Monday, February 6, 2012

Dear Jessie by Madonna

In the 1980s, Madonna’s role in pop culture was clear. Like Lady Gaga she was a pop musician using provocative ideas and ways of expression to both entertain and shock audiences. In the 1990s, things changed as Madonna took on the challenging lead role in the film Evita and tried to redefine her role as a more mature musician.

This made it hard to know what to make of Madonna’s Super Bowl performance last weekend. Madonna has continued to tour but she’s not a mainstay on television the way she used to be and doesn’t fill up the tabloids like she once did. Our popular culture has moved on to people like Lady Gaga to give us that shock and awe fix.

Looking back on Madonna’s career, what really sticks out? The music. So much of what made Madonna controversial has simply become irrelevant in many people’s memories.  It’s amazing how people forgotten that “Like A Prayer,” the closing song of the show was promoted with a music video that featured burning crosses and Madonna kissing a statue of Saint that came alive. There are probably still some people who would take issue with this video but everyone else has moved on (I discussed this song and video in depth in this previous post).  Through all of this what has maintained her relevance is her wide variety of innovative and interesting songs.

The album that showed the most diversity and depth of Madonna’s musical ability was Like A Prayer. A solid album from start to finish, the album covered a wide variety of topics and interesting musical styles. It also features one of my favorite Madonna songs, the heart-warming ode to childhood, “Dear Jessie.”

The ode to childhood joins a group of songs in pop music that celebrate the innocence of childhood including “Forever Young,” by Bob Dylan and “Never Grow Old” by Taylor Swift. “Dear Jessie” was inspired by the daughter of one her producers, Patrick Leonard. He wrote this letter for his daughter and Madonna agreed to record it after meeting Jessie.

Some have compared this song to music the Beatles and this actually is a fitting description. Like many of the Beatles' greatest songs, it’s not about a subject that most pop singers focus on. The instrumentation is interesting and inventive and it features a fascinating meter change, a musical device the Beatles often utilized that most pop musicians stay far away from.

With fairy-tale like imagery, Madonna takes us on journey through the imagination of childhood. Hopeful and gentle, she points out to Jessie how amazing the world around them something many adults overlook and kids often revel in. Swirling strings, dynamics horns and a flurry of other instruments take us to a magical sonic world that pop music often doesn’t take us.

Is this song the definitive Madonna song? No, of course not. She is far too complicated an artists to relegate her expression to one song. But this is a song that defines one facet of the artist that Madonna was and the artists she continues to be.

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