Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"What it Feels Like for a Girl" (2001)

100. Madonna, "What it Feels Like for a Girl" (May 19, 2001, #23)

First Charlotte Gainsbourg steps up and murmurs the defining prologue: "Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, 'cause it's OK to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading. 'Cause you think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly, you'd love to know what it's like. Wouldn't you?" And, just as you're getting your head around that, Madonna's 42nd charting single begins to move. Yes, I said 42nd—after Billboard got done crunching the numbers 10 years ago, only Elton John, the Beatles, and Elvis Presley were ranked higher as "top artists" (whatever exactly that means ... James Brown had four more chart appearances than her at the time but ranked #24 to her #4). Her vocal here is typically thin, the arrangement and mix straight out of clubland as usual, steeped long in disco and glitz and surface sheen. But as the melody takes and the whole thing swells into form with the chorus, it assumes a power that is greater than the sum of its parts: the probing theme, its haunting ache, the unmistakable presence and self-assurance of the star, ready as always for her close-up, and that unsettling note from Gainsbourg, which lands twice, if softly, on the word "degrading." Madonna has a lot to take credit for, more than most are willing to give her, and of course she has things to answer for as well. But I guess this may be just about the best thing she has ever done, from an album, Music, that is patchy but positively arresting when it is on. I had often liked her, never loved her, and all but given up on her by the time of this. Always nice to get a surprise.

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