Madonna in 2000
Photo: George Pimentel/WireImage
Music Makes The People Come Together: 20 Years Of Madonna's 'Music'
In the year 2000, America was sharply divided. A new generation of singers had lip-synced and danced its way to the top of the charts and the front of the pop culture proscenium with material Auto-Tuned to Pro Tools perfection. The (mostly rock) music establishment loudly decried the new pop as artifice and asserted the integrity of music made with analog instruments.
At the time, assessing the validity of popular music loomed larger than the growing threat of MP3 downloads that would eventually upend the entire record industry. Madonna had been through these kinds of polemics before, herself a frequent subject of musical legitimacy debates. But nearly two decades into her career, she had seemed to quiet her most ardent critics.
Her seventh studio album, 1998's Ray of Light, had been the best-reviewed record of her career thus far, earning five GRAMMY nominations and winning three, including Best Pop Album, in 1999. Along with a pair of soundtrack singles, the album had maintained Madonna's presence on radio into the summer of 2000. On MTV's "Total Request Live," her videos played between those from upstart stars half her age, many of whom would cite her as an inspiration. In a contentious cultural landscape, Madonna occupied the highly coveted overlapping space of critical credibility and popular viability.
Ray of Light struck gold by embracing Björk- and Massive Attack-esque electronica, thanks largely to the work of the album's primary producer, William Orbit. However, as a genre, electronica had yet to live up to predictions that it would dominate the U.S. as it had Europe. In combination with Madonna's reputation for reinvention, this only drove expectations higher for how she would follow her latest career highpoint.
"Music," the lead single and title track of her eighth studio album, struck the airwaves like an intergalactic robot in August 2000, heralding a new sound for Madonna and the arrival of 21st-century pop music. With its digitally modified instruments, arpeggiated synths and a chorus Madonna says was inspired by the crowd at a Sting concert, "Music" combined elements of electronic and analog to create an anthem of unity on the dance floor. The Jonas Åkerlund-directed music video—featuring a pre-Borat Sacha Baron Cohen as his character, Ali G—seemed to skewer the decadence of late-'90s hip-hop bling while also revelling in it. We see a pimp-suited Madonna getting into the groove, relishing a night at the strip club with her girls and fending off creeps like a boss, all filmed while she was five and a half months pregnant.
On the strength of its lead single, Music released in the U.S. on September 19, 2000, via Madonna's Maverick imprint under Warner Bros. and opened at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, her highest-charting album in over a decade. Although critics didn't gush over Music with quite the same enthusiasm as they had its predecessor, the album moved millions of physical copies in its first few weeks, eventually going on to garner triple-platinum certification in the U.S. It ultimately earned five total GRAMMY nominations, including Best Pop Vocal Album and Record Of The Year for "Music" in 2001 and Best Short Form Music Video for "Don't Tell Me" in 2002. (Former Maverick Records art director and designer Kevin Reagan, who designed the album, won for Best Recording Package in 2001.)
In an effort to introduce the Queen of Pop to a new generation of fans, the album's promo campaign combined the traditional (a terrestrial radio premiere, a Rolling Stone cover story) with the new (an AOL listening party/live chat, a livestreamed club performance) over a timeline that seems enviably long by today's standards. Comparisons to more junior pop artists on the charts and airwaves swirled around her, but Madonna avoided miring herself in the muck.
Instead, for an exclusive performance at New York City's 3000-capacity Roseland Ballroom that November, Madonna took the stage wearing a Dolce & Gabbana-designed T-shirt emblazoned with the name Britney Spears. For her performance at MTV's European Music Awards later that month, she wore a similar shirt that said Kylie Minogue. "It's my celebration of other girls in pop music," she said backstage at the EMAs, praising the younger women before adding, somewhat cheekily, "I think they're the cutest."
Such spontaneous statements of support and admiration are almost boringly common now, but in an era when pop music had been denied entry into the credibility club, the moment held more weight. Though the press loved to pit female pop stars against each other at the turn of the century as much as it does now, musically, there wasn't much rivalry between them. With Spears still steeped in the sounds of Swedish pop on Oops!… I Did It Again and Minogue diving into disco on Light Years, Madonna had crafted a sound of her own on Music.
While Orbit returned for several tracks on the album, the majority of Music was co-helmed by the relatively unknown French producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï. Like his contemporaries in the French touch electronic scene (Daft Punk, Air, Rinôçérôse), Mirwais was unabashed in his affection for American music of the '70s, including the funk and R&B influences of house. Those influences, paired with his proficiency in production, worked well with Madonna's penchant for pop hooks, resulting in an LP whose sonic textures included space-age fills, guitar-washed in computerizing effects, and vocals that alternate between alien and intimate.
Music's second track, the distorted and ravey fan favorite "Impressive Instant," is a high-BPM ode to a trippy first encounter that sounded then like nothing anyone had heard before—20 years later, it still does. On the opposite end of the spectrum, closing track "Gone" is a stark and straightforward crooner made glorious by the fortitude of Madonna's vocals, selectively layered with exacting control.
As an album, Music is a masterclass in juxtaposition that disguises some of its strangest elements in familiarity. Where futuristic production might distract, it's moderated by traditional instrumentation. This plays out most noticeably on second single, "Don't Tell Me." It's hard to hear the track's opening guitar riff without thinking of the album's disco cowboy visual aesthetic come to life in the Jean-Baptiste Mondino-directed video. The record soundtracking the sparkly western shirts and synchronized line dancing is downright audacious in how it interweaves acoustic guitar—played by Madonna herself—with midtempo dance beats, cushioned by country strings, all building to a crescendo in the final chorus. "Don't Tell Me" so effortlessly realizes the misbegotten '90s vision of folktronica that it sounds just as fresh today as it did in 2000.
As a mainstay of '90s soft rock radio, Madonna was no stranger to love songs. Given the magnitude of her celebrity, the details of her personal life were bound to color how listeners heard Music's more personal lyrics. Two decades later, the declarations of love on "I Deserve It," presumably intended for then-boyfriend, husband-to-be Guy Ritchie, feel just as authentic now, long after their relationship ended. In contrast to the frequent unironic materialism expressed by today's celebrity pop stars, Music excelled at showing the former "Material Girl" in self-reflection. Its genius is how that introspection comes across as relatable and real, even when sung to highly synthesized beats by one of the biggest stars in the world.
For all its ebullience, at only 10 tracks and clocking in just under 45 minutes, Music is a model of restraint. It's the work of an artist who has plenty to say, but nothing to prove. And while her status as an innovator is deserved, Music shows how Madonna is an even better interpreter, fluent in musical languages across genres and capable of hewing them to her vision.
Although Music faces forward to the new century, its unencumbered joyfulness is a bittersweet vestige of the uncomplicated '90s. When she wielded her axe on stage for the kickoff of the Drowned World Tour in June 2001, it was a subtle statement of sorts, expressing Madonna's own defiance of music rules: She could be both rock and pop, analog and digital, acoustic and electronic. But by the time that tour wrapped in Los Angeles on September 15, 2001, nobody cared about that debate anymore.
While she had deftly eschewed the petty cultural battles between genres and generations, the world had changed dramatically in the first year since the release of Music. The message would be muddled in years to come, but in that moment, Madonna was uniquely prepared to be a voice for unity with one simple yet inarguable statement: Music makes the people come together.