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Madonna - Live To Tell (1986)

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  • 80's Score80's Score80's Score 80's score: 2.51
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“Live to Tell” is a song by American singer-songwriter Madonna. It was released as the lead single from ...

“Live to Tell” is a song by American singer-songwriter Madonna. It was released as the lead single from Madonna’s third studio album True Blue (1986) on March 26, 1986 by Sire Records. It later appeared on compilation albums The Immaculate Collection (1990), Something to Remember (1995), and Celebration (2009).

Originally composed by Patrick Leonard for the score of the film Fire with Fire, the instrumental was shown to Madonna, who decided to use it for then-husband Sean Penn’s film At Close Range. Madonna wrote all the lyrics, co-composed the melodies, and co-produced it with Leonard.

A pop ballad, the song includes instrumentation from guitars, keyboards, drums and a synthesizer, and its lyrics deal with deceit, mistrust and childhood scars. It is also about being strong, which Madonna recalled in an interview that she thought about her relationship with her parents, while writing the lyrics. The music video, directed by James Foley, shows Madonna’s first image makeover, featuring her with a cleaner look, shoulder-length wavy golden blond hair, conservative wardrobe and subtle make-up. This toned down blond appearance was inspired by Marilyn Monroe, a performer Madonna had previously been influenced by.

“Live to Tell” was generally well received by music critics, who frequently referred to it as the best ballad of her career. It was also a commercial success, becoming Madonna’s third number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100 and her first number-one on the Adult Contemporary chart. The song faced controversy when Madonna performed it on her 2006 Confessions Tour wearing a crown of thorns while hanging on a giant mirrored cross. The performance at Rome’s Olympic Stadium was condemned as an act of hostility toward the Roman Catholic Church by religious leaders.

Critical response

“Live to Tell” was generally well received by music critics. In a review of the album True Blue, Stephen Thomas Erlewine from Allmusic called it a “tremendous ballad that rewrites the rules of adult contemporary crossover”. Jim Farber from Entertainment Weekly called the song “her best ballad to date”. In a review of her compilation album The Immaculate Collection, David Browne from the same magazine called it “one of her few successful shots at being a balladeer”. Alfred Soto from Stylus Magazine felt that “the song’s set of lyrics remain her best” and that the vocals “seethes with a lifetime’s worth of hurts which she nevertheless refuses to share”. Sal Cinquemani from Slant Magazine called the song “striking” adding that it “rewrote the rules of what a pop song was supposed to sound like”. Edna Gundersen from USA Today called the song “a moody heart-tugger, may be her best song ever.”

Adam Sexton, author of Desperately Seeking Madonna: In Search Of The Meaning Of The World’s Most Famous Woman, felt that “Live to Tell” made a provocative companion to “Papa Don’t Preach”, the second single from the album. He added that “Madonna appropriately measured the safety of silence against the urge to unburden herself.” Sexton also complimented the production, saying that the “music itself suggests a threatened annihilation, a fact that makes it more haunting.” Allen Metz and Carol Benson, authors of The Madonna Companion: Two Decades of Commentary, felt that the track expanded Madonna’s musical horizons. According to them “Live to Tell” was a compelling track which Madonna sang with moving conviction. J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of Madonna: An Intimate Biography, was pleased with the track, denoting it as a vehicle of growth for Madonna. Erica Wexler from Spin, while reviewing True Blue, called “Live to Tell” as “dark and moody, dense with dramatic mystery. In this mushy tale of lost innocence, Madonna very theatrically conveys a lost fatalism. Her fragile voice aches for reassurance and healing when she sings ‘Will it grow cold? The secret that I hide, Will I grow old?” Rolling Stone called the song “as cutting as it is melancholic” and said that it was “arguably [Madonna’s] finest and most distinctive ballad.

Chart performance

“Live to Tell” was released in the United States in March 1986. It debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 49, reaching the top position eight weeks later, where it remained for one week. Prior to reaching number one, it was stuck in the runner-up spot for two weeks below Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All.” It became Madonna’s third number-one single in the US, and her second number-one that is featured in a film after “Crazy for You”. The song was a crossover success, topping the Adult Contemporary chart for three weeks, and peaking at number three on the Hot Dance Singles Sales chart. In Canada the song debuted at number 79 of the RPM singles chart in April 1986, and reached the top of the chart for two weeks in May 1986, staying on the chart for a total of 23 weeks, It was ranked at the second position of the 1986 RPM Singles year-end chart.

In the United Kingdom, “Live to Tell” was released on April 21, 1986. The next week, the song debuted at number ten on the UK Singles Chart, peaked at number two, and stayed 13 weeks on the chart. It was held from the top spot by Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”. “Live to Tell” was certified silver by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) in May 1986, for shipment of 250,000 copies of the single across the United Kingdom. According to the Official Charts Company, the song has sold 280,000 copies in the UK.

Across Europe, “Live to Tell” topped the Eurochart Hot 100 for two weeks, as well as peaking inside the top ten in Belgium, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland. It was also certified silver by the Syndicat National de l’Édition Phonographique (SNEP) for shipment of 250,000 copies in France.

Music video

In December 1985, Madonna starred in the film Shanghai Surprise, where she toned down her appearance, inspired again by Marilyn Monroe. Madonna held the look for the “Live to Tell” video. In it her make-up was pale and subtle, her shoulder-length hair was wavy and golden blond, and her clothes consisted of a simple 1930s-style floral dress. In an interview with music critic Stephen Holden from The New York Times, she commented about her new look:

“After a while I got sick of wearing tons of jewelry—I wanted to clean myself off. I see my new look as very innocent and feminine and unadorned. It makes me feel good. Growing up, I admired the kind of beautiful glamorous woman—from Brigitte Bardot to Grace Kelly—who doesn’t seem to be around much anymore. I think it’s time for that kind of glamor to come back. In pop music generally, people have one image. You get pigeonholed. I’m lucky enough to be able to change and still be accepted. If you think about it, that’s what they do in the movies; play a part, change characters, looks and attitudes. I guess I do it to entertain myself.”

In addition to At Close Range, Foley also directed and produced the song’s video. The video serves as a publicity campaign for the movie, as it includes brief scenes of the film that indicate the conflict the young man in the movie—played by Sean Penn—feels. The locations in the film are separated visually from the shots of Madonna, who is singing in a darkened studio. Unlike her previous videos, Madonna portrays a narrator, whose song comments on the story, appearing in shots completely different from the narrative action. She appears to speak for the character, addressing his problems directly, like the chorus of a classical tragedy.

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