There are two widely acknowledged but mostly-just-perceived failures in the course of Madonna’s long and winding career. The first and most spectacular would have to be her ‘Sex’ book. Along with her ‘Erotica album, it remains the most striking milestone in three decades of controversy. After that the most notable failure would probably be considered the ‘American Life’ album and video. In the aftermath of each she put out fall albums that resurrected a career that wasn’t quite prepared to be nailed to the cross. The first was ‘Bedtime Stories‘ following ‘Erotica.’ The second (and the one for which we are celebrating a 10th anniversary this week) is ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ following ‘American Life.’
To be fair there were successful endeavors after those low-points (the ‘Girlie Show Tour’ and the ‘Reinvention Tour’ were actually the most immediate follow-ups – evidence that Madonna on tour is a foolproof way to win over everyone all over again) but I think it’s her musical output after each questionable career lull that is the true mark of her merit.
Despite the crowd-pleasing closest-to-a-greatest-hits-tour-she’ll-likely-ever-do ‘Reinvention’ jaunt of 2004, the reparation to the ‘American Life’-scarred Madonna only came to full fruition in the fall of 2005. She’d just broken a bunch of bones falling off a spooked horse, and the weeks of recuperation in advance of her new album left her chomping at the bit. When she is hungry for a hit – commercial or artistic – Madonna is at her best. When the world has counted her out, she comes back better than ever. By the time ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ was released, the time was ripe for a Madonna Renaissance.
With its brilliant, if somewhat predictable, sampling of the classic Abba arpeggios, lead single ‘Hung Up’ was huge. An immense international hit that brought Madonna near the top of the charts again, it barreled into November with a stomping bass-line and catchy chorus that stampeded dance clubs and brought back a bit of glamour to a tired scene. The video was a cheeky ode to ‘Saturday Night Fever’, and no one but Madonna could have melded the 70’s, 80’s and current dance music so effectively.
Dance music was where she had first made her indelible mark, and whenever she seemed to be losing her way, a dance classic brought her back home. (See ‘Ray of Light’.) ‘Confessions’ was literally a non-stop dance explosion, each track segueing seamlessly into the next, yet the songs were gorgeously distinctive enough to stand on their own – a nifty hat trick that’s more difficult that it might seem.
No matter what transgressions Madonna may have perpetrated in the past, all is forgiven when she returns to the dance floor. ‘Confessions’ was a love letter to her most die-hard fans, but a brilliant record on its own terms, garnering almost universal praise and re-establishing her prominence in the fickle pop culture world.
1. Hung Up
2. Get Together
5. I Love New York
9. High High
12. Like It Or Not
The ‘Confessions’ era of 2005 was a pivotal return to form for Madonna, one that winked at the past while looking unflinchingly toward the future. With its perky pastiche of dance music inspired by the previous three decades, it was a pleasant reminder of what Madonna did better than anybody else. Yet there were deeper things at work too, with admittedly-confessional lyrics that brought some substantive heft to the twinkling mirrorball surface. When she snarls, “Just watch me burn” in ‘Let It Will Be’ and invokes the listener to “Wrestle with your darkness” in ‘Isaac’ she’s not just laying down meaningless word-play over driving beats – she’s seeking something closer to a spiritual exercise, some essence of the human experience that might remain when the lights come up on the dance floor.