I wouldn't call myself a fan. I didn't switch the radio station when a song came on, but I also didn't have any of her albums. This was 1990. Madonna didn't need much propping, she was on fire. Always on the charts, usually in a movie, reliably in four or five magazines. I was arguing against my team. We were cooler than Madonna. We listened to the Pixies, Jesus and Mary Chain, Throwing Muses/Breeders, Camper Van Beethoven, Nirvana. Alt-anything. Madonna was bland pop. No art, no risk. Just a hit-maker. Or so we said. But everyone has their secret favorites. A soft spot for a song or a band that seems completely out of character. Neil Diamond's "Song Sung Blue" is one of mine. Madonna, another. So here I was, propping her up.
Twenty-five years later, this seems like a stupid conversation. The unending parade of stars influenced by Madonna is a who's who of popular radio. From Brittany Spears to Lady Gaga, scores of female singer-songwriters owe a debt to Madonna. Clearly she's still relevant, She's still producing music, still making hits. And while I don't seek them out, whenever I hear new Madonna songs, I kind of like them.
But for me, the bet was settled in 2007. This was Al Gore's Live Earth concert. Here, Madonna introduced Gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello to the world. At this point in the essay, the three Gogol Bordello fans who will ever read this post will get indignant and huffy and say that the band already had a global following. Sure, but the truth is that most people, especially those watching Live Earth, never would have heard of them if they didn't join Madonna on stage. A week after that concert, Gogol Bordello was on Letterman, and for years hence a regular fixture on the late night circuit. Two years later, they were on a major commercial label.
The song they sang? Well, it is really two songs. Madonna's Latin-themed "La Isla Bonita" interspersed with segments of the Romani-Gypsy folk song "Lela Pala Tute." The racous outcome is the perfect blend of pop and punk, singing and screaming. A long song, almost six minutes, with a driving beat from beginning to end. It starts fast and ends faster. It is one of my favorite songs to feature in my spin class. And it is always on my MP3 player for long-runs.
Listen to La Isla Bonita from Live Earth
Madonna is still everywhere. She's released a dozen original albums, acted in twenty-one movies, and at least one, Evita, was well received. She's still in magazines, in controversies, and omnipresent on the internet. Just a few years ago, Lady Gaga nailed a number one hit with a remake of Madonna's "Express Yourself" – she called it "Born this Way."
It's been twenty-five years since that argument, that bet. It's time to take stock. It's time to check in with Dana, Joe, the Eds. They didn't win that bet... Madonna did.