I'm Breathless

Madonna’s new album is far more than music. It’s part of an extraordinary, ongoing Madonna Event. First there was a cover story about her in Vanity Fair, followed by her new single and video, ”Vogue,” in which she proclaimed the latest dance craze. Earlier this month Madonna appeared on Arsenio Hall’s show and confessed that she likes being spanked. Then she began her concert tour, for which she premiered a new hairstyle and dressed her male dancers in brassieres.

Now comes this naughty and triumphant album, ”from and inspired by” the movie in which Madonna costars as Breathless Mahoney. The film has been hyped as this summer’s blockbuster, but its June 15 premiere is starting to look like the finale of the great 1990 Madonna Event.

Only three songs on the album, one a duet with Mandy Patinkin, are actually from the film. They were written — two of them in a pastiche of ’30s and ’40s show-tune styles — by Stephen Sondheim, who, as Broadway’s most sardonic and intellectual composer, would seem to be entirely un-Madonna-like.

But Madonna rises to the challenge. Forget the piping-voiced pop star of the past. Madonna now knows how to project Sondheim’s characteristic verbal wit. She even invents a new Broadway vocal persona, built around a chest voice not yet perfectly under control but still much richer and duskier than her low range sounded before.

The songs inspired by the film (four written by Madonna with Patrick Leonard, two written for her by others) provide an even sharper surprise. Amazingly, they validate Madonna’s claim in Vanity Fair that, good as Sondheim’s Dick Tracy songs might be, hers, which are not in the film, are ”the real shit.” They don’t have the depth of Sondheim, but, except for a bland (though somewhat smoky) ballad called ”Something to Remember,” they’re spicier.

”I can show you some fun/And I don’t mean with a gun,” Madonna sings in ”He’s a Man,” while the music behind her bumps and grinds. In ”Back in Business” she taunts an enemy, seconded by a male chorus and a sultry sax. And in ”Cry Baby,” a parody of ’30s cartoon-like novelty songs, Madonna and Leon- ard dare to match Sondheim wit for wit in their lyrics, and win. These songs are just as true to the film’s period ambience as Sondheim’s, and, as Madonna sings them, more memorable.

Even ”Vogue,” which is ’90s-style dance music not inspired by the film, somehow fits in. It ends the album, and improbably sounds like a genuine culmination. Vogueing is about striking poses, and that is exactly what the other songs do. Sondheim poses as Gershwin; Madonna poses as Sondheim; and Warren Beatty, who unsteadily sings a duet with Madonna called ”Now I’m Following You,” poses as the kind of singer popular two generations ago. After nearly 40 minutes of that, ”Vogue” makes perfect sense.

So does the outrageous sex in the songs. Sex has always been a central subject of Madonna’s art. She challenges traditional limitations and tries to clear space for everybody to live more easily with the varied forms sexuality might take.

Her Breathless Mahoney character functions, she has said, as Dick Tracy’s temptress — Tracy being an American hero of the old school who favors business over pleasure. Maybe that’s why she pushes sexual barriers farther than ever in I’m Breathless.

In one song, ”Hanky Panky,” Madonna sings (over a rolling boogie bass) about erotic spankings — the kind she told Arsenio Hall she likes to receive. And in ”Now I’m Following You (Part II),” she splices a line from the movie and a line from ”Hanky Panky” together, producing this delightful challenge to censorship: ”Dick. . .that’s an interesting name. My bottom hurts just thinking about you.”

Since the album carries no warning sticker, will censors now go after Madonna, a star far more established than any they’ve seriously challenged before? That’s a fight I’d love to see — especially with Madonna riding the crest of her fame, basking in the glow of an album 10 times more accomplished than any record she has made before.

I'm Breathless
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