Could it be that everybody was wrong about Madonna?
According to the conventional wisdom, Madonna is one of the era's premiere hype artists. More media manipulator than musician, her success has had more to do with marketing and well-orchestrated outrage than anything you could put on a compact disc. Sure, her singles are catchy and sound good in clubs, but her singing? It is to laugh.
Well, stop snickering. With the release of the greatest-ballad-hits collection, "Something to Remember" (Maverick 46100, arriving in stores today), Madonna not only reminds us that there's more to her music than dance tunes, but also demonstrates that her voice is nowhere near as thin and chirpy as her detractors imagine.
In fact, one of the most amazing things about the album is how sultry and assured she sounds. If your notion of Madonna's sound is built on the squeaky come-ons of "Like a Virgin" or the boy-toy exuberance of "Material Girl," prepare to have your preconceptions destroyed. The Madonna on display here not only has a richer, deeper voice than you imagined, but more interpretive insight as well.
This comes as no surprise to long-term fans. Back when everyone else only paid attention to the hits from the "Like a Virgin" album, they reveled in the soulful intensity of her take on the Rose Royce oldie, "Love Don't Live Here Anymore."
When others picked "Papa Don't Preach" or "Vogue" as their favorites, hard-core Madonnaphiles preferred "Live to Tell" and "Oh Father." And when the inevitable argument sprang up over how well Madonna could sing, the true believers were always surprised when nobody else was aware of how wonderfully musical her performances could be.
In that sense, "Something To Remember" stands as a sort of I-told-you-so. Even though the album features four No. 1 singles -- "Crazy for You," "Live to Tell," "This Used to Be My Playground" and "Take a Bow" -- odds are that much of it will seem like fresh material to casual fans.
Who, for example, recalls the album's title tune? A wistful ballad from the largely forgotten "I'm Breathless" album (her "Dick Tracy" spin-off), "Something to Remember" makes the most of both her melodic and dramatic skills.
Cast somewhere between torch- song melancholy and show-tune exposition, it finds Madonna getting far deeper into character than she did in the film itself. But what sells the song isn't the conviction Madonna brings to the lyric but the way she uses that conviction to shape the melody.
Where most "dramatic" singers try to win us over by making their sound as big as the emotions they're trying to convey, Madonna takes the opposite tack.
Her interpretation relies mostly on understatement -- a swallowed word here, a quiet quiver there -- to convey the mixture of determination and regret that powers the song. And it's the fact that she doesn't push that makes the performance so impressive.
That sense of the dramatic can be heard elsewhere on the album, too, but Madonna rarely relies on the same trick twice.
"Oh Father" makes its point almost entirely through vocal color, contrasting high-voiced girlish doubt against deep, womanly determination; "Live to Tell," on the other hand, does it all through phrasing, pushing ahead of the accompaniment at some points and dragging behind the beat at others to reflect the character's emotional turmoil.
Her remake of Marvin Gaye's itchily erotic "I Want You" is perhaps the album's strongest piece of character work. There's no doubt of the protagonist's desire; you can almost hear the ache in her voice as it arches up on the word "want." But because the lyric insists on wanting "the right way," Madonna never lets that "want" turn into "have," and the resulting tension makes the performance sexier than anything on the "Erotica" album.
Still, the album's greatest surprise is probably "One More Chance." One of two totally new tunes on the album, this David Foster song is quite demanding vocally, requiring a wider range and more power than anything else on the album. Yet Madonna more than lives up to the challenge, showing enough power and polish to make even Madonna-phobes admit she can sing.
And just when you thought nothing she could do would shock you.