The Heart of Rock and Soul
Dave Marsh, 1989
If there weren't such massive prejudice against Madonna's overconfident displays of her sexuality, "Live to Tell" would be ranked among the greatest pop songs written in the past decade, a penetrating psychological portrait of what psychoanalyst Alice Miller calls The Drama of the Gifted Child, and a great reworking of one of the major undiscussed themes in contemporary pop music: spiritual abandonment, lack of nurture, and their consequences.
The archetype of such songs is "The Great Pretender" but madonna's lyric blows past it in the first three lines ("I have a tale to tell / Sometimes it gets so hard / To hide it well"), and moves on to portray the entire complex of deceit and self-betrayal inherent in such a mental climate. Far more powerful in its claustrophobia than At Close Range, the Sean Penn/Christopher Walken film it served as a theme, "Live to Tell" uses Pat Leonard's brilliant keyboard and synthesizer work, a funk guitar, and a mixture of synthesized and real drumming to create an atmosphere so soaked in the torture and dread surrounding all kinds of child abuse that by the time you reach the bridge, you might be reliving your worst waking nightmare.
Madonna releases the tension with a gorgeous bridge that represents some kind of internal dialogue within the song's already internalized structure. Far beyond such travesties as "Dear Mr. Jesus" or even a.sensitive outsider's look at child abuse like "Luka," "Live to Tell" penetrates to the very heart of a basic human mystery: How parents can so readily brutalize their own. And while it certainlv doesn't solve the riddle, it does what art is supposed to do - achieves a kind of resolution within the boundaries of that mystery and then moves on.
Madonna has earned her right to party.