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The Madonna Timeline: Song #38 – ‘La Isla Bonita’ – 1987 – and about every year since

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

Oh Madonna, I know you must love this song from 1986’s True Blue opus, but I have to tell you, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it over the years, and it’s partly because you favor it so.

Last night I dreamt of San Pedro,
Just like I’d never gone,
I knew the song,
Young girl with eyes like the desert,
It all seems like yesterday not far away…

When it first came out, yes, I adored it – a beautiful bit of escapist pop perfection – and a throw-away from Michael Jackson’s reject pile – yet you absolutely made it your own, and dedicated it as a “tribute to the beauty of the Latin people” or some such nonsense. Sure, what the fuck ever –  it had a decent tune, and was a twinge of Latin-pop long before Ricky Martin was a twink in anyone’s eye. But really, isn’t that where it should have ended? I thought you felt the same, particularly when you omitted it from your Blonde Ambition tour set list. All the other hits were there, except for this, and you were right to excise it to ‘Angel’ territory.

Tropical the island breeze,
All of nature wild and free,
This is where I long to be,
La isla bonita.
And when the samba played,
The sun would set so high
Ring through my ears and sting my eyes
Your Spanish lullaby…

In ’86 it was breezy and wonderful – if a bit hazy for my own memory – I vaguely remember the video – the perfect precursor for her next proper studio album – Like A Prayer – flirting with religious imagery, albeit safer and far more palatable for the mainstream than that incendiary bit of brilliance to come. Yet did I think the song would stick? Absolutely not.

When it was included on her 1993 Girlie Show Tour, I considered it a blip, a pandering to the international audiences that made up the brunt of the viewers for that US-deficient romp. (To this day I do wonder what part the international fervor over the song plays in her decision to use on almost every tour.) On the Girlie Show it was a triumph, and this is the key to Madonna’s genius as far as her fan base goes. As much as I may be bored by ‘La Isla Bonita’, as much as it has become a lackluster song in and of itself, whenever she performs it live she transforms it into something else – in 1993 it was a full-out Busby Berkeley by way of Carmen Miranda extravaganza, and a highlight of that show. But I honestly felt it would be the last we would see of the song. Not so… she would return to the beautiful island on her very next (if eight years later) outing, 2001’s Drowned World Tour.

I fell in love with San Pedro,
Warm wind carried on the sea called to me
Te dijo, te amo,
I prayed that the days would last,
They went so fast…

Out of all the old songs to perform for that tour (and there were a scant, casual-fan-criticized few), to select ‘La Isla Bonita’ was an incomprehensible move. A die-hard fan like myself loved the Drowned World Tour (and as my first live Madonna experience, it will always be my favorite), as it incorporated the bulk of the Ray of Light album, and much of the album-of-the-moment, Music. Yet most of us yearned for some classics, and to be appeased with ‘La Isla’ was, on paper, a let-down. But once again, Madonna astounded and surpassed expectations.

Turning it into a rollicking acoustic moment, with her own hands strumming guitar for the song, she made ‘La Isla Bonita’ a genuine jewel of musical artistry, reducing the song to its basic melody and a sing-along moment of transcendence. What a perfect way to end her performances of this song… right? Wrong.

Tropical the island breeze,
All of nature wild and free,
This is where I long to be,
La isla bonita.
And when the samba played,
The sun would set so high
Ring through my ears and sting my eyes
Your Spanish lullaby…

Just a few years later, there it was again, on the Confessions Tour, tacked on in some tacky Abba-inspired dance version with cheesy island graphics backing the whole mad scene. A lackluster song in a lackluster performance, surely this was the final nail in the ‘Bonita’ coffin. And once again, no.

 

When I heard she was performing this on the 2007 Live Earth special – one of only a few songs she was doing that day – I just did not understand. Enough woman! We had been beaten down by this song for four of her first six tours – I think only “Holiday” had been performed more at that point. So it was with wary eyes and not-so-baited breath that I watched as she brought Gogol Bordello onto the stage with her and donned a fedora to the opening beat of ‘Bonita’. This, again, was something new, and as she segued seamlessly into the gypsy tune ‘Lela Pale Tute’ a broad smile formed on my face – in the way that only Madonna can conjure. The mash-up was brilliant, and her joy at joining the Bordello was apparent in her exuberance and happiness.

Somehow she once again brought the world to its feet, in one of her finest, fiercest performances of the song, over twenty years after its debut. For all those who dismissed her music, it’s remarkable that most of her songs still resonate to this day, even one I’ve repeatedly felt was less-than-her-best.

If I was bowled over by that one, and I was, it was just the run-through for the full-on gypsy treatment given ‘La Isla’ in the 2008/2009 Sticky Sweet Tour. There it found its pinnacle, and for once the song was the one I looked forward to the most. Vibrant, escapist, an amalgamation of past, present, and future, marrying Romany gypsy culture with Latin America, and resulting in one of the richest theatrical productions she has ever crafted.

It was transporting and mesmerizing, returning to the elemental message of the song. It took us away to another land, and another time, subtly tinged with longing and touching lightly on the romantic. In the way of any decent pop song, it could be read and re-read countless ways, and despite my occasional grumbling, Madonna has almost always managed to pull off a killer live performance of it. And so, at last, I find myself giving in to the idea of the beautiful island, and the pleasant idea of a tropical paradise, all found in the delightful few minutes of a Madonna song.

Song #38: ‘La Isla Bonita’ – 1987 – and about every year since
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