It struck me several years ago when I first got XM radio and listened extensively to its classic alternative offering, “Fred” – before it was overtaken by Sirius’ “First Wave” in the Sirius-XM merger – that Fred featured an annual countdown of the top 2,044 songs of that genre. This was intriguing, I thought, because these were old songs – defined as alternative music from 1977-1992 (pre-Seattle sound alternative) -yet their ranking changed, though usually not dramatically, from year-to-year.
How could this be? I mean, how could the rankings of old songs change each new year? It’s perfectly legitimate for this reason: our appreciation of old songs changes each year. In addition, the cultural prominence of each song varies from one year to the next. Example: One year, The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” was Fred’s #1 classic alternative song. That was the year of the Reese Witherspoon-Mark Ruffalo film of that title (featuring two versions of the song including the original) was released. Another year, a Kodak ad featured The Cure’s “Pictures of You”. The Smiths’ staple, “How Soon Is Now?” was covered in the mid-90s film “The Craft” – and so on and so on.
But back to my first legitimacy reason: one’s appreciation for older songs changes over time. “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin has new meaning for me as a Dad, even though I found it touching and sad (saddest song ever) as a kid as well.
With that tedious build-up, alas, that brings me to what I now call the second saddest song of all-time, and my new favorite Madonna song, “Oh Father”. This new ranking is especially noteworthy in the context of its album, 1989′s “Like A Prayer” – because the title track had long been my favorite song by Madonna. Today, “Oh Father” and “Like A Prayer” rank 1 and 2 among my favorite Madonna songs, so the album was quite an achievement for one of the most illustrious and storied pop recorders ever.
As I watched the “Oh Father” video on Youtube for the first time probably since the year it was released, a flurry of thoughts came to mind. Yes, I’ll share them. That’s what this blog is for…. you’re welcome!
First, the video itself is emblematic of a period of big, elaborate productions across US pop culture. Remember the Nike ads of the time? The Enigma videos? Phil Collins’ “Another Day In Paradise” video?
The silhouettes on the walls of memories past juxtaposed with the present happenstance was especially a neat effect of the “Oh Father” video. I do admit to getting choked up by effective drama, but it typically takes me the length of a feature film to develop enough interest in the characters to reach such a choke point. However, within 5 minutes, “Oh Father” renders me choked up (on multiple occasions) and elicits simultaneous chills.
This was clearly the evolution of Madonna from frivolous pop singer (with one exception prior to the “Like A Prayer” album, an earlier favorite of mine from the film “At Close Range” called “Live To Tell”. This was raw, emotional, passionate Madonna – no longer singing through a machine to give her a fabricated and silly pop-ish high voice.
Her voice has been maligned, but she sings this song beautifully. It’s almost as if she’s crying the lyrics. This was Evita Peron Madonna before the Evita movie. Even her performance in the video was a prelude to Evita.
One thing I thoroughly enjoy when I watch a Youtube of a music video is the discussion underneath. For “Oh Father” you can see the impact it on women who were abused, not just by fathers or stepfathers but husbands/boyfriends. The song takes them through the gamut of emotions – from the pain withstood to the victory of finally ending the relationship, to the forgiveness. “Like A Prayer” was known for its controversial religious images but “Oh Father” also addresses religion in a more conventional manner with the aforementioned forgiveness theme. I would suggest that anyone who got out of an abusive relationship – either physical or psychological – would benefit from the therapy this powerful song provides. I… get…. chills.
Like many good songs, it builds to the crescendo; Madonna’s joining the third “You can’t hurt me now” chorus after it was left to the child’s voice in the first choruses is especially poignant.
I also think of Philosophy 101 in college, when my professor played a classical music song, Mozart or Bach or Beethoven, I don’t recall which, followed by U2′s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and then posed the question of both: “Is this art?”
I contended that both were. She thought the latter was not because of it’s insipid pop quality. I say both were beautiful songs, and besides art is the expression itself or the result thereof, the quality of it is not inherent in its definition. Art is art, good or bad (subjectively). Whatever the case, “Oh Father”, at least to me, is pop in its most artistic form.
Final thought: With the recent passing of Dick Clark, I am almost certain that it was on ‘Bandstand’ that the neophyte phenom Madonna made her, “To rule the world” remark in response to being asked her career goal. To her credit, she went on to be at least one of the rulers of pop music for a long time (like the Energizer bunny, she’s still going). That comment also underscores my favorite part of her career: that we got to see her mature and evolve musically. The “Like A Prayer” album, its title track and my personal favorite, “Oh Father”, were the beginning of that maturation and evolution.
My Madonna Top 10
1. Oh Father
2. Like A Prayer
3. Beautiful Stranger
4. Live To Tell
5. Open Your Heart
6. Don’t Tell Me
8. Like A Virgin
9. What It Feels Like For A Girl
10. Nobody’s Perfect