonna leaves the club. She’s got the same haircut and the same Charlie Chaplin-looking suit as the kid, and they dance off into the sunrise together. It’s almost wholesome.

The kid in the video, incidentally, is a child model named Felix Howard. He would later become a songwriter and then a record-label exec, and he’d work as an A&R guy for artists like Calvin Harris and Lana Del Rey. The “Open Your Heart” co-writer Garnder Cole would sign with Warner Bros. as an artist, and his only charting single, 1988’s “Live It Up,” would peak at #91. Jean-Baptiste Mondino would direct more Madonna videos.

Madonna would release one more single from True Blue: The shimmering quasi-Latin dancefloor sigh “La Isla Bonita,” which peaked at #4. (It’s a 9.) All five of the singles from True Blue made it to #1, either in the US or the UK, which is an absolutely crazy achievement. Madonna will appear in this column again. She made us love her.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the misty, operatic version of “Open Your Heart” that the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza released in 2000:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the fired-up, low-tech “Open Your Heart” cover that the great one-man nerd-punk institution Atom & His Package released in 2000:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Britney Spears singing along to “Open Your Heart” in her 2002 cinematic vehicle Crossroads:

(Britney Spears will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In an incredibly strange television moment, Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Mary Lambert performed their well-intentioned “Same Love” at the 2014 Grammy Awards while Queen Latifah acted as the officiant for a group marriage of 33 different couples. At the climax of the whole thing, Madonna showed up and sang some of “Open Your Heart.” Here’s that whole spectacle:

(“Same Love” peaked at #11. Mary Lambert’s highest-charting single as lead artist, 2014’s “Secrets,” peaked at #66. Queen Latifah’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “U.N.I.T.Y.,” peaked at #23. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis will eventually appear in this column.)

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