True Blue was released in 1986 and to this day remains the best-selling Madonna album. I remember my older sister buying it and listening to it constantly. Shortly afterwards she got into The Smiths and informed me that Madonna “was shit”. True Blue spawned a bundle of top-ten hits and boasted the pop starâ€™s first famous reinvention, from lace-covered â€œboy-toyâ€ to a platinum blonde, toned man-eater. Sal Cinquemani from Slant Magazine called it “the supreme archetype for late ’80s and early ’90s pop musicâ€ and said that with this album “Madonna made the transition from pop tart to consummate artist, joining the ranks of ’80s icons like Michael Jackson and Prince.”
Of course, Madonna never had the musical talent to rival her 80â€™s contemporaries Michael Jackson and Prince. Her gift is in picking the right producer and tune for the moment and repackaging herself to suit the times. As Joni Mitchell would snarkily have it, sheâ€™s â€œhit talent out of the ballpark. Sheâ€™s become the most famous person in the world by hiring the right people.â€
One of those people was the late Herb Ritts, the photographer behind this cover. He began his career in the late 70â€™s and would eventually become the leading celebrity and fashion photographer of his time.
Ritts’ work became short code for high gloss, commercial photography. In the advertising industry there was a joke that lazy or desperate art directors would say: â€œIâ€™ve got an idea, Herb Ritts!â€, when they couldnâ€™t come up with anything original. He was also an accomplished fine arts photographer and when his work was displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1997, more than 250,000 attended the show.
As is so often the case with Madonna, she managed to spot him on the way up.
â€œI met Madonna in ’83 or ’84, when I was commissioned to do an ad for a movie called Desperately Seeking Susanâ€ he recalled. â€œI remember that day. I was in New York City in an old factory loft with lots of windows. She arrived early and marched into the studio with all her “boy-toy” belts and black lace, very definite. She opened a cigar box with all of her jewelry, mainly little silver crosses. She said, “I’ve seen all your work in Lei magazine. You’re good.” She knew who I was, though I’d only been shooting for a couple of years.â€
The True Blue cover is the most recognizable and sensual picture he took of her. The cassette tape and poster version is even sexier.
Itâ€™s a perfect example of what a post-modern operator she is – the hair Monroeâ€™s, the jacket James Deanâ€™s, the eyebrows Frida Kahloâ€™s. The images from the shoot are also a reminder that at her career zenith she was just, well, incredibly rootable.
Yet as Nathan Rabin – for my money the best writer on the web – points out in the AV Club, â€œthere’s nothing particularly natural about Madonna’s sex appeal. It’s largely a matter of attitude and lighting, iconography and shrewd calculation, exhibitionism, and a finely honed gift for provocation. It’s telling that many of Madonna’s most fruitful artistic collaborations are with photographers and music video directors. Depending on the angle and the outfit, Madonna can look like Marilyn Monroe reborn or the boogeyman’s grandma.â€
On this cover she gets the angle and the outfit just right.
Postscript:Â One of our readers crack_ho pointed us in the direction of a fascinating interview with Jeri Heiden, the Art Director who worked on a number of Madonna covers including Like a Virgin, True Blue and Like a Prayer. Well worth checking out.