Why Madonna's Best Song Is Obviously 'Don't Tell Me'

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Yes, you heard me. The one with the cowboys. The single off Music that wasn’t Music. And yes, I know exactly what you’re going to say now.

“UM, VOGUE?” No.

“Like a Prayer!!!” Also no.

“What about Frozen!?” What about Frozen?

“4 MINUTES!!” Said no one, ever*.

etc etc etc

* Apart from me, briefly, in 2008

Let’s cut to the chase – Madonna has many songs. Several of them are quite good. Two or three may in fact be very good. But it is objectively correct of me to say that not one of them is anywhere near as amazing as Don’t Tell Me. Not. One.

I shall explain.


The context

The song harks back to a time – 2000, specifically – when Madonna actually set the trend, rather than desperately chasing an approximated version into the nearest club and somehow finding herself grinding up against Timbaland. Say what you like about cowboy hats, Kylie t-shirts and Ali G cameos, but in 2000 they were everywhere, and with Madonna’s newly British fingerprints all over them. She got married, had a baby, started work on a new accent and almost managed not to do any acting. She was properly ON IT.


The album

She got round to doing music too, in all sorts of literal ways. Music, her eighth studio album, launched with a killer lead single (Ali G aside), as well as consistent campaign visuals (which I alone appreciated). Mirwais Ahmadzaï joined William Orbit on Ciccone production duties, crafting a flawed but cohesive successor to Ray of Light that cut right through a confused early noughties pop landscape of dejected solo Spice Girls and Moby.


The song

It was second single Don’t Tell Me, however, where genres and haystacks were most successfully blended; the bucking bronco centrepiece of Madonna’s techno-country dabblings. It is the perfect song for several key reasons:

  • The staccato guitar.
  • The faux-folk lyrics.
  • The trippy beats.
  • The glorious fade-to-strings-y bit.
  • Vocals that were recorded rather than phoned in.
  • Ten years on it still sounds like something you might hear on the radio**, which is more than can be said of Give It 2 Me.
  • THE VIDEO I ALMOST FORGOT ABOUT THE VIDEO

The video

  • Cheesecloth shirts
  • Sandy treadmill action
  • An actual bucking bronco
  • A shuffled assortment of impressive dance manoeuvres I’ve been drunkenly attempting ever since

The conclusion

  • Amazing.

The aftermath

It’s even easier to view Don’t Tell Me as the treasure it so clearly is when bearing in mind what came next. After the highly successful Music came the ill-judged and entirely unsuccessful American Life***, and Madonna’s been in creative retreat ever since (Confessions was a fun yet shameless retread of disco nights gone by; MDNA a Minaj-aping clusterfuck; it’s best we don’t mention Hard Candy at all).

Don’t Tell Me may have been the beginning of the end of the Material Girl’s last Golden Age, but what an End-Beginning it was. I’ll always hold out hope for the  full country-folk technopop record Madonna clearly has brewing inside her – somewhere under all that leather and repetitive gun imagery.

* Apart from me, briefly, in 2008.
** My Last.fm one at the very least
*** My second favourite Madonna track is American Life by the way, but that’s a whole other story


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from the archive

this was originally published in and hastily exhumed from 2013

(hence the lack of due credit for Rebel Heart)