I’m nine or ten years old, and sitting in the back of a stuffy, clapped-out Ford Escort on the way to some Godforsaken holiday destination. It’s broiling hot, and we’re stuck in an almighty traffic jam, and there’s two separate ding-dongs going on – one because nobody has a clue where we’re supposed to be going, the other because my Dad won’t let us open any windows even though the air-conditioning doesn’t work – but I’m happy enough, sipping on a juice carton and sporting some rather fetching boyish shorts.
Mercifully, the Van Morrison compilation that always soundtracks these sojourns has finished, and my Mum sticks the radio on. ‘Into The Groove’ by Madonna is playing – God knows why – and I nearly spit out a mouthful of drink. I’ve never heard something quite like this before, you see. Not because it’s particularly radical or groundbreaking, but because I’ve never really paid attention to music that’s a bit saucy… a bit sexy, before.
I love Queen (embarrassingly, I once drew a moustache on my face and made my parents watch me mime along to ‘Another One Bites The Dust’). I’ve just woken up to Oasis and Blur and Pulp. But none of those people sing in a breathy, saucy way like Madonna; they don’t coquettishly purr things like “Touch my body and move in time” or “We might be lovers if the rhythm’s right”. Do I really understand what she means when she says these things? No. But it doesn’t matter, because Madonna – especially with that bone-rattle, shivering sound that ushers in the sugary, pure-pop chorus – is the first person who’s really making me understand what this whole ‘Birds and the Bees’ business is all about.
I realize, of course, that I’ve strayed somewhat from the usual ‘Song That Changed My Life’ shtick here. And, of course, there are loads of other songs that I’d deem life-changing, too, like ‘What Difference Does It Make?’, or ‘Transmission’, or ‘Lithium’, or ‘Heart Of Glass’, or ‘Dress’, and I cherish the people who made them much more dearly than I do Madge. But there’s something self-consciously searching about how seismic their impact was, fuelled by a sense of looking for an identity through music and actively hunting down a transmogrifying experience. Whereas ‘Into The Groove’ was a bolt from the blue, and one that makes me see that music has a whole lot more to offer than mere guitar-rock.
There are better Madonna songs than ‘Into The Groove’, no doubt; there are definitely sexier ones, too, but it’s had a titanic impact on me. It’s why I’m so unmoved by the flesh-flashing, dead-eyed gyrating of Rihanna, Katy Perry et al, because I know that loin-stirring pop music doesn’t have to be eye-poppingly gratuitous. And it’s also why I’m such a sucker for raunchy stuff like the eloquent rudery of Wild Beasts, the high-end sleazy glam of Suede, or the virile funk of Prince. That’s a huge part of my music taste, right there – and one that can be tracked back to the time Madonna asked me if I wanted to dance with her, as I sat gulping down my Um Bongo.