The great thing about music is you’re never alone. However obscure your opinion, there’s always at least one other person in the world who shares it.
I was reminded of that the other day when I heard a breakfast show DJ ask their studio companions what their favourite Madonna song was. The sports reporter’s reflex action was to blurt out “Borderline”.
For me it was a bit like that TV programme a few years ago when UK TV viewers were asked to vote for our favourite Abba song. Despite Abba’s huge catalogue of massive hits to choose from, the number one choice was “The Winner Takes It All”.
On the one hand I was gratified that my personal favourite track was top of that particular chart, although as the programme had counted down through the top 10 I remember thinking it was a shame my favourite track hadn’t even made the cut into the top 10.
But I was also surprised that a somewhat atypical, rather dark song about the end of a romance was more popular than, say “Mamma Mia”, “Dancing Queen” or “Knowing Me, Knowing You”. I was surprised, but for the first time, I knew I wasn’t alone…
I got the same feeling when the sports reporter blurted out “Borderline” as her favourite Madonna song. I thought it was only me who would single it out from Madonna’s extensive catalogue of monster hits including “Vogue”, “Like A Virgin” and “Like A Prayer”.
Love her or hate her, Madonna is a hit-making machine. When “Borderline” hit Billboard’s Top 10 in 1984, she kicked off a 17-record run of consecutive US Top 10 entries…an achievement only bettered in US chart history by Janet Jackson, who managed 18.
Not to be out-done, of course, after a short gap, Madonna notched up another 21 US Top 10 hits. The Guinness Book of World Records has her as the best-selling female artist of all time, she’s the most successful solo artist in the history of the Billboard charts…and second only to the Beatles amongst artists of any kind, and she’s sold over 300 million records during her career.
And out of probably the widest spectrum of possible choices in popular music, both the BBC’s sports reporter and I would immediately blurt out “Borderline” if you asked us what our favourite Madonna song was. It’s good to know I’m not alone…
In itself, “Borderline” is quite a sweet, charming song with one of those melodies that really draws you in. Listening back now, you might sniff at the 80s synth-pop backing track a little, but it is an extremely well-done version of that occasionally grating musical style which I think has stood the test of time very nicely.
And unlike some of the material that followed, the “Borderline” song itself wasn’t especially controversial. The video, with its depiction of an inter-racial love affair, was considered by some to be a little racy for 1980s MTV but, as Madonna has managed in so many other ways during her long career, it attracted controversy whilst remaining broadcast-able…quite an achievement in itself, and definitely one of Madonna’s special talents.
“Borderline” is about a girl liking a guy who’s driving her crazy because she cares for him and he seems pretty indifferent about the whole thing. She never knows where she stands…
Something in the way you love me won’t let me be
I don’t want to be your prisoner so baby won’t you set me free
Stop playing with my heart, finish what you start
When you make my love come down
If you want me let me know
Baby let it show
Honey don’t you fool around
What makes this familiar tale of “girl likes guy…guy prefers to play the field” different, apart from the wonderful melodies, is the expression “borderline”.
I’ve not checked in the dictionary, but clearly this is intended to mean something like “breaking point” or “a line in the sand”. It’s not the same as “border” which makes most people think of passport controls and duty free shopping. In fact, the only place I know where the expression “borderline” is used regularly is in education where a “borderline pass” means someone who is right on the cusp of a pass or fail grade.
Yet none of those expressions reflect the full meaning of the word here. It’s not any one of those things, but it’s somehow all of them together, plus a bit more for good measure.
I’m not sure why the expression resonates with me in quite the way it does…although I so wish I was creative enough to invent entirely new words. For me it’s one of the most delicious parts of an already delightful song. I take my hat off to songwriter Reggie Lucas for that one…
The other great thing Reggie Lucas does is decide not to parcel the story up neatly so that by the end everyone is living happily ever after. Nor does he confirm they’ve broken up for good. Most pop songs are mini-three act plays, so there’s always a temptation to wrap up the story by the three-minute mark.
But Reggie Lucas leaves the ending to our own imaginations, which I’ve always liked in a song. There are some great songs that spell the story out for you, but those that get you thinking “I wonder if they ever did get together?” are somehow more intriguing…
Something in your eyes is making such a fool of me
When you hold me in your arms you love me till I just can’t see
But then you let me down, when I look around, baby you just can’t be found
Stop driving me away, I just wanna stay
There’s something I just gotta say
In a nutshell, what she’s got to say is that his apparent indifference is driving her crazy.
And I think we can all identify with that. We’ve all had someone we’ve wanted to get close to who isn’t interested in us. Sure, they take what they want for as long as we’ll let them. But ultimately it takes very little for them to drop out of our lives, never to be seen again.
Which they always do sooner or later. The only question is how much heartache they’re going to cause before they finally “exit stage left” for good.
All you need to remember is this…if you’ve got someone pushing you over the borderline, playing with your mind, getting you to doubt yourself, the best thing you can do is get out of there as fast as you can before they take your soul for good. Because sooner or later they will and you’ll be trapped inside their world…on their terms, and with no thought to what you might want out of life…for good.
The longer you plead with them to stay…the more you ask them not to push you away…the more often you take them back no matter what they’ve done…that’s when they know they’ve got you right where they want you.
Don’t let anyone push you over your borderline…you’re far too good for that. Everyone is.
Here’s Madonna with her first Billboard Top 10 single…whilst not her biggest hit or even her first hit, “Borderline” was in many ways the song that launched the longest and one of the most successful careers in popular music.
Where would the soundtrack of our lives be without her…
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published. And why not check out my book “No Words, No Song”, where I write about more great songs like this one, available in the Kindle Bookstore (here).