Even after two successful albums, Madonna still had to prove herself. Her detractors-and there were plenty-viewed her as a talentless trollop who was merely a flash in the pan. Her music was disposable dance-pop and had no substance. Well, here we are twenty-five years later, and Madonna has left all of her contemporaries in the dust, and she’s still going strong.
True Blue was Madonna’s third attempt at pop dominance, and it stands firmly between the more girlish, flirty songs of her first two albums and the more mature direction she pursued on 1989’s Like a Prayer. Madonna was coming into her own as a songwriter, co-penning almost every song on this album, and while it doesn’t always succeed, I can’t say that there are any songs on True Blue that are uninteresting.
Madonna seems to have two real reference points on True Blue. The first would be then-contemporary dance-pop. Where’s the Party? (which got played plenty without being a single) is a call-to-arms to have a good time and it has an infectious energy that fits in perfectly with earlier hit singles like Holiday. Open Your Heart has an insistent pulse and Madonna’s brassiest vocals. It’s hard to deny her practically daring you not to fall in love with her on this song. It also set the template for several Madonna sound-alike songs over the next few years (Who’s That Girl? and Express Yourself to name a few). Love Makes the World Go Round has a noble lyrical sentiment but sounds too slight and tinny for Madonna. It would have fit perfectly on a Debbie Gibson record, though.
Madge’s other reference point on this album seems to be girl-group pop of the Fifties and Sixties. White Heat is a Jimmy Cagney tribute that’s charming, but still has an air of “retread” about it, coming so soon after Madonna paid tribute to Marilyn Monroe in the Material Girl video. True Blue‘s title track is a frothy pop confection, while Jimmy Jimmy sounds like it could have come from Grease, with the bad boy/good girl storyline (“why oh why do fools fall in love/with fools like you”) and chorus of doo-wopping girls.
True Blue‘s two best known songs are also it’s most interesting from a sonic standpoint. Live To Tell was released well ahead of the album, and it was the first song to find Madonna in a reflective, pensive mood. This well-written, dark ballad made its’ way to the top of the charts, as did the significantly more aggressive Papa Don’t Preach. The song itself is fairly standard-issue dance pop, but Madonna’s searing vocal gives the song a tough, almost rock-like edge that made it one of her most indelible hits. Of course, there’s also the age-old question of whether the “baby” that she’s keeping in the song is the boyfriend her “papa” disapproves of or an actual baby that she might be carrying.
If there’s one track absolutely worth skipping on True Blue, it’s La Isla Bonita. Marking the beginning of Madonna’s infatuation with all things Spanish, it’s also one of her worst hit singles. Maybe I’m just sour from the ridiculous amounts of airplay this song got back in the day, but if I never hear “last night I dreamt of San Pedro…” again, I’ll be a happy man. Can you believe that this song was originally written for and offered to Michael Jackson? Good job passing on that one, MJ.
While True Blue is one of Madonna’s less essential albums, it’s certainly not an album you should regret owning. While only a couple of songs stick out from the pack, there’s only one skippable song on the entire album. It also represents the end of an era-a more “innocent” Madonna, if you will, since she put her “serious artist” hat on with her next album, Like a Prayer, and kept it on for quite a few years after that. At any rate, as far as pleasant pop goes, you can’t go wrong with True Blue.