How Madonna popularised the remix album

Jon O'Brien

BY Jon O'Brien

2nd Nov 2022 Music

How Madonna popularised the remix album

We dive into the story of Madonna's first remix album You Can Dance, which inspired generations of pop artists to rework their bops for club dance floors

Named after the iconic line from undisputed classic “Into the Groove,” 1987’s seven-track collection You Can Dance may be considered one of the more inessential parts of Madonna’s 40-year discography.

But in a curious way, it’s up there with the likes of Like A Prayer and Ray of Light as her most groundbreaking.

The Queen of Pop wasn’t the first act to embrace the remix album, of course. 1982’s Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing saw fellow provocateurs Soft Cell give their debut Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret a clubbier makeover, including, in Marc Almond's words, the “first acid house techno record ever.”

And a year earlier The B-52's had cemented their status as America’s premier party band with even more danceable versions of their early hits on Party Mix!

But Madge was the first genuine superstar to realise the power of the DJ.

Doing it for the club kids

Madonna seemed like an obvious progenitor. She had famously cut her teeth on the New York club scene, both partying and performing at the likes of Danceteria, Fun House and Paradise Garage, and her debut single “Everybody”—shot at the latter—was a post-disco call-to-arms.

But the trailblazer, in fact, had initially expressed concerns about the concept of the remix: “I don't want to hear my songs changed like that. I don't know that I like it, people screwing with my records. The jury is out on it for me.”

"I don't want to hear my songs changed like that. I don't know that I like it"

Still, the singer managed to put aside any reservations for her club kid fans, the ones “who wanted to hear these songs in a fresh new way.”

In 1986, she enlisted various regular cohorts including Shep Pettibone and then-boyfriend John “Jellybean” Benitez to help hurtle six cuts—assembled from 1983’s eponymous LP (“Holiday,” “Everybody,” “Physical Attraction”), 1984’s Like A Virgin (“Over and Over,” “Into the Groove”) and 1986’s True Blue (“Where’s the Party”)—further onto the dancefloor.

Remixing in the early years

Listening to You Can Dance on its 35th anniversary (November 17), you're struck by how similar these new versions sound to the originals. This isn’t a case of chopping and screwing Madonna’s back catalogue beyond all recognition.

The technology of remixing was still in its infancy in the mid-1980s, and the differences—repeated vocal phrases, additional percussion breaks, extended intros and outros—very much reflect that.

And while the cassette and CD releases’ promise of “dub versions” suggested Madge and co had taken an unlikely detour into King Tubby territory, these simply turn out to be faithful instrumentals.

Nevertheless, Sire execs were still worried that these 12” mixes would derail the True Blue campaign—smash hits “Open Your Heart” and “La Isla Bonita” were still to come—enough that they postponed their release for a full 12 months.

"It shifted five million copies worldwide, making it the biggest-selling remix album"

With the added bonus of a brand-new track, the Sly and the Family Stone-inspired “Spotlight,” the project proved to be worth the wait.

Not only did You Can Dance chart inside the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic, but it shifted five million copies worldwide, making it the biggest-selling remix album of all time until Michael Jackson’s Blood on the Dancefloor: HIStory in the Mix came along ten years later.

The compilation may have fared even better had Madonna, never usually one to avoid self-publicity, hit the promotional trail.

Although she did allow legendary photographer Herb Ritts to shoot her in a bullfighter’s outfit for its striking cover, the star appeared to go AWOL around the time of its release. The announcement of her divorce from Sean Penn just weeks later perhaps explained her media absence.

The pop remix album becomes the norm

By the dawn of the following decade, pretty much every other MTV favourite had followed in Madonna’s floor-filling footsteps, from Bobby Brown’s Dance!... Ya Know It to Paula Abdul’s Shut Up and Dance: Mixes to New Kids on the Block’s No More Games/The Remix Album.

And those chart-toppers who grew up listening to the Material Girl, from future collaborator Britney Spears (B In the Mix: The Remixes) to natural successor Lady Gaga (The Remix), would also use You Can Dance as a template.

"Only this August, she scored Billboard’s highest-charting remix album in 12 years with Finally Enough Love"

Of course, Madonna herself also later expanded upon the idea. Remixed and Revisited from 2003 featured new interpretations of four American Life tracks, a Missy Elliott mash-up, live MTV recording and a previously unreleased track.

Only this August, she scored Billboard’s highest-charting remix album in 12 years with Finally Enough Love, an exhaustive collection of remixes representing each of her 50 Dance Chart number ones.

Madge is still adding to her dancefloor arsenal, somewhat questionably you could argue, with reggaeton, trap and hip-hop-tinged remixes of her biggest hits aimed squarely at the TikTok generation.

But the clever continuous segue and simple post-disco joys of You Can Dance remains Madonna’s purest, and most influential, attempt to start the party.

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