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Open Your Heart: The Story Behind Madonna’s First Art-Pop “Performance” Song
Warner Music
In Depth

Open Your Heart: The Story Behind Madonna’s First Art-Pop “Performance” Song

The fourth single from the ‘True Blue’ album, Open Your Heart found Madonna creating her most ambitious artistic statement yet.

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The global phenomenon that was Madonna’s True Blue album spawned five hit singles in total. By the time she came to release the fourth of these, the dance-pop ballad Open Your Heart, the “Queen Of Pop” could have been forgiven for playing it safe. Instead, however, she pushed boundaries yet again, and, with the song’s iconic promo video, created her most ambitious artistic statement to date.

And yet things were almost very different for a track that had initially been written for another artist. This is the story of how Madonna took a song inspired by a health-food restaurant and turned it into a smash hit single that had fans opening their hearts to her all over again.

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Gardner Cole and Peter Rafelson wrote Open Your Heart with another singer in mind

What is certainly one of Madonna’s best-loved and most-streamed 80s hits wasn’t even written for her. Songwriters and producers Gardner Cole and Peter Rafelson had written Open Your Heart with a plan to pass it on to Cyndi Lauper – then routinely pitched against Madonna as a fierce rival – but the Girls Just Want To Have Fun hitmaker never even got to hear it. Soul act The Temptations, then still signed to Motown, had already put the song on hold, but later abandoned the songwriters’ demo when they heard Madonna had cut her version. In ironic timing, Open Your Heart was eventually released as a single at the same time as Lauper’s Change Of Heart, which peaked at No.3 in the US, below the song that became Madonna’s seventh overall No.1.

The song also started life with a different title

Gardner Cole later revealed that Open Your Heart had originally been given a different name – Follow Your Heart – and that he had been inspired by a sign in the unlikeliest of locations. “I got the title from a local health food restaurant,” Cole told Fred Bronson, author of The Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, referring to what started out as a sandwich counter in Canoga Park, California, and which is now a global vegan and vegetarian food company. That inspiration did not immediately lead to the hit we are all familiar with today.

“Peter and I usually write very quickly – it’s usually a day or two a song,” Cole continued. “But, for some reason, this didn’t really hit us as a hit song. We didn’t give up on it. We just kept working on it over the course of a year. Thank God we did!”

The pair’s management passed a handful of songs to Madonna’s team, and Open Your Heart was the one they chose to record. “Open Your Heart was the song I thought would be the least likely she would choose,” Cole later told Bronson. “The original version didn’t really fit into what Madonna was doing at the time.”

Open Your Heart was the first song recorded for the ‘True Blue’ album

Early recordings for albums – certainly back in the pre-digital era – were routinely abandoned as creative directions evolved, thanks in part to the restrictions artists faced on running times, which were limited by the amount of music that could be made to fit across two sides of vinyl. Open Your Heart was the first track to be recorded for True Blue, but producer Patrick Leonard (picking up the duties on the “Queen Of Pop”’s third studio outing) and Madonna cleverly added a heavy bassline to the mix that positioned it as a cut with club potential.

“It made me nervous as a writer,” admitted Cole. “Because a lot of times the very first song that gets cut doesn’t make it in the long run, but the song ended up making the album, which really opened up a lot of doors for me.”

The song continued Madonna’s dominance of the global charts

Released in the US on 12 November 1986 (and following on 1 December in the UK), Open Your Heart maintained Madonna’s phenomenal run of No.1 hit singles. While True Blue’s title track had peaked at No.3 stateside (after two consecutive No.1s, with Live To Tell and Papa Don’t Preach), Open Your Heart topped the Billboard Hot 100 on 7 February 1987. In the UK, the single made No.4, and it also topped the US club charts and European airplay listings.

Open Your Heart’s classic promo video represented an artistic step forward for the star

By 1986, the “Queen Of Pop” was also reigning over MTV, with her success driven as much by her masterful understanding of the new pop-video medium as by her music. For the Open Your Heart promo, Madonna collaborated with director Jean-Baptiste Mondino on a Los Angeles-based shoot that saw her explore her most ambitious artistic themes yet. With styling influenced by Cabaret, and a nod towards the Charlie Chaplin classic The Kid at the end, Madonna experimented with the politics of gender identity like never before; the more adult themes of her hit 1989 song Like A Prayer, and the theatrical flair of 1990’s legendary Blond Ambition World Tour both have their genesis here.

The clip wowed the critics, received nominations for three MTV Video Awards and is now regarded as one of the best Madonna promo videos, in a lengthy canon that contains many classics that stand among the greatest music videos of the 80s. Open Your Heart also gave a step-up to child model Felix Howard, the young boy who starred in the video and would go on to co-host British TV’s iconic music show The Tube.

The song opened 1987’s Who’s That Girl World Tour and became a live favourite

Open Your Heart was the first sight most fans got of Madonna on her first international tour. The Who’s That Girl World Tour, titled for the 1987 soundtrack album of the same name, opened in Japan in June 1987 and saw Madonna recreate the styling of Open Your Heart’s hit video – a look that is arguably one of the “Queen Of Pop”’s most familiar from her imperial platinum-pop reign of the late 80s.

The song turned up again on the Blond Ambition Tour, before being rested until 2012’s MDNA dates, for which it was radically reworked as a folk number. At her Super Bowl halftime show of the same year, Madonna sang snippets of Open Your Heart during the CeeLo Green segment. The “Queen Of Pop” also performed the track as part of the Celebration tour, which was billed as her first greatest-hits show and opened in London in October 2023. Revisiting some of the 1986 video’s iconic choreography, she used a chair once more as a dance prop.

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