Madonna is many things – an impressive and generous performer, a solid songwriter, a brilliant trendsetter – but she was never a particularly strong singer. Her vocal limits doesn’t mean that she doesn’t often sound terrific on her records, but it means that she carries her music with her overpowering charisma and personality.
By 1990, Madonna was known for a series of expertly-produced dance singles, provocative music videos, and flamboyant performances. Like most pop stars, Madonna also had an eye on film stardom. And despite a promising debut with Desperately Seeking Susan, her acting career consisted of one disappointment after another. During this time, Madonna hooked up with Hollywood legend Warren Beatty, who was tapped to star as Dick Tracy in a bright-colored action flick. Madonna worked on getting the role as the film’s femme fatale, Breathless Mahoney. Along with starring in the film, Madonna also released a surprisingly strong album, I’m Breathless, a collection of torch songs, novelty numbers, pop ballads, and a perfect cap, the house-influenced classic “Vogue.”
As with all of Madonna’s best efforts, the strength of the material depends on her collaborators. With I’m Breathless the pop diva teams up with longtime partner Patrick Leonard for the bulk of the material, but Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim lends his genius, penning a handful of sons, too. The album is a departure for Madonna, relying not just on her personality and star factor, but the singer is also stretching her vocals. Because the production leaves behind the synths, drum machines, and electronic instruments in favor for piano, string bass, and horns, more attention is paid to the singer’s voice – which is admirably stretched, pulled, and worked out, like an athlete who may not be the most gifted or in the best shape, but works harder than anyone else on the team.
As an opener, “He’s a Man,” works because it not only sets up the tone of the record, but gives listeners who haven’t seen the film (or who have no plans to) a quick primer on who Dick Tracy is. Over a driving piano and a bass, the ballad tells the story of Dick Tracy – a crusading hero, willing to sacrifice his own life and happiness for the greater good. It’s a weird, specific focus for the song, which means outside of the record, it doesn’t work. But it’s still a good showcase for Madonna’s growing vocal prowess (she comes close to belting throughout the song).
The album’s second song, the Sondheim-penned “Sooner or Later” works better because it’s a nifty little ditty that can transcend the soundtrack’s limited environment. The song won Sondheim an Oscar and it’s clear why: he was able to replicate the charming, sultry kind of torch songs warbled by Julie London, Peggy Lee, or Helen Morgan. The lyrics, though not written by Madonna, still align themselves to her theme of empowerment that’s marked her career. It’s a love song, but the narrator is defiant in that getting her man is an inevitability. During this period of Madonna’s career, her Marilyn Monroe drag was at its strongest (her shimmying Oscar performance owed a lot to the late Monroe), and “Sooner or Later” worked as a clever 90s update of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” It also gave Madonna a chance to prove that beneath the club beats, lay hidden an underrated voice.
“Hanky Panky” was a top ten hit for Madonna, though it’s easily a minor entry in Madonna’s career. A pastiche of big band and dance-pop, Madonna sings about the virtues of corporal punishment. It’s cheeky and strives for a winking wit. Madonna wrote this song with Leonard, which proves just how elastic and versatile the two are – though, this nonessential tune doesn’t show off either in the best light. Instead, it feels like an indulgence.
The silliness of I’m Breathless extends to the album’s lowest point, “I’m Going Bananas,” a plastic Latin number that sounds like basement-level Desi Arnaz. Written with Andy Paley (who produced the other Dick Tracy soundtrack), is a loud mess that seems to seek every cliche and cram it in the tropical number.
The goofy trilogy ends with “Cry Baby,” which is just a notch above “I’m Going Bananas.” Madonna adopts a weird gun moll affected voice as she simpers about her frustration about dating a mama’s boy. Like “I’m Going Bananas” it’s not a song that’s meant to be played outside of the record.
Thankfully, the album’s tone shifts considerably with the contemplative “Something to Remember” (which was the title of a compilation of ballads Madonna released years later). The song is a classic Madonna ballad – the singer sings with a ruminative, resigned tone. The song, while acknowledging the 1930s feel of the film and the record, doesn’t sport dated sonic references. Though there’s brushed percussion, a shuffling beat, and a symphony of strings, “Something to Remember” would sit easily in any of Madonna’s 90’s-era albums. The song’s mature take and defeated air seems a bit out of place on I’m Breathless, and hints at the greatness that Madonna would achieve later in the 90’s.
After the sad “Something to Remember” comes “Back in the Business,” a jazzy number that harks back to big band and swing. Though Madonna will never be convincing as a jazz chanteuse, she acquits herself admirably, relying on her attitude – the bridge has Madonna’s stabs at scatting and impersonating a sad trombone – all of it is inconsequential and silly, but at least she and Leonard constructed a reasonably credible jazz song.
“More” is another Sondheim composition. Owing a lot to “I Got Rhythm,” it’s a companion piece to Madonna’s hit “Material Girl.” With his trademark wit and lyrical dexterity, he pens a clever song about avarice and greed. Though the narrator in the song is happy with what she’s got, it’s not enough – she wants “more.” Sondheim is able to hew to the sonic theme of the album, and to his credit, he doesn’t sound like he’s slumming for some overreaching pop star – and he gifts his singer with a song that takes full advantage of her ability to sell a song, rather than hit gravity-defying tones.
The final Sondheim tune, “What Can You Lose” is a duet with frequent Sondheim Mandy Patinkin (who’s in the film). How much one likes the song depends on his/her tolerance of Patinkin, an acquired taste, to be sure. His nervous, breathy tenor is a touch grating, but he’s restraint, in deference to his duet partner, though their voices blend like oil and water, and she sounds slightly off-key. It’s a simple, spare piano ballad.
After “What Can You Lose” the album should pretty much end, but there are still a few more songs to round out the collection. “Now I’m Following You” is cut into two parts – the first, a simple jazzy duet with Dick Tracy‘s lead Warren Beatty (who has a pleasant nothing of a voice). The swing number suddenly cuts after a record scratching, and becomes a date 90s New Jill Swing dance number – Beatty’s and Madonna’s voices are submerged in production as a thick soupy beats muscle out the horns and tinkling piano, as samples from the rest of the album are played throughout the album, as a sort of reprise or medley.
The final number “Vogue” is interesting because it has little-to-nothing to do with the film, and it’s arguably Madonna’s greatest single – it shows the diva at her best. “Vogue” is a house number that has Madonna hark back to her days in the New York gay clubs. Voguing is a style of dance created and developed in the queer black community – a way to harness and emulate glamor. The queens who created and perfected this song were among society’s most vulnerable, and yet on the dance floor, they ruled. On the dance floor, issues like racism, poverty, AIDS, or homophobia were set aside, at least temporarily, and these obstacles didn’t stand in the way of these superstars who ruled the dance floors.
For Madonna to pay homage to the dance is incredible – the lyrics perfectly nail the appeal of voguing and why it was so important for the queens, without whom there’d be no Madonna. That being said, there is one moment in the song in which Madonna almost undoes all of the progress achieved by the song: in the rap bridge, Madonna lists all of her glamor idols:
Bette Davis and Monroe/Dietrich and DiMaggio/Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean/on the cover of a magazine/Grace Kelly, Harlow Jean, picture of a beauty queen/Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers danced on air/They had style, they had grace/Rita Hayworth gave good face/Lauren, Katharine, Lana, too/Bette Davis, we loved you
Unfortunately, in taking on black cultural tropes like voguing and house music, Madonna reinvented the genre as white-centered (this is also true in the video, in which she presents herself as a white sex goddess, ruling over her coterie of beautiful dancers). So even if the lyrics touch on the sadness and poignancy of the fierce divas who were part of the voguing scene, her manipulation of the mythology, inserting in white glamor undoes a lot of what she achieves.
“Vogue” enjoyed monster success, overshadowing its parent album as well as the movie (which did good, if unremarkable box office). I’m Breathless peaked at number 2 on the US and UK Billboard charts, eventually selling over seven million copies. It’s a pretty obscure entry in Madonna’s career, sandwiched by her classic Like a Prayer and the diamond-selling greatest hits collection Immaculate Collection. Listening to it now, some 25 years later, it doesn’t feel like an album, so much as merchandising for the film – like a doll that comes with a Happy Meal. That doesn’t mean the record isn’t good – Stephen Sondheim, Patrick Leonard, and Madonna aren’t capable of making crap, and in 1990, Madonna was slowly emerging from the young bubbly pop tart, to a far more introspective singer-songwriter. I’m Breathless, while also working as a cynical piece of marketing, also works as a way for Madonna to prove that she can sing (this was during the era of Milli Vanilli). A few years later, she would take another stab at austere respectability with Evita (though, for Evita she worked with Andrew Lloyd Weber, a songwriter far less talented and sophisticated than Stephen Sondheim). Still, I’m Breathless is a good document of Madonna’s early attempts at stretching as an artist.