100 & Single: Madonna's Chart Transformation Into A Classic-Rock Act

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Whatever you thought of her performance at this year's Super Bowl, Madonna's halftime appearance had the desired effect: It drummed up awareness for her first album in four years, the longest recording gap of her career.

When the Billboard 200 album chart is tallied in the middle of this week, Madge's new disc MDNA is expected to dominate handily, with anticipated first-week sales of at least 300,000 copies. That tally would put MDNA solidly in the middle of the pack of Madonna studio-album debuts since the turn of the millennium—ranging from a low of 241,000 copies for 2003's American Life to a high of 420,000 for 2000's Music. All of these albums debuted atop the album chart, and MDNA will be her fifth consecutive No. 1 studio album, after Music, American Life, Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) and Hard Candy (2008). That streak outdoes her previous three-album run of chart-toppers, Like a Virgin, True Blue and Like a Prayer, notched in her '80s heyday.

The debut of MDNA will also mean the album chart and the Hot 100 are simultaneously topped by recordings boosted by the 2012 Super Bowl. "We Are Young" by fun., heading toward its fifth week as Billboard's No. 1 song, hurtled up the chart in February after its appearance in a Chevy commercial that debuted during the game. Never, ever doubt the promotional prowess of America's national consumerist holiday.

You might have expected the NFL's selection of Madonna as this year's halftime performer to draw scorn from the rock fans she's contended with for most of her career. There was some grumbling from the usual corners: KISS mouthpiece and former halftime performer Gene Simmons reacted to the announcement with predictably retrograde words; a Calgary radio station went into the big game with an "Anyone But Madonna Classic Rock Weekend" promotion.

But even as the postgame reviews came in mixed—some sniping about Madge's lip syncing and tentative dance moves, plus excess froth over guest M.I.A.'s middle digit—what was remarkable was how little the commentariat regarded Madonna as a dance-pop interloper. (Following up last year's halftime show by the Black Eyed Peas, a decidedly un-rock act, probably helped her.) Even without the axe-wielding bona fides of a Townshend or a McCartney or a Rogers-Nelson, few observers felt Madge was undeserving of the big game.

Such tacit acceptance was unthinkable a quarter-century ago, when Madonna was laying siege upon the Billboard charts and representing everything that was disrespectful and un-rock about popular music. Even back then, Ms. Ciccone was a strong concert draw, terrible vocals and all (from Virgin Tour '85 to Super Bowl '12, Madge's critics have browbeat her both for singing live and for not singing live).

But for the last decade-plus, Madge has been fully established as a top-drawer touring act, commanding Stones-level ticket prices and U2-size grosses. Like those rockers, Madonna continues to record heavily hyped new albums here and there, but she profits most from the nostalgia business and the ticket sales it generates.

So can we finally, once and for all, call Madonna a classic rocker? Whatever you think of the "rock" status of her music—which has only gone deeper into electronic dance tropes since Ray of Light 14 years ago—a careful study of the Queen of Pop's Billboard performance confirms that she doesn't really chart like a pop star anymore.


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27 comments
Madonna 2012 Tour
Madonna 2012 Tour

This is simply a great achievement for Madonna her new album becomes the most impressive for her world tour. 

GA
GA

I'm SO tired of anti-"rockism".  YOU WON, okay?  Rock music isn't populat anymore, it's out of fashion, out of style, and is about to die.  This writer is beating a dead horse that's almost mummified now.  Rock is the ultimate underdog, leave it alone, it's like beating up an old guy in a wheelchair.

Payton_vege
Payton_vege

Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

Spellboundhq
Spellboundhq

I also agree with this article, from a US point of view. But when you look at her European chart succes, the past two decades have been very successful to her. Hung Up has been her biggest number 1 chart succes to date. It looks like the US is just as keen of Madonna's electronic dance music, compared to Europe. Or is it really her age that bothers the Americans? Luvin' on the other hand, is a different story. It has not done well anywhere on the globe so far.

Edsarod
Edsarod

Radio is dead, if not anemic. Madonna has been selling music via nightclub/dance circuit. She has been a leader in the Billboard dance charts. Which makes sense. Since 1998, Madonna has been a dance artist...Das It...

CraigH
CraigH

I agree with a lot of this article, from a US point of view. However the rest of the world Madonna singles chart high. Her age is such a big thing in the US (i dont know why, it's not like her music is aimed at the 'oldies') that she has been treated in a terrible way there. to the rest of the world she is Madonna, chart topping superstar, in the US she falls in to this category you have described her belonging too. But if over 50 countries see her as a chart topper still yet the US does not, well then i think it says more about the US than it does Madonna.

Bklynfun
Bklynfun

I also have to say - and I'm going out on a limb here - that Madonna 's fan base is younger than Bruce's or any of these classic rockers - she has managed to add on new fans more recently than classic rockers.. she may not be grabbing new ones today, but with Confessions, young folks in their 20's were re-discovering her. She remains more relevant to current pop culture than classic rockers.

Ally
Ally

I enjoyed this article and appreciated the classification of Madonna as a phenomenon between pop star and legacy rock artist.  However what could have been mentioned in addition to this perhaps unique position is her absolute dominance of the club play chart, with 55 Top 10 entries including 41 #1s.  Of course some of the other artists mentioned in the article might be very successful on their own genres' charts as well.

Randall Ross
Randall Ross

Madonna is the most successful solo artist of all time, 300 million albums and counting, records for highest grossing solo tours by a female artist for the last two tours ect., so who cares about singles? This article only focuses on what's playing on the radio and digital downloads. Most of Madonna's fan base purchases her entire albums, not just the singles she does music videos for. Clear Channel the company that owns most of the radio stations in the US, has a vendetta against her and boycotted her during the George W. Bush years because it's a conservative company and didn't like her anti-Bush stance. Her new music wasn't played much at all on the radio stations because of this.  She continues to be ultra successful without the radio play as her albums continue to sell very well.  MDNA debuted at #1 in 40 countries last week and her tour will play to millions of fans paying an average of $200 a ticket!

JT
JT

Always great to read charts-based articles, though there's no mention of the omnipresent ageism at U.S. radio. Of course Madonna isn't going to get the kind of airplay that she once did. Since Cher's "Believe" became a fluke No. 1 in the USA (as she had no big chart hits thereafter), radio has become a lot more ageist. Even Bruce Springsteen doesn't get a lot of play at rock radio, so it's not even just pop radio that is hesitant to play music from acts of a certain age.

As for the three singles mentioned that spent less time on the Hot 100 than "Give Me All Your Luvin, " they were official singles, not only for the clubs. But, yes, "Give Me..." was a fleeting hit, but it was nice that it padded her chart stats some more. And, it was a fitting single for the Super Bowl- and for saying that she's the Queen, no matter what others try to do to usurp her. :)

Matthew Rettenmund
Matthew Rettenmund

Madonna does, in fact, play the guitar; it has been in every tour for a decade. Also, instead of lumping her in with rock acts (though she has done many rock songs, albeit fewer in recent years), Madonna's fortunes should be viewed as a function of age. Radio is flat out ageist--when she has had perfect pop hits-to-be since turning 40, let alone 50, Madonna has encountered a wall of resistance from radio. American radio, that is. "Hing Up" and "Sorry" and "Give It 2 Me" were unqualified smashes abroad and would have been here had they received airplay. "GMAYL" is an odd song, not universally liked. We will see if radio can snap out of it with her third MDNA single, a love song to their industry, "Turn Up the Radio."

Arbab Quadri
Arbab Quadri

Madonna is a far more successful artist than Prince. According to wikipedia, Madonna has sold more than 300 million records, while Prince has sold 80 million. Also, while both Cher and Madonna are gay icons, Cher has sold only 100 million records. Madonna is in a different league altogether. It's time everyone realized that.

Findingnamo
Findingnamo

Except she does insist on picking up the damn axe.

Alejandro Kaprini
Alejandro Kaprini

Good article and analysis. Love her or hate her Madonna is the ultimate global pop icon with an impressive career that finally needs to be recognized. She deserves respect and not more comments about her age (not in this article thankfully),

E Cheung
E Cheung

Very interesting article.  As a chart geek I loved the focus on chart stats.  Madonna following the template and trajectory of an aging rock star is an intriguing idea.  There is one difference between Madonna and the other classic rockers that I can see, though:  no awards show love.  I feel like anytime a classic rocker releases a new album they are way more likely to get a Best Album Grammy nod (usually resulting in head-scratching among the younger sect who watch the shows to see their current favorite superstars perform) than Madonna (she's relegated to dance music categories).  That could just point to genre bias, but it shows that while Madonna's career mimics a veteran rocker, her actual style of music is still not viewed critically in the same light as true rock music.  

Al Shipley
Al Shipley

"Name me another pop star with zero rock-radio play who sells albums and concert tickets out of the gate with this kind of regularity (especially with Cher and Tina Turner off the road)."

He may not be quite on the same level of profitability but Prince deserves an honorable mention, doesn't he?

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

Great point, Ally—I was thinking of mentioning Madonna's total dominance of Club Play but frankly had enough in a (long) column as it was.

You're being generous even implying that other artists have comparable records Other than the domination by, say, George Strait on the country chart, Madonna's lead over other artists on Club Play is so total and all-consuming as to be, probably, unbeatable for decades to come.

It's been said that Club Play is one of Billboard's less data-rich charts; it's lower-tech than their other lists, even in the Soundscan era, and can be affected by a remarkably small number of New York–based tastemaker DJs. But the mere fact that Madonna routinely gets namechecked by so many guys whose job is to stay at the bleeding edge of clubgoers' tastes, even after all these years, is still remarkable and reflects, I'd say, something real.

In fact, regarding the discussion I was having above with Matthew and JT on ageism, I daresay that club music is one arena that is, counterintuitively, kinder to over-50 divas. Cher has also been warmly embraced into her autumn years, and Yoko Ono has topped Club Play in her 70s!

Thanks for the comment.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

Re: ageism, I should note that my colleague Maura has well covered that prejudice as it afflicts Madonna. (See link above under "Related Content.") I was coming at this from a different angle all-around, while acknowledging Madge's age when appropriate.

As for radio's ageism in particular, I would agree that it has become somewhat more ageist since 1999—ironic that Cher scored that smash at the height of boy bands and Britney—but I'm not sure what golden era of old folks getting their fair share on the charts you're referencing. Before the advent of rock n' roll and its coalescing of the teenage market, yes, older crooners could score solid hits, to be sure. But after 1960 or so, it's pretty much been all youth, all the time. Frank Sinatra had "Strangers in the Night" in 1965, and then his daughter Nancy helped him to a second one in 1967 with "Somethin' Stupid," but those were exceptions to a youth-oriented rule. The vast majority of megahit pop singles by middle-aged performers, even before Cher—Elton's Diana tribute; "Macarena"—are flukes to some extent. As a woman attempting to compete in the pure-pop realm, Madonna likely suffers more than the average recording artist (as Maura implies in her piece); but I daresay she'd have had this problem if she'd been born a decade earlier and reached her 40s in the early '90s. This is an eternal feature/flaw of current-hits radio.

Thank you for the clarification regarding the three low-charting singles—admittedly, I was being a bit glib. Neither you nor I know what the label's ambitions for them were. Arguably, only "Give It 2 Me" was vying for serious Top 40 radio attention, and its failure is neither here nor there; as for the other two, given where they fell in their respective promotional campaigns (fourth single from Ray of Light, Paul Oakenfold-produced single from a greatest-hits album) it's unlikely that the label had terribly high chart expectations for either of them. "Luvin'" is a different story, by far, and that was my only point.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

1. See comment above. Well aware the guitar has been there for several tours, and I've even seen her play it live, but pointing out this technical truth doesn't change the fact that her tours are fundamentally different affairs from, say, a Stones tour. (Ironically, given how many sound-distorting effects pedals the Edge uses, you could say her show is closer to U2's.) I meant this comment to be in praise of her success—she didn't need axe-wielding to get where she is now as a touring behemoth—not a criticism.

2. Agreed that U.S. radio is ageist, but I suspect that reflects the ageism/values of the U.S. audience. A core of consumers will buy her albums out of devotion to what Madonna stands for—a history of great music, a reliably rich pop sound—but I don't think either radio program directors or casual radio listeners regard her as conversant with current Top 40 pop tropes, unfair though that may be. Europe is generally better about letting its veteran pop stars age gracefully; witness England's longtime appreciation for Cliff Richard.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

I know, and I've seen it—her playing on "Burning Up" on the '04 tour—but I think we can all agree that it is a light seasoning, not a core ingredient, of her concerts.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

A fair counterexample, but:

(a) It's been years, but Prince did appear on an early version of the AOR chart in his "Little Red Corvette" days—to my knowledge, Madge hasn't appeared on a rock list even once

(b) Unlike her, Prince doesn't score No. 1 albums regularly. He had the fluke chart-topper 3121 in 2006, but otherwise he pops into the Top 10 for a week or two and then tumbles quickly.

Devox_latino
Devox_latino

Well Prince is great but Madonna has had two blockbuster solo tours back to back - global tours which have made her the highest grossing solo artist (400 million dollars plust last time around)  by a country mile. In fact, she was neck and neck with the Rolling Stones as I recall the last time they were out on tour. 

Ricardo
Ricardo

 Except Cliff Richard also experiences a kind of blackout at British radio. Sir Cliff himself has spoken about it countless times. Search for it under "Cliff Richard", "UK" and "radio" and you'll see it pop up in a minute.

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