The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Breaking a Sweat, Madonna, and the Creative Process

How much of Madonna's enduring creativity is linked to her physical stamina?

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Madonna’s critically acclaimed Like a Prayer album. I remember Tuesday March 21, 1989 when the album was released like it was yesterday. I was living in the West Village at the time and walked over to Tower Records on Broadway and 4th Street to buy the vinyl LP, digital CD, and cassette the minute the doors opened. The year 1989 was a transitory year for music formats. Tower Records literally had to stock vinyl, cassettes, and CDs for every new album.

The first thing that hit me when I opened the cassette to put it into my Walkman was the smell of patchouli wafting out into the Manhattan air on the first day of spring. Listening to the cassette and smelling the patchouli as I walked over to the Printing House gym on Hudson Street created indelible memories. When I flipped the cassette over after hearing Promise to Try and heard Cherish for the first time, I knew instantly that the emotional range of the lyrics combined with musical brilliance would make the Like a Prayer album a classic.

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Madonna has stayed on top for three decades. Forbes magazine named Madonna the top-earning celebrity of 2013. Between June of 2012 and June of 2013 Madonna earned an estimated $125 million. While other pop stars of the 80s have tragically imploded, Madonna remains a supernova. What is the neuroscience behind her daily routines that has given her the resilience, chutzpah, and creative juice to keep going strong for over 30 years?

On a rainy Sunday night back in 1983, I went to see Madonna perform at a small nightclub in Boston called the Metro and it changed my adolescent life as a gay teen. In my book, The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, I thank Madonna in the acknowledgments saying, “Thank you for laying the brain chips of excellence and fearlessness in my head when I was seventeen and for being rocket fuel during every workout ever since."

Madonna’s Physicality and Exercise Regimen Sets Her Mind and Body Apart

I have a few quotes in The Athlete's Way by Madonna. One of them is, “I’ve never been a very passive person. Physicality, feeling strong, feeling empowered was my ticket out of middle-class Midwest culture. So I equate movement and strength with freedom.” The fact that Madonna’s roots are as a dancer and a drummer make sense from a neuroscientific perspective.

Madonna has always been known as an exercise fanatic. It’s no coincidence that Madonna is one of the healthiest, and most fit celebrities and also tops the Forbes list of 2013's highest earners and continues to be a creative powerhouse. When you look at the daily routines of highly successful people who don’t burn out, regular physical activity is most often a key ingredient to their longevity. If you don’t exercise a little bit most days of the week your body and brain will atrophy.

I believe there is a link between aerobic activity and creativity. If you look at the daily routines of creative greats, many of them have their "Eureka!" moments when they are being physically active. Albert Einstein said famously of E=mc2: "I thought of it while riding my bicycle."

If you'd like to read more on the link between exercise and creativity check out my Psychology Today blog post "The Neuroscience of Imagination."

The fact that Madonna is one of the most physically active songwriters and has remained prolific for three decades is not a coincidence. In fact, this week Madonna is back in the studio and collaborating on new tracks with Sweden's Avicii for her next album.

Nobody understands the songwriting process better than Paul Zollo, who was editor in chief of SongTalk. I first discovered his writing in an interview he did with Madonna surrounding the making of the Like a Prayer album. For anyone interested in a behind the scenes look at the creative songwriting process this interview is a must read.

From an exercise and neuroscience perspective, I was fascinated to hear Madonna describing the importance of staying connected to the world by running outside and how this kept her creative juices flowing. She compares herself to Michael Jackson at one point saying that his isolation created a vacuum that might have led to disconnection.

Yesterday, Billboard magazine published a detailed interview with Patrick Leonard who produced and co-wrote many of the songs for the album to commemorate the quarter century anniversary of Like a Prayer. The interview is a perfect complement to the interview that Madonna did with Paul Zollo back in 1989. If you'd like to read the interview in its entirety here is the link. Again, if you are interested in the nitty gritty details of the creative and collaborative process this interview is a must read.

What stood out most to me from the in depth interview with Patrick Leonard was that he had a gym in the recording studio and would work out early in the morning before laying down any tracks for the Like a Prayer album. I was also fascinated by the way that Madonna's intuition complemented Leonard's almost mathematical musical training and genius. 

Conclusion: How Was Like a Prayer Created at Such Lightning Speed?

Madonna and Patrick Leonard basically created the Like a Prayer album in two weeks. How is that possible? The most interesting aspect of comparing these interviews was in the synergy that is created when two songwriters with different strengths and talents collaborate seamlessly. Patrick Leonard and Madonna created superfluidity. If you'd like to watch a live performance of superfluidity in action, check out this video of Madonna performing the title track during the Blonde Ambition tour. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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