Live to Tell
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Live to Tell
"Live to Tell"
Portrait of Madonna, where only her face is highlighted. She sports flowing blond hair and blue eyes.
Single by Madonna
from the album True Blue
Released March 26, 1986
Genre Pop
Length 5:51
  • Madonna
  • Patrick Leonard
Madonna singles chronology
"Live to Tell"
"Papa Don't Preach"
"Live to Tell"
"Papa Don't Preach"

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

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.

Background and writing

After Madonna finished The Virgin Tour, she asked producers Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray to write some songs with her and produce her third studio album, True Blue (1986). "Live to Tell" was originally an instrumental composed by Leonard for the score of Paramount's romantic drama film Fire with Fire. "My managers represented the guy who was directing the film; it was his first film. I saw a little piece of the film, and I had the script. I wrote a theme and I said, 'What if I could get Madonna to write the lyrics for it?'", said Leonard.[1]

However, Paramount rejected the track, believing that Leonard was incapable of creating the score for the film. Leonard later presented the instrumental to Madonna,[1] who decided to use it for At Close Range, the new film starring her then-husband, actor Sean Penn. Madonna wrote all the lyrics, added some melodies, and composed the bridge.[2] She recorded a demo of the song on a cassette and presented it to the film's director James Foley, who liked it and enlisted Leonard to compose the film's score, as suggested by Madonna.[3]

Leonard was working with Michael Jackson, on some transcriptions for his Bad album, when Penn called him to come to Foley's home. There he asked Leonard who would sing the track, since it was written from a man's perspective.[1] Leonard, although he had initially envisioned a male voice interpreting the song,[3] decided to use Madonna as the main vocalist and used the demo version as the main vocal with backup drums only.[1] He later recalled that "it was so innocent and so shy. It's as naive, as raw, as raw can be and that's part of what gave it all its charm."[3][4] In a 1986 interview, Madonna said that the mood on the song was inspired by a different facet of her image makeover and her desire to focus on something different.[5]


"Live to Tell" is a pop ballad, with background instrumentation from a keyboard, a synthesizer, a funk guitar and a mix of synthesized and real drumming.[6] According to the sheet music published at by Alfred Publishing, the song is written in the key of F major, is set in common time and moves at a moderate tempo of 112 beats per minute.[7] The song starts with an instrumental introduction, performed by a synthesizer with the bass pedals set on D minor. Then the key suddenly changes to its relative major, F.[8]

Madonna's vocal range spans almost one octave from F3 to D4.[7] As she begins to sing the first verse, the bass pedal changes to C major, changes back to F during the chorus, and back to D minor during the chorus closure.[8] This process is repeated during the second verse and chorus, which abruptly ends in a silence, with only the low and lifeless sound of the synthesizer, set in D minor. Madonna then starts to sing the bridge (or middle part) -- "If I ran away, I'd never have the strength" -- between the tonal keys of D and F, closing with the repetition of the chorus until the song gradually fades out.[8] The original composition of the song did not have the background synths, instead Leonard created a basic structure on piano, and Madonna added the words on top of it. According to Leonard, Madonna came up with the bridge by herself, extending it from the music that he was playing.[2]

Lyrically, "Live to Tell" portrays the complexity of deceit and mistrust.[6] The song is also about childhood scars and had an extreme emotional pitch.[9] According to the book The Heart of Rock & Soul by Dave Marsh, the archetype of songs like "Live to Tell" is The Platters' song "The Great Pretender".[6] In an interview about the song, Madonna said, "I thought about my relationship with my parents and the lying that went on. The song is about being strong, and questioning whether you can be that strong but ultimately surviving."[10]

Critical response

Madonna performing a medley of "Live to Tell" and "Oh Father" during the Blond Ambition World Tour in 1990

"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".[11] Jim Farber from Entertainment Weekly called the song "her best ballad to date".[12] 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".[13] 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".[14] 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".[15]Edna Gundersen from USA Today called the song "a moody heart-tugger, may be her best song ever."[16]

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."[17] 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.[18] J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of Madonna: An Intimate Biography, was pleased with the track, denoting it as a vehicle of growth for Madonna.[19] 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?"[20]Rolling Stone called the song "as cutting as it is melancholic" and said that it was "arguably [Madonna's] finest and most distinctive ballad."[21]

Chart performance

"Live to Tell" was released in the United States in March 1986. It debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 49,[22] reaching the top position eight weeks later, where it remained for one week. It became Madonna's third number-one single in the US,[23] and her second number-one that is featured in a film after "Crazy for You".[24] The song was a crossover success, topping the Adult Contemporary chart for three weeks,[25] and peaking at number three on the Hot Dance Singles Sales chart.[26] In Canada the song debuted at number 79 of the RPM singles chart in April 1986,[27] and reached the top of the chart for two weeks in May 1986,[28] staying on the chart for a total of 23 weeks,[29] It was ranked at the second position of the 1986 RPM Singles year-end chart.[30]

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.[31] It was held from the top spot by Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus".[32] "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.[33] According to the Official Charts Company, the song has sold 280,000 copies in the UK.[34]

Across Europe, "Live to Tell" topped the Eurochart Hot 100 for two weeks, and the singles chart in Italy,[35] as well as peaking inside the top ten in Belgium, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland.[36][37][38][39] It was also certified silver by the Syndicat National de l'Édition Phonographique (SNEP) for shipment of 250,000 copies in France.[40]

Music video

The portrait of a young blond woman. She sports flowing blond hair and a black dress. She has a sad expression on her face which is illuminated by a single source of light.
Madonna in the music video for "Live to Tell", showing her first image makeover

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.[41] 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.[42] In an interview with music critic Stephen Holden from The New York Times, she commented about her new look:[42][43]

"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 the song's video. David Naylor and Sharon Oreck were in charge of the production.[44] 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.[45]

Live performances

Refer to caption
Madonna performing "Live to Tell" during her 2006 Confessions Tour while wearing a crown of thorns and an orange blouse.

Madonna premiered the song at a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden to raise money for medical research for AIDS. She dedicated the song to the memory of her friend, artist Martin Burgoyne.[1] Madonna has since performed the song on three of her world tours. In 1987, during the Who's That Girl World Tour, she performed the song standing motionless in a single spotlight,[46] wearing a black ensemble with tassels, golden tips and ribbing, designed by Marlene Stewart.[47] Two different performances of the song on this tour can be found on the videos: Who's That Girl: Live in Japan, filmed in Tokyo, Japan, on June 22, 1987,[48] and Ciao Italia: Live from Italy, filmed in Turin, Italy, on September 4, 1987.[49]

Three years later on her Blond Ambition World Tour, Madonna evoked Catholic images during the performance. She wore a black kaftan and a neon crucifix, while singing on a confession bench, with Roman columns and a platform full of votive candles in the background.[50] Two different performances were taped and released on video, the Blond Ambition Japan Tour 90, taped in Yokohama, Japan, on April 27, 1990,[51] and the Blond Ambition World Tour Live, taped in Nice, France, on August 5, 1990.[52]

Madonna's performance of the song during the 2006 Confessions Tour was controversial. She was raised from the floor hanging on a mirrored cross wearing a red blouse and velvet pants, with a crown of thorns on her head.[53] During the performance, the number 12 million flashed above her on the stage's backdrop screens, along with images of African children. This was intended to detail the estimated number of children who have been orphaned by the AIDS pandemic in Africa.[54][55]

German prosecutors in Düsseldorf threatened to sue her for blasphemy, and Protestant bishop Margot Käßmann said that "maybe the only way an aging superstar can attract attention is to offend people's religious sentiments."[56] The Russian Orthodox Church and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR) described Madonna's performance as amoral, and urged all members to boycott her upcoming concert in Moscow.[57] The performance at Rome's Olympic Stadium--located near the Vatican--was condemned as an act of hostility toward the Roman Catholic Church by religious leaders.[58] Italian cardinal Ersilio Tonini called the concert "a blasphemous challenge to the faith" and a "profanation of the cross", also calling for Madonna to be excommunicated. Reverend Manfredo Leone described it as "disrespectful, in bad taste and provocative".[59]

Muslim and Jewish leaders also criticized the performance. Mario Scialoja, the head of Italy's Muslim League commented "I think her idea is in the worst taste and she'd do better to go home." Riccardo Pacifici, the spokesman for Rome's Jewish community said "It's a disrespectful act, and to do it in Rome is even worse."[60] Madonna released a statement about the controversy:[61]

I am very grateful that my show was so well received all over the world. But there seems to be many misinterpretations about my appearance on the cross and I wanted to explain it myself once and for all.
There is a segment in my show where three of my dancers 'confess' or share harrowing experiences from their childhood that they ultimately overcame. My 'confession' follows and takes place on a Crucifix that I ultimately come down from. This is not a mocking of the church. It is no different than a person wearing a Cross or 'Taking Up the Cross' as it says in the Bible. My performance is neither anti-Christian, sacrilegious or blasphemous. Rather, it is my plea to the audience to encourage mankind to help one another and to see the world as a unified whole. I believe in my heart that if Jesus were alive today he would be doing the same thing.
My specific intent is to bring attention to the millions of children in Africa who are dying every day, and are living without care, without medicine and without hope. I am asking people to open their hearts and minds to get involved in whatever way they can. The song ends with a quote from the Bible's Book of Matthew: 'For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me and God replied, "Whatever you did for the least of my brothers... you did it to me.'
Please do not pass judgement without seeing my show.

Cover versions and usage in media

"Live to Tell" has been covered by numerous artists. In 1992, American guitarist Bill Frisell covered the song in his fourth album, Have a Little Faith.[62] In 1998, Blonde Ambition released a dance single of the song featuring 6 different hi-NRG remix versions.[63] Italian singer Lucrezia made an uptempo dance version of the song that was remixed by David Morales. It peaked at number two for two weeks on Billboards Hot Dance Club Play,[64] and was included in the 2001 album Logic Pride, Vol. 4.[65] Canadian jazz singer Carol Welsman, covered it on her eponymous 2007 album.[66]

New wave band Berlin covered the song for the 1999 album Virgin Voices: A Tribute to Madonna, Vol. 1.[67] In an interview with CNN, Berlin's lead vocalist Terri Nunn said that the tribute was necessary, commenting that "she [Madonna] has influenced a lot of people", adding that "Live to Tell" is the only song from Madonna that she would touch.[68] Other covers of the song on tribute albums include Semi Moore on The Material Girl: A Tribute to Madonna, released in 2000,[69] an instrumental version on the 2002 album The String Quartet Tribute to Madonna,[70] a folk version by Winter Flowers on the 2007 album Through the Wilderness,[71] and a hi-NRG version by Melissa Totten on her 2008 album, Forever Madonna.[72] In the American police procedural television series Cold Case, the song features in the finale of the first season episode "Churchgoing People".[73]

Formats and track listing

  • US / Canada / Germany / UK 7" single[74]
  1. "Live to Tell" (Edit) - 4:37
  2. "Live to Tell" (Instrumental) - 5:49
  • US / Canada / Germany / UK 12" maxi-single
  1. "Live to Tell" (LP Version) - 5:49
  2. "Live to Tell" (Edit) - 4:37
  3. "Live to Tell" (Instrumental) - 5:49
  • Germany / UK CD Maxi Single (1995)
  1. "Live to Tell" (LP Version) - 5:49
  2. "Live to Tell" (Edit) - 4:37
  3. "Live to Tell" (Instrumental) - 5:49

Credits and personnel

Credits adapted from the album's liner notes.[75]



Region Certification Certified units/Sales
Japan (Oricon Charts) 23,850[95]
France (SNEP)[40] Silver 250,000*
United Kingdom (BPI)[33] Silver 280,000[34]

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone

See also


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External links

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