Halifax
9 min

Popping culture: Madonna misses mark with Elliott Smith cover

I’m about to piss off a lot of Madonna fans, and even a few friends of mine. 

But this has to be said: Madonna has fucked up.

Her Madgesty recently performed a cover of Elliott Smith’s delicately sad and madddeningly beautiful “Between the Bars” at the launch of her secretprojectrevolution party. You can watch the video below.

I’d like to go on the record that I am not anti-Madonna. I remember watching “Lucky Star” when it was first released, I pissed off my mother by watching the “Like a Prayer” video, and I can quote the entire dialogue from Truth or Dare, verbatim. All 122 minutes of it. There are moments of pop perfection in her work, and I admire how smart she is as a person of business and as a pop musician. Her understanding of the cultural zeitgeist is impressive and is often just enough ahead of the curve that to most people, she is cutting edge. Barring any discussion around cultural appropriation in her work ("Vogue,” anyone?), Madonna knows how to craft her work into accessible, smart, enviable and enjoyable art for the masses. That is not an easy thing to do.

Madonna has done covers before. Her work with Massive Attack on Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” is one of her sexiest numbers and creates a new song altogether, arguably one of the greatest things one can do when covering the work of another. It’s not about creating muddled carbon copies, but palimpsests of them.

But in taking on “Between the Bars,” Madonna insults both the memory of the composer as well as the song by turning it into a song you’d hear in the middle of an off-Broadway play that you didn’t care about. She turns what is an honest piece of personal disclosure, heartbreak and desire and pummels it into pap. 

In her defence, Smith is a difficult artist to cover. Some have done it, and done it well. Madeleine Peyroux is known for her cover of the song, turning it into a jazzy waltz that reminds one Jimmy Scott in its delivery, phrasing and pathos. (Note: Scott has a cameo appearance in Madonna’s video for “Secret” and is known as “the only singer who’d ever make me cry.")

For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, Elliott Smith was a fixture of the music scene in Portland, Oregon, and was known for his simple and sparse songs, sung in a quiet and confidential voice. These were songs sung quietly to lovers in the middle of the night. They were secrets and confessions shared between friends. Smith, unfortunately, took his own life by stabbing himself in the chest. 

It is difficult to talk about the suicide and death of an artist, as one would not wish to glamorize their death, nor the way in which it came to be. But Smith’s death cemented the fact that his songs were often those of a deeply unhappy person who yearned for connection, even when he feared it. With Madonna taking on “Between the Bars” and turning it into a pop tearjerker is an insult to the song and the artist.

In other words, Madonna needs to get out of bed. Because she has shit in it this time.