It's with a wry smile that I remember the 1989 version of me debating Madonna with a work colleague just before the 'Like A Prayer' album was released. As far as he was concerned, Madonna was a short-term concern with a shelf life that was about to expire. For my own part, I countered with the view that I thought she had a few years left in her yet. In the event, we were both wide of the mark (though him more than me, HA!), because even though I was prepared to cut her some slack (a few years indeed!), I would never have predicted she'd be still having number ones over 15 years later.
Should we be surprised? Frankly, yes - after all, there's no precedent here; pop acts do have a limited shelf life before they're replaced and there was nothing in Madonna's presentation back then to suggest she'd be anything different. Of course, she'd already re-invented herself enough times by 1989 to show that she was savvy enough to not stay still, but even so, female singers with longevity tend to be cut from a more sophisticated cloth than a crop top and 'Boy Toy' belt buckle and one that improves and gains gravitas with age; it's easy enough to picture punters paying top dollar to see a Shirley Bassey belting out 'Goldfinger' for as long as she was capable, but I could never quite picture anyone wanting to see a Madonna of the same age creaking out 'Like A Virgin'. Who would?
The closest point of reference we have is the benchmark set by the ever reliable Rolling Stones, but even they don’t provide a precedent that does her justice; Jagger and co haven’t had a number one since 1969. And though they do release new albums on a semi-regular basis, as a catalyst for another world tour they’re met with little more than a respectful interest; nobody expects another 'Exile On Main Street' and nobody is too disappointed when one duly fails to arrive. Madonna doesn't get such an easy ride; each new album is trailed with expectation, if just to see what she's going to do next, and there's palpable disappointment whenever it fails to meet the expected mark.
In 2005, her forthcoming ‘Confessions Of A Dancefloor’ album was seen as another 'comeback' of sorts after the perceived disaster of her 2003 'American Life' album and so was waited for with baited breath. What exactly were people expecting I wonder? What do they still expect (at the time of writing, her 'MDNA' album was generating similar column inches)? I honestly don't know. I don't think Madonna does either - lest we forget, this pop star at 46 malarkey is new ground for her too and Madonna's position is a struggle that can be summed up by 'Hung Up's promotional video.
In it, Madonna pitches up at a dance studio with a leotard and ghetto blaster (a la 'Call On Me's infamous promo film), and then performs an energetic, quasi erotic aerobics workout to her own song…. while still wearing high heels, full make-up and a straight from the hairdresser's chair blow dry. And there you have it, the dual desire for youthful pop relevance countered by an urge for class, sophistication and a nagging sense that she should be growing old more gracefully; there's no doubt about it, Madonna wants it both ways and, in striving for both, she frequently winds up pulling herself in two. With unsatisfactory results.
As far as 'Hung Up' goes though, by retreating back to her natural territory of the dancefloor with a back to basics circling of the wagons to show the world she hasn't lost her dance chops, Madonna plays it safe. And as far as that goes, it’s a success. As clean and precise as a metronome, ‘Hung Up’ derives its glitzy roll from a keyboard riff sampled from Abba's 'Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie' which adds a sparking fulcrum for Madonna to skip around like the eighties club singer she wishes she still was. Nostalgia of a kind then, but it's not all plain sailing - that sample dominates to the point of it becoming a gimmicky crutch rather than a conduit, for innovation, and for anyone over-familiar (like me) with the Abba original, then ‘Hung Up’ is tainted with a sheen of Europop tackiness that takes off whatever gloss Madonna adds. And whatever I myself expect from Madonna, it’s always something more than a borrowed song.