My songs of 2019 are in no particular order except that I’d probably place God Control at number one. I think it’s one of the best things Madonna has ever done and find it remarkable she’s releasing music like this almost 40 years into her career. It’s a towering testament to what pop music is capable of and a necessary reminder of what Madonna brings to the game. If one of the current pop divas had released it I think it would be topping end of year lists everywhere, because it’s exactly what we need more of in these dark times: soaring, ambitious, political pop.
I got an e-mail from someone regarding people who were planning on voting Liberal Democrat and some of the standard anti-Corbyn talking points you hear wheeled out: that he’s ‘weak’, that he ‘hasn’t done anything’, that Labour would be doing better under a different leader and all the rest. I started to write a paragraph in response and it turned into something a bit longer, so I thought I may as well post a slightly modified version of it here.
Photos and videos of Christina Aguilera at SSE Arena are here.
Photos and videos from last night are here.
I must confess that I am usually drawn to sadness and loneliness has never been a stranger to me
– Love Tried To Welcome Me, Madonna.
A lot has happened since 2015. Trump was elected. Brexit. A general sense that the world is on fire. Bowie died. Prince died. And Madonna reached the age of 60, living in Lisbon as one of the last remaining icons from an era where pop stars were globe-straddling alien creatures moulding pop culture in their own image.
2015 was when Madonna released her last album, Rebel Heart, and I wrote then about how ageism had joined misogyny in framing responses to her for daring to be “an ageing woman making contemporary pop/dance music”. Rebel Heart was far from perfect but it found an artist, who “has always taken pop music seriously and approached it sincerely”, determined not to become a nostalgia act or a camp relic. The album saw Madonna moving forward, but somewhat falteringly – she frequently referenced her past, almost finding strength from it in the midst of a bewildering pop culture landscape where she no longer ruled the roost. It was notable, however, that the song with the most profound things to say about this, the elegiac Queen, was removed from the album at the last minute. I’ve mused to others that perhaps it felt too resigned, too much like a full-stop on a glorious career, and the arrival of Madame X only lends weight to this theory.
Madonna has spoken about how Madame X has its roots in her move to Lisbon, a city where she found herself largely alone, and lonely. Others have already noted the parallel with her move to New York alone at the age of 19 and another jump into the unknown (albeit as an enormously famous and wealthy adult) seems to have rejuvenated Madonna. Fortune led her to a community of artists and musicians – music does indeed make the people come together – and Madonna not only found a home, she rediscovered herself . It makes sense, then, that the name ‘Madame X’ apparently harks back to her time spent as a teenager at Martha Graham’s dance school in New York. It’s something she makes clear in Madame X’s opening track, the understated Medellin:
I went back to my 17th year, allowed myself to be naïve, to be someone I’d never been…another me could now begin.
Where Rebel Heart was faltering, Madame X is bold and hungry. Living alone in Lisbon appears to have done wonders for Madonna’s sense of who she is and why she’s an artist. As she sings in Extreme Occident, she’s realised that:
I wasn’t lost, it was a different feeling, a mix of lucidity and craziness. But I wasn’t lost, you believe me – I was right and I’ve got the right to choose my own life.
There’s a gorgeous moment on Crave, a modern ballad which would be a smash for any younger artist, where Madonna sings “This is how I’m made – I’m not afraid” and it feels like a key point on the album, a statement of both self-acceptance and intent.
What does Madonna understand that she does best, then? She told us in her moving speech accepting the Advocate for Change award from GLAAD, speaking about her response to the AIDS crisis:
I had to get in the frontline, whatever the cost…I decided to use my fame to make even more noise, to fight for more research and more money and more awareness and more compassion and provoke and make trouble. Because that’s what I do best.
She ends the speech by stating, ‘Madame X is a freedom fighter’ and on the album, Madonna’s creative hunger manifests itself not only in the daring music but also a determination to speak out about a United States of America, and a world, at a very dangerous point in history. In the GLAAD speech, she spoke of her frustration at wanting people to DO SOMETHING to fight AIDS. In Madame X, she has the same feeling about current politics. How can you prioritise your own commercial and critical acclaim when everything around you is exploding and you want to scream it from the rooftops? It’s no surprise, then, that Madonna returned to the producer Mirwais, with whom she made her most musically daring, and political, work. The foreboding Dark Ballet, one of the most experimental tracks she’s ever released, finds her declaring:
…keep your beautiful words cos I’m not concerned…cos your world is such a shame, cos your world’s obsessed with fame…cos your world is up in flames…can’t you hear outside of your Supreme hoodie, the wind that’s beginning to howl?
It leads directly into God Control, a glorious melange of disco, Tom Tom Club-style rapping and children’s choir which is a state of the nation address (“this is your wake-up call!”) that somehow feels both angry and euphoric. It is Madonna firing on all cylinders and the most adventurous she’s sounded in years.
Indeed, despite the sometimes dark and desperate themes of the album, Madonna sounds at ease with herself. I suppose she has to be. I wrote in 2015 about how her life as an artist would be a lot easier if she played the game and acted like the Madonna a lot of the general public want her to be – knocking out retreads of Confessions on a Dance Floor, doing greatest hits tours, keeping her opinions to herself and generally knowing her place. As she sang on the title track of Rebel Heart, “why can’t you be like the other girls? I said ‘oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think that it’ll ever be.” It’s a position she restates here but with a sense of assuredness. The electro-fado of Killers Who Are Partying has attracted much ire for her statements of solidarity with gay people, with Muslims, with the developing world, but it’s the chorus, where she tells us “I know what I am and I know what I’m not” and sings in Portugese “the world is wide, the path is lonely”, that is key. The joyful, airy-light Come Alive, meanwhile, testifies to her resurgent determination to forge her own path (“see the world, haven’t seen it all, I wanna see its dreams…I can’t react how you thought I’d react, I would never for you”).
It’s a theme most movingly expressed in I Don’t Search I Find, a deliberate nod to her early-90s house-influenced period which feels like an ‘I can still do this whenever I want’ nod to those who constantly demand ‘bangers’ from her, carrying a message that actually, she doesn’t really need their approval anymore:
…in the end, we accept it. We shake hands with our fate and we walk past. There’s no rest for us in this world. Finally, enough love.
Madonna knows the power of escapist music in dark times, going so far in the bonus track Funana to summon a litany of music icons who’ve left us:
We need Elvis and Bob Marley, we need Whitney, we need James Brown, tonight we go dancing, our souls are starving, let’s get together, happiness my darling.
But Madonna also knows, as she sings in Future, that “not everyone is coming to the future, not everyone is learning from the past”. When it comes to her, she’s ok with that – she has a much bigger future on her mind, one where she worries (as she asks The Batukadeiras Orchestra on feminist anthem Batuka) “when we can stop it all in the right way, will we stand together?”
Madame X is a Madonna taking flight and up for the fight. It’s no accident that the album ends with I Rise, an electronic power ballad which again references gun control and political engagement by opening with a clip of Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez. Madonna knows she has little to gain by speaking up. She knows that she’ll be attacked for being too old, too irrelevant, too out-of-touch, too desperate. She knows that and she doesn’t care because she feels her job as an artist is to speak up, no matter what.
Madame X has been largely well-received critically but it’s been notable how even many of the positive reviews have been begrudging “well this is a lot better than we would have expected from a 60-year old woman” shrugs rather than celebrations of an artist who is not only still taking creative risks but also addressing our times in a way which almost none of the artists dominating the charts in 2019 do. But no matter. Madonna’s legacy is secure and she nears her 5th decade as a pop star, she’s made a brave, vital and brilliant album. Madame X is alive and she’s taking no prisoners.
Tomorrow the European elections that might never have been take place and, as with much of the politics of Breixt, it’s a total shitshow. The far-right continue their resurgence, hitching their wagons to the narrative of a ‘Brexit betrayal’ and asking voters to send a message by voting for the Brexit Party. With something of a depressing inevitability, evangelical remainers continue the absolutely clueless tactics which have defined their cause by being happy to feed this narrative by also turning the elections into a proxy referendum and demanding people vote to ‘stop Brexit’. The Tories, hamstrung by the continued zombie presence of Theresa May and The Deal That Would Not Die, are haemorrhaging votes to the Brexit Party while Labour, the only party which actually attempts to recognise the referendum result while acknowledging how close it was by advocating a softer Brexit, finds itself squeezed by the Brexiteers and Remainiacs on either side.
I wrote before the Scottish independence referendum that I thought it posed a dangerous moment for the left, with the potential to lead it down a cul-de-sac. I think that has largely come to pass and the treatment of every election in Scotland as a proxy for that referendum has seen a centrist SNP remain dominant, stoking the notion that Scotland as a country is ill-treated by ‘Westminster’ and constantly danging the prospect of another vote in front of it’s the indy faithful to keep them on board. The dominance of the constitutional question has also led to something of a resurgence for the Tories in Scotland, fuelled by them portraying themselves as unionist-ultras. Thus we find Scottish politics caught in a mutually-beneficial stranglehold of competing nationalisms, while Labour’s attempts to focus on ‘domestic issues’ (boring things like child poverty) and a muddy offer on the constitution see it slip through the cracks.
There is zero doubt in my mind that the attempts to reorient UK politics, and elections, along the axis of leave/remain offer a similar dead-end for the left. Indeed, since 2016 we’ve already seen a shift away from a critical support for remain on the basis that it was the best option at that time (in the context of a Tory government and resurgent nativist politics) to a strident, moralising certainty that remaining in the EU is the fount of all goodness and that anyone who accepts the referendum result is some wicked enemy. People have built identities around their desire to ‘remain’ in the EU and it’s an identity which ignores the many negatives of the EU, and the enormous complexity of the Brexit context, to simply assert that ‘remain = goodness’.
The ‘moderates’, meanwhile, continue the disingenuous opportunism which so characterises them by portraying themselves as noble anti-racists fighting to ‘stop Brexit’ to protect the most vulnerable in society. It’s irrelevant that their politics offered ‘controls on immigration’ which got more and more restrictive; it’s irrelevant that their politics largely offered support for an EU referendum; it’s irrelevant that their politics offered a ‘remain and reform’ which largely seemed to mean ‘ending freedom of movement’ and it’s irrelevant that their politics has offered a decade of austerity which has already harmed the most vulnerable in society. I don’t believe that most of these people actually care about whether or not Brexit will harm ‘the vulnerable’ – after all, if that truly was their driving concern they’d be advocating for a Labour government which will do far more to help these people than remaining in the EU would. It’s about their identity, their innate goodness, and everything else is subservient. That’s why their arguments are so often threadbare and the thin attempts to paint ‘reverse the referendum result’ as ‘more democracy’ and ‘listening to people’ are so risible. They are afterthoughts meant to convince other people they are convinced are fools, not real convictions.
This leads me to the vote tomorrow. It will be no secret that I plan on voting Labour. I honestly believe that its primary position of respecting the referendum result, while pushing for a softer Brexit, is not only the option which offers the least likelihood of adverse outcomes in a myriad of ways but also the most honest and principled approach from a party which promised to implement the referendum result. It’s a favoured tactic of the Remainiacs to, bizarrely, agree with the Brexiteers that anything less than no-deal would be a ‘betrayal’ of Brexit. They do this because it best suits their notion that ‘Brexit = catastrophe’ and it fuels their narrative of being engaged in a noble Manichean battle. Leave voters will be angered by soft Brexit, they cry, while advocating for no Brexit at all. It’s incoherent, it’s dishonest and by promoting no-deal, it’s profoundly irresponsible and the votes of the ‘remain parties’ to undermine soft Brexit should be unforgivable.
Yet it’s clear there are many who, no matter what, intend to use these elections as a re-run of the referendum. The Brexiteers have made their intransigence and hypocrisy well-known, and it’s no surprise they’d swing behind the Brexit Party. The Remainiacs, on the other hand, are swinging behind a bunch of parties which contributed to this entire mess then have attempted to wash their hands of it. Let’s have a brief look at the hypocrisy of the so-called ‘Remain parties’:
- The Green Party – the Greens called for an in/out referendum on EU membership in its 2015 manifesto. To be clear, the party wanted the binary referendum which it now decries. Caroline Lucas voted for the referendum at both its second and third readings (Jeremy Corbyn, incidentally, voted for it at neither). Caroline Lucas sat in the Commons while the Tory front bench stated ‘there will be no second referendum’ and didn’t utter a peep and, indeed, there was no mention of a second referendum until after leave won. It’s a deep irony that the Greens complain about our broken politics while running around accusing others of ‘betrayal’ for respecting the result of a referendum the Greens both campaigned and voted for.
- The Liberal Democrats – the Lib Dem record in the coalition government needs little elaboration at this point but, suffice to say, the austerity, anti-immigration policies, anti-welfare policies and broken economy they facilitated make any claims to care about ‘the vulnerable’ absolutely laughable. They like to cry that they had to enter coalition to alleviate the worst of the Tories but the confidence and supply arrangement of the DUP has rather torpedoed that argument. With regards to the EU referendum, the Lib Dems were calling for an in/out referendum throughout Nick Clegg’s time as leader. When it finally came to parliament, the Lib Dems voted for it. Notably, there was a Labour amendment to the referendum bill which would have required ‘…the publication, at least ten weeks before the referendum, of the terms of any renegotiation between the UK and the EU and the consequences of leaving the EU’. The Lib Dems didn’t bother to show up to this vote, so it’s quite something for them to now insist that another vote is necessary because people didn’t know what they were voting for. Tim Farron wrote a column attacking the prospect of a second referendum as ‘pathetic’ and ignoring ‘the will of the people’, and tweeted that this ‘isn’t a neverendum’ – the crucial point being, of course, that this was in the context of remain winning. The Lib Dems, then, are another party characterised by a staggering and cynical hypocrisy on this.
- Change UK – I know, I know – at this point it’s like kicking a dead dog. But it’ll come as no surprise that Change’s position on this is hypocritical, given everything about them is. Every Change UK MP who was in parliament at the time supported the referendum. The Tory members have voted repeatedly for Tory Brexit and voted against the opportunity to put a second referendum before parliament – because it was tabled by Jeremy Corbym. The Labour members, meanwhile, run around claiming to care about migrants and ‘the vulnerable’ while being almost entirely made up of people who wanted Labour to be more stridently anti-immigration and pro-austerity. It’s laughable. Chuka has, in his time, advocated the ‘reform’ of freedom of movement to stop EU citizens coming here to find work, clearly feeding the ‘coming here to take our jobs’ narrative. He’s also advocated only allowing the immigration of skilled workers, that immigrants should be ‘forced’ to integrate more and, in the months after the referendum, was calling for an end to freedom of movement altogether. He also dismissed calls for a second referendum in early 2017. Chuka’s position on this has been characterised by nothing more than what he deems best serves Chuka’s career at any given time – much like the rest of Change UK.
- The SNP – It’s to their credit that the SNP are the only major party which voted against the EU referendum. Yet their position remains deeply cynical and opportunistic. In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, as senior figures from the EU lined up to say that an independent Scotland would be outside of the EU, the response of the SNP was not only to dismiss this as scaremongering but to threaten to kick out EU citizens living in Scotland should this happen. I repeatedly point this out because it’s the exact same use of EU citizens as cheap bargaining tools that has characterised Theresa May’s position and it makes a complete mockery of the SNP’s current grandstanding on the issue (indeed, the threat was made specifically by Nicola Sturgeon – then Deputy First Minister, now First Minister). Post-referendum, meanwhile, the SNP hedged its bets after the revelation that a third of its own supporters voted to leave, seemingly settling on a position where a soft Brexit in the single market and customs union was the best possible outcome. It’s only with the charge of the light brigade transformation of the ‘minor’ parties into single-issue Remainiac pressure groups, and the perception that this hurts Labour, that the SNP has decided its policy is actually to ‘stop Brexit’…so it can remain in the EU in the UK…then leave the UK and EU…to rejoin the EU. It seems quite ironic to me that the SNP should so eagerly adopt a position of ‘we should ignore a referendum result to leave a union if leaving it turns out to be quite complicated’ because, well, you know…
- Plaid Cymru – PC abstained in the second and third readings of the EU referendum bill (they did vote for a motion to decline the second reading) and its manifestos made little mention of it beyond wanting to remain. In the aftermath of the referendum, however, Leanne Wood attacked calls for a second referendum, saying there would be ‘repercussions’ if voters could see ‘the political establishment not listening to them’ and that the proper mechanism for voters to express their views was through an election. Given she and PC are now gung-ho for a second referendum, I’m unsure what’s changed.
Parties should, of course, be able to change their minds. But you will search in vain for any of the above parties recognising the contortions and hypocrisies in their own positions, let alone explaining them. In short, you have parties which have shifted position for little more than perceived electoral gain attacking Labour for a fairly consistent position, because that consistent position is not ‘FULL BREXIT!’’ or ‘NO BREXIT’. This is putting the short-term electoral gain of those parties ahead of all else and they certainly do not deserve to be rewarded for it.
Labour’s position is not only correct and justified, it’s the best way to combat the resurgent far-right, which would clearly love to be able to go out into communities with the message that Brexit was thwarted by the elite. I’ll be voting Labour tomorrow and I urge you to do the same.
A playlist of my favourite albums of 2018:
And a playlist of my favourite songs:
My photos and videos from last night’s U2 gig at the O2 are here.
Photos and videos from last night’s excellent Smashing Pumpkins gig are here.