The motion: Madonna’s second singles

Most ranged from average to pretty good. First singles like “Vogue”, “Like a Prayer,” “Live to Tell,” and “Music” and third singles like “Dress You Up” and “Human Nature” rewarded committed listening pleasure.

Here are Madonna’s second singles graded:

“Borderline”: The eponymous debut’s singles cause some confusion, if not quite commotion. “I Know It” and “Think About Me” excepted, every track got dance airplay. Is “Physical Atraction” the second single (even though it didn’t hit the Billboard Hot 100) or “Borderline”? Let’s go with “Borderline” for fairness’ sake. Note the glockenspiel, the rock-steady piano, which represent the borderline over which Madonna’s hysterical falsetto must leap — and does. GRADE: A

“Material Girl”: The casual mastery of mid-eighties Chic: adapting to Synclaviers and the rank ambition of their new boss. Or maybe Madonna’s imitating rank ambition. The ambiguity is troubling instead of beguiling; therefore the song doesn’t resonate beyond its clever gloss. GRADE: B

“Papa Don’t Preach”: Ah, here’s an example of tantalizing ambiguity. She keeps her baby, but papa’s still bitching, as any father who looks like Danny Aiello is wont to do. Since the song deals with Issues it got more attention than it deserved. Better than “True Blue” and “La Isla Bonita,” rather strained next to “Live To Tell” and “Open Your Heart.” GRADE: B

“Causing a Commotion”: The closest Madonna approached boilerplate. Not as giddy as the Expose hits with which she was competing in fall 1987; it does get frisky, if not exactly causing a commotion. The most obscure of Madonna’s big hits (it held the #2 spot for three weeks); it’s simply vanished. GRADE: C+

“Express Yourself”: In which Maddie turns into a gay man, complete with basso vocal. The only self-empowerment anthem I ever want to hear, unsullied by “wisdom” and “self-knowledge.” She may not need diamond rings, 18-carat gold, or the pinstriped suit she wore in the Fritz Lang-inspired video, but she wouldn’t have sounded so assured if she was still selling her ass to Playboy and drumming for the likes of Stephen Bray. This is, in short, the real “Material Girl.” GRADE: A

“Hanky Panky”: Another obscurity, this one from Dick Tracy. Better than you remember, and if you remember it at all it’s cuz “Vogue” preceded it. The world needs more vampish odes to sadomasochism done with period arrangement. Awarded an extra half grade for novelty — nothing sounded like this on American top forty in 1990.            GRADE: B

“Rescue Me”: This track, recorded for The Immaculate Collection, is like “Hanky Panky” shadowed by a massive predecessor (“Justify My Love”). More Madonna-by-numbers, but since she’s sponged as much from gay club life as Bowie did from Kraftwerk and Neu! in 1977 it presages Erotica in the way that “TVC 15” did the Berlin Trilogy. GRADE: B+

“Deeper and Deeper”: …and here’s her “Sound & Vision,” rewiring the urgency of “Borderline” into a blue-blue-electric-blue Red Shoes saga: while her feet keep dancing, she can’t admit her goddamn papa was as right about her love life as he was about keeping the baby. This song is so 1992, just when I was discovering club life for the first time. GRADE: A

“Take a Bow”: Rather dated innocuous soul, with tinkly synths courtesy of cowriter/co-singer/co-producer Babyface. A gentler, approachable Madonna, for which the public duly rewarded her by keeping it #1 for seven weeks. GRADE: A-

“Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”: While Bowie never recorded anything as yearningly fascist as the Evita soundtrack, he never sang this well either. To which I say, “So fucking what?” Pop culture colossi like Madonna are as liberal as Richard Perle. Global adoration fills stadiums, not humanitarian impulses (okay, forget about Live Aid). That an icon as feral as Madonna admires a savvy but vacuous recruitment poster like Eva Peron is only the most piquant irony. The dance remix is no help. New Age banalities, here we come. GRADE: C.

“Ray of Light”: I’m not as fond of this as so many people are. “Swim” and “Sky Fits Heaven” would have made for more rewarding follow-ups to the wannabe arctic chill of “Frozen.” The beats twitter and flicker and Madonna yells her ass off in a most peculiar way (can’t throw away the thousands of dollars spent on opera lessons, you know) — as if Evita was a mistake. No one apparently warned her about The Celestine Prophecy either. Nevertheless, we critics said “comeback” and the public responded. GRADE: A-

“Don’t Tell Me”: Has anyone properly described how weird this tune is? Acoustic cowpunk and Massive Attack string section compete with Tracy Thorn-worthy melancholia. I’m amazed it hit the Top Five; so was, apparently, the public, since this was the last time her second singles would peak this high. GRADE: A

“Hollywood”: Its gaudiness is too insistent for this song to qualify as an unintentional yukfest. She sounds like the manicurist who moved to Culver City, was appalled by the rent, returned to Miami eight months later to move back in with her parents. She’s got mildly diverting stories to tell, but you’d prefer it if she finished painting your left pinky nail. GRADE: C-

“Sorry”: We return to the question which prompted this essay. Remember the opera lessons? She’s learned to propel the beat instead of singing over it or decorating it with redundant vibrato (she leaves that to the chorus of overdubbed Maddies). What a vibrant production. There’s so much going on — the hint of guitar twang (real? sampled?) in the chorus, the squelchy effects, the beat that pummels and ravishes like “Deeper and Deeper” and “Open Your Heart”‘s did — that we’re tempted to overlook the singer’s fetching vocal melody and her lyrics, which are, for once, revealingly throwaway in the Bernard Sumner tradition rather than attempts at profundity. If “Sorry” has got a flaw, it’s that it doesn’t go on long enough — a mistake none of the exemplary remixes redress. Since I love “Sorry” possibly more than any song on this list, I’d like to make a bold claim about the state of Madonna’s popcraft in 2006…but I won’t. Argue if you must. GRADE: A+

“Give It 2 Me”: Pharrell offers Madonna fumes. She inhales. GRADE: C+

“Girl Gone Wild”: The closest she came to the dinner theater routine to which Susan Kohner subjects herself in 1959’s Imitation of Life. GRADE: C

“Ghosttown”: Surveying a broken city over mournful organ, Madonna wonders if she’s the city. She’s trying again, but no one’s listening. GRADE: B.

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