“I Want You”: A Tribute To Madonna’s Most Lonely Hit That Never Was, 20 Years Later

I’ve been thinking a lot about Madonna in the past 24 hours since the Cape Yank Heard ‘Round The World at the BRIT Awards last night.

To be fair, having Madge on the brain is nothing new. But since she’s got everybody talking yet again, I figured this would be a good excuse to do a #TBT for one of my favorite underrated Madge moments, just ’cause.

For years now, “I Want You” has been one of my main go-to ‘feeling all the feelings’ tracks, usually used to unwind late at night after a long day of arguing with strangers on the Internet or come down from a particularly terrible night out. (As a result, I listen to it a lot.)

To rewind for a moment for the newly initiated: “I Want You” isn’t an original song. It’s a Marvin Gaye cover, originally recorded for a compilation called Inner City Blues: The Music of Marvin Gaye released in October of 1995.

While not often deemed as iconic as her ’80’s dance-pop reign, the sexual emancipation of Erotica and her Kabbalah-fueled spiritual resurgence with Ray Of Light, the mid-’90’s provided some of Madonna’s most exciting and experimental moments, like the wonderfully bonkers, time-traveling Björk-penned excursion “Bedtime Story” and that hair-raising performance on the BRITs exactly 20 years ago.

“I Want You,” too, was born during this particularly left-lane era when trip-hop troupe Massive Attack reached out to Madge to provide vocals on their forthcoming cover for the Marvin Gaye compilation. (That is, after their initial two picks for the song, Chaka Khan and Aaron Neville, reportedly both failed to come through. Third times a charm!)

There’s an undeniably hypnotic appeal to Madonna’s sullen, sensual take on the ode to unrequited love: That opening trickle that shivers down the speakers. The almost ominous, tripping electronic beats. The cinematic strings. And of course, those vocals, oh-so-slowly and seductively lingering from syllable to syllable. “Ay, ay-ay-ay…

“I want you the right way/I want you, but I want you to want me too…”

The genius of “I Want You” doesn’t stop at the song, either: The video, too, is quietly one of her best.

The Earle Sebastian-directed black and white clip is based on The Telephone Call, a short story by Dorothy Parker which explores the inner thoughts of an overly obsessive woman impatiently awaiting her (possibly imagined?) lover’s call. As the story goes on, she steadily devolves into a kind of frantic insanity, pondering whether or not to call, questioning whether or not she was actually meant to call first, wondering if he might have died and calling on God for strength while trying to stay cool — basically the plot of Britney‘s “Perfume.” It’s worth the read, while you’re here.

PLEASE, God, let him telephone me now. Dear God, let him call me now. I won’t ask anything else of You, truly I won’t. It isn’t very much to ask. It would be so little to You, God, such a little, little thing. Only let him telephone now. Please, God. Please, please, please.

Left to sulk all alone in her boudoir, Lady M makes the business of anxiously pacing around the room utterly captivating for the entire length of the song — fiddling with that phone, trying on outfits and agonizing against the wall. Even a false lash floating down inside a glass of water feels mesmerizing.

And that ending is so undeniably Madonna: The phone rings. At last! She lifts the receiver slowly, and then…


…She just can’t. In fact, she takes the phone off the hook completely. And we’ll never quite know why. The drama of it all!

Along with its inclusion on the Marvin Gaye album, the song was also included on Madonna’s ballads collection, Something To Remember, and even planned as the album’s lead single. Naturally, there was some sort of kerfuffle between Madge’s label and Motown Records, which meant the song was never commercially released despite plans to do, including already commissioned remixes and the video. As a result, “I Want You” has the distinction of being the only non-single with a video in Madonna’s career.

While Madonna’s career-defining hits like “Vogue,” “Express Yourself” and “Ray Of Light” still speak for themselves decades later, “I Want You” sadly (and somewhat ironically) creeps in the shadows twenty years later as an overlooked one-way love affair…although I don’t think she ever really did forget about that phone call.

Don’t play with something you should cherish for life. Oh baby, don’t you want to care? Ain’t it lonely out there?

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