Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April 27: Madonna, "Borderline"

Artist: Madonna
Song: "Borderline"
Album: Madonna
Year: 1983

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For some artists, due to the fact that they have had careers that spanned numerous decades, it can become difficult not only to recall a world without their music, but some may forget exactly "why" that artist rose to fame in the first place.  Those performers who have managed such longevity with a consistent level of mainstream success are in almost every case true icons of music, and their names alone are often definitions in themselves.  While there are a handful of artists who have achieved such a status, there is no other that has shaped the entire world of music in the same manner as Madonna has done for nearly thirty years.  From her early dance hits to her rather controversial and overly-sexualized period to the multitude of ways in which her sound would branch off, there are few performers that can continue to demand as large an audience around the world and it is impossible to think of the current music scene without her massive influence.  Yet one can argue that though she had a large number of later hits, it was her 1983 self-titled debut that remains Madonna's greatest musical achievement, and the record is as flawless as any other pop album in history.  Filled with many of her best known songs, Madonna is an almost disco-style dance album that was released in an era when such records simply were not being made.  While every song on the album is an absolute classic, few are as perfectly crafted or have proven to have the longevity as one finds in Madonna's magnificent 1983 single, "Borderline."

As is the case with so many of Madonna's songs, the melody has become almost ingrained in the minds of society, and it is instantly identifiable by the uniquely crafted opening keyboard progression.  Played by her bassist, Anthony Jackson, there is an almost bubbly feel to the synthesizer, and this sets the tone for the entire song.  It is the way in which this mood manages to stay almost dream-like, whilst also instantly pulling the listener in with the energy that makes "Borderline" so distinctive, and as the rest of the musical arrangement drops in, there becomes little question that the song is as much of a dance track as any other of Madonna's recordings.  The programmed drums and additional synth tracks blend in perfectly, and it is in the combined sound that one can find the true difference between "Borderline" and the rest of the Madonna catalog.  While so many of her songs have been "played into the ground," due to the exceptional, but not over-done production on this song, even after decades of hearing it, the song remains fresh and exciting, vaulting it into a truly iconic status.  This is largely due to the production work of the songs' writer, Reggie Lucas, who handled an overwhelming majority of the work on the song, and it is no surprise that due to the flawless musical execution and irresistible dance mood, "Borderline" would become the first of many top ten hits for Madonna, as well as "officially" marking her arrival as a force in the pop scene.

Yet it almost goes without saying that the song simply would not have achieved its status without Madonna's vocal work, and "Borderline" provides the earliest display of the full extent of her singing abilities.  While many of the other songs from her debut seem to restrict her range within a certain area, there is a sense of vocal freedom on "Borderline," and Madonna works all across the musical scale.  Along with the wide range of notes she deploys, it is the spirit with which she sings that truly pulls the listener into the song.  Making use of a various vocal inflections, Madonna conveys the frustration and pain of the lyrics in a completely unique manner.  The fact that she is able to take rather somber lyrics and turn them into a timeless dance track is a testament to her abilities as a performer, and even after countless listenings, "Borderline" remains one of the many songs in her catalog that almost demand for the listener to sing along at various parts.  Furthermore, the songs' lyrics are the first example of Madonna's long list of songs which challenge gender-roles, as she seems fed up with the games her lover is playing.  This is highlighted by lines like, "... but then you let me down, when I look around, baby you just can't be found...," and yet due to the way in which she delivers such words, most people only hear the song as a fantastic, upbeat dance number.  As she pushes the song through its almost mesmerizing path, it becomes clear that "Borderline" is the vocal highlight of Madonna's debut record, and it is much the reason that the song retains its power almost three decades later.

If one looks at "Borderline" in comparison to the entire history of recorded music, it is impossible to deny the connection that her vocals on the track have to the early "girl groups" of "the Motown era."  Both in the manner with which she delivers the words of heartbreak, as well as the tone of her voice throughout the verses, the link is quite clear, and yet it is the slinky, completely captivating groove that keeps the song in regular radio rotation.  Even for those who may not be fans of Madonna's work, the overall quality of the music and vocals on "Borderline" cannot be denied, and it may be due to the fact that the song has not been over-played like many of her other songs that enables it to retain its impact over the generations.  Regardless of the reason, there are few songs that are as truly perfect as one can experience within "Borderline," and there is not an "off" note anywhere on the track.  The song was further helped by the accompanying music video being widely embraced by the EmpTV audience, and it would begin a similarly long list of music videos that defined a large portion of Madonna's career.  As the decades have passed, "Borderline" has been covered by a wide-range of artists, and it also continues to make appearances throughout popular culture, cementing its legacy as one of the defining moments of pop music.  Whether it was due to the fact that it was a bubbling dance-pop record in an era when such songs were scarce, the flawless, catchy musical execution, or the absolutely phenomenal vocal performance, there is simply no denying the true musical perfection that can be experienced on Madonna's timeless 1983 song, "Borderline."

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