Madame X

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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.

Madonna at 60

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A few years ago I booked tickets for my friend and I to attend the premiere of Madonna’s film W.E. as part of the London Film Festival. It was due to be held on a Sunday night and nothing suggested it would be anything more than a screening – it was hardly a blockbuster, after all. So it was that we rocked up to Leicester Square, very hungover from the night before and resembling buskers, to find that we were attending a full-blown Hollywood premiere replete with hordes of onlookers and media. We had to queue in a line full of people in very expensive tuxedos and dresses to enter the Square, whereupon we found ourselves thrust onto the red carpet. I was in something of a daze as I walked towards the cinema, cameras flashing around me and faces I recognised roaring into view. My friend suddenly got very animated and pointed to my side. It took a moment but then I saw her – Madonna, stood a couple of metres away from me. It was a surreal, disorienting moment – my friend told me to stand in front of her and he snapped a couple of photos before a security guard appeared and shouted at us to keep moving – but more than anything I couldn’t quite believe that the woman beside me was Madonna. Madonna. A presence so enormous, so overwhelming, such a cornerstone of popular culture that she couldn’t possibly just be a person, could she?

There’s a famous clip of a young Madonna, asked by Dick Clark on American Bandstand what she hopes for her career, responding with ‘to rule the world’. She radiates charm and self-confidence but no-one at the time, surely not even Madonna herself, could have anticipated that she would not only rule the world but transform it. Madonna became one of the extraordinary, and extraordinarily rare, titans of culture who reach a level where it’s impossible to imagine our world without them. She is just there in the same sense that Shakespeare or Star Wars or karaoke is there. To say Madonna is the most successful female artist in history is like saying Coke is the most successful soft drink, so mind-bogglingly enormous as to become meaningless. Indeed, she may be the most famous woman on the planet but her status as a cultural icon is so established and unassailable that it’s inevitable we would forget she’s just a person, with everything that entails. She’s the object of endless throwaway opinions and casual cruelties from people for whom she’s as impersonal as Coke. Yet one woman really did all that.

Todway that woman turns 60. As shocking and devastating as the deaths of Michael Jackson and Prince were, it somehow seems apt that Madonna would be the member of the ‘Triumvirate’ to stay the course. That doesn’t necessarily work to her advantage – we like our cultural icons to be ethereal and unchanging in ways which an ageing, flawed person can’t possibly be and for all her fuck-ups and failures, much of the shit Madonna gets is because she can never be the ‘Madonna’ most people remember or imagine. Nevertheless, the world will miss her when she’s gone and it’s heartening that at moments like this there’s a taking stock, a recognition that she’s worth celebrating while she’s still around.

I don’t have to write about what Madonna means to me because I’ve done it many times before. Suffice to say that Madonna has saved me in ways too numerous to mention and too profound to articulate. The song which I return to most often from her last album, Rebel Heart, is the title track – it captures something of the ache I’ve felt that Madonna soothes:

Thought I belonged to a different tribe

Walking alone, never satisfied, satisfied

Trying to fit in but it wasn’t me

I said ‘oh no, I want more, that’s not what I’m looking for’

So I took the road less travelled by

And I barely made it out alive

Through the darkness somehow I survived

Tough love, I knew it from the start

Deep down in the depth of my rebel heart

I’ve never felt that I fit in but that has allowed me to fully understand the transcendent power of truly exceptional pop music, of the kind Madonna has created over and over again. Whether it be singing in my own living room or dancing in a room filled with friends and strangers, Madonna’s music revitalises me (makes me feel shiny and new, you might say) and makes me feel alive to possibilities which the grind of daily life can cause to slip from view. When I celebrate Madonna’s birthday at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern tonight my heart will swell with joy and I will feel that I’ve never belonged anywhere more than I do on that dancefloor and never been a better version of myself than I am when I’m dancing. Madonna is only one person but she has made my world, and the world of millions of others, immeasurably better (and a whole lot more fun).

Happy birthday and thanks, Madonna. Sorry we looked a mess on your red carpet.

Happy Birthday, Madonna

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In the recent ‘celebrations’ of the 50-year anniversary of (partial) decriminalisation of homosexual activity, one of the central themes which emerged was the importance of pop culture to LGBT* life. It has provided much-needed recognition and an outlet for expression while helping transform the world. In so doing, and in ways too numerous, too tiny, too enormous to express, it has transformed us. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how large a role Madonna has played in my life. She was there when I started to question the Catholicism I’d been raised with; she was there when I started to realise I was ‘different’; she was there when I started having sex and battled both the religious and societal conditioning that doing it with men, and with many men at  that, was wrong. She provided my own ‘Ziggy on TOTP’ moment, the men passionately kissing during In Bed With Madonna, the first time I can remember seeing not just gay men, but gay men expressing their sexuality. At every step she was there, both as an enormous, alien, mighty figure looming large over (seemingly) the entire world and as a small voice whispering to me, “you are ok, you are going to be ok and you are allowed to be ok.’ And she did it, and continues to do it, with a gold-plated soundtrack which remains an unparalleled testament to the power of pop; one which can still fill a club in Hackney with people dancing joyously; one which still thrills me and shakes me to my core. I love Madonna, and I always will love Madonna, with a sincerity and earnestness which you’re not really supposed to express in 2017. Happy birthday and thank you @Madonna

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Bowie: One Year Later

My first Bowie memory is of listening to ‘Life on Mars?’ which, as I wrote previously, “exploded from the cheap, tinny speakers in technicolour”. In retrospect it feels like a moment when life itself burst into technicolour, when the narrow confines of my perspective collapsed around me and I found myself alert to exciting, daunting possibilities. Listening to that song, I caught my first glimpses of Oz.

 

As an artist Bowie tore up my notions of what popular music could be. I will remember sitting in that room, being carried somewhere completely alien, for as long as I still have my faculties. I’ve come to understand that it wasn’t just the strange, wonderful music which grabbed me but also the aching alienation which pulses through ‘Life on Mars?’ I’m not sure I yet had a real understanding of sexuality but I knew I was different from most of the other kids. I knew I was lonely and I knew I wanted something more, even if I couldn’t begin to conceive of what that was. “Is there life on Mars?” spoke to that, a plaintive yet hopeful howl that there had to be something, somewhere else out there (…over the rainbow).

As with so many queers my age and older, Bowie spoke to something within me before I necessarily could even articulate what it was. He helped usher me through some very difficult years to a life I could never have imagined. I never dreamt that I would get to be/The creature that I always meant to be. The Oz I glimpsed in ‘Life on Mars?’ came roaring into view and it was magnificent, even that sense of alienation has never quite gone away; I’m not sure it ever does for people like us. Yet for that, there was always Bowie. Always Bowie.

When I woke on a dark, cold Monday in January to the news that Bowie had died, it felt for a few days as if the world had been plunged back into black and white. In what became a year of dismal shocks, his death remains the thing which most affected me. I cried a lot the day I found out. I cried in Berlin a couple of weeks later as I visited his old haunts.

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I wept at Bowie’s appearance in the Oscars ‘In Memorium’ video; at the Brit Awards tribute where his band was largely made up of the same people I saw him perform with in 2003; at the end of ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ which I watched repeatedly when I was drunk:

I ended the year welling up at Bowie’s music making an appearance on the soundtrack for the London fireworks. Yet as I find myself in another cold, miserable January, about to enter the anniversary of that bleak Monday, I find my sadness lifted by the knowledge that the world didn’t become black and white again. I made a whole new bunch of Bowie memories: in Berlin he soundtracked a memorable encounter with a Syrian couple; I laughed with a room full of people at a BFI Bug special devoted to him; I went to see Lazarus on a glorious November afternoon; I headed down to the South Bank Centre one Friday after work to see Paul Morley speak about him and hear a choir sing some of his songs; I felt a visceral thrill when he appeared on the screens at a Placebo gig in December.

He’s not gone. He never will be. I don’t think I will ever feel fully at ease in the world and David Bowie will always speak to that. He helped me to accept it, even to celebrate it at times. I will always miss him but as the sadness falls away with time what is left is the sheer joy he has brought me, and which I now know he will always bring me. The world is still technicolour. Oz is still within my grasp. And yes, there is life on Mars.

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The Death of Solidarity

This feels like the nail in the coffin of any notion of ‘solidarity’ across these isles. The surge of competing nationalisms has been clear for years now, and much of the left has been happy to indulge and even feed it rather than fight it, rather than make the case for us standing together, rather than saying that our enemy was not some conveniently identifiable ‘other’ but a neoliberal ideology which by all reason should have died following the global crash. This felt like our last chance to draw a line in the sand, to recognise that we had to step up to the plate with regards to anti-racism, with regards to anti-immigrant sentiment, with regards to populist anti-intellectual movements which brand facts as ‘Project Fear’. We’ve failed.
Scotland and London both voted massively for remain. Having argued against Scottish independence in significant part because I thought it fed nationalism and destroyed solidarity, today I feel sad but resigned to Scotland becoming independent. Who could blame anyone voting for it when faced with this? There are already increasingly loud calls for London to split off from the UK. The economy is tanking and the far-right is celebrating not only here but across Europe. I never thought I would see the day where my reaction to David Cameron resigning was sorrow rather than joy and that is a mark of how dark this day is.
There are, right now, millions of EU migrants in the UK who now have no idea what will happen to them. There are millions of UK citizens in the EU who have no idea what will happen to them. And there are millions of people who, as one friend told me yesterday, look at this and see the familiar politics of a brick in the face just for the colour of your skin. Those of us who are privileged enough for this to be an existential defeat rather than one which is going to destroy our livelihoods or our homes need to stand with these people now. It’s the least we can do. I have cried too many tears over too many defeats. We need to stand against the calls, which are already coming and will only increase in volume, for tighter ‘immigration controls’. We need to stand against the nonsense, unchallenged for far too long, that it’s ‘not racist’ to blame housing policy, employment policy, health policy etc on ‘immigrants’ without having the slightest clue what you’re on about. We need to stand against our country becoming a small, angry and pathetic place, even though it feels much too late for that. We need to join trade unions. We need to support local struggles re: housing, health and austerity. We need to support migrant rights. We need to organise to fight racism on our streets. We need to support Jeremy Corbyn, one of the few politicians who has stood against this hateful tide, from those in his own party who would have us believe that competing with UKIP and the Tories on anti-immigration sentiment is the way for ‘progressive values’ to win.
It’s London Pride tomorrow and people have been fond of using ‘love wins’ in recent weeks. But the sad, scary fact of the matter is that love doesn’t win. Action wins. The kind of action which understands that fighting racism and the far-right means not capitulating to them or aiding their normalisation (hello, “I’m not UKIP but…” people arguing for their inclusion at Pride) At the moment the hard right are a hell of a lot more organised than we are. We need to begin to change that if ‘solidarity’ is to be anything other than a distant memory.

Vote Remain.

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I’ve already made my feelings on this referendum clear: it has been profoundly depressing in pretty much every conceivable way. Revelling in ignorance and prejudice has been reframed as ‘taking control’; facts unfavourable to your cause have been cast as ‘scaremongering’ and ‘Project Fear’. It’s easily been the most hateful, and terrifying, campaign of my lifetime.

Yet I still have hope. The above photos were all taken this morning on a single 100-metre walk in Hackney. Hackney is one of the most diverse boroughs in one of the most diverse cities in the world – over 60% of its population is not White British. Approximately 25% of its population have a main language which isn’t English. It’s one of the most deprived local authority areas in England. It has a higher than average LGBT community. There are powerful forces in this country, as we have seen over the past few months, who seek to turn diversity into division and blame poverty (along with every other problem imaginable) on anyone who is perceived as ‘different’. For all its problems, Hackney says a clear “no” to this. The far-right, whether it be UKIP or any other group, are not a force here. Last year Hackney again returned the black female socialist Diane Abbott as its MP, with a vote share increased by 8%. I am confident that today Hackney will reject the politics of racism and hatred by voting to remain in the European Union.

This matters. The far-right and those who validate it try and suggest that not to be hateful, not to be fearful, not to be racist, is somehow a ‘metropolitan’ value held by an out-of-touch elite. No-one could ever claim this about Hackney, which has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country. The fact that the places with most immigration tend to be most positive about it (and the converse) seems instructive here: everyone living in Hackney, no matter where they are from, is surrounded by immigration, surrounded by diversity. We know it’s not a problem. We know it’s a good, a great, thing.

Those living in areas with little immigration, on the other hand, are obviously more likely to be taking their views on it from the dominant narratives pushed by the media and our political class. This brilliant article is enormously insightful regarding this, explaining how a manufactured ‘public opinion’ is used to mainstream racism, stigmatise migrants and the working-class (while framing these two identities as mutually exclusive) and “deflect responsibility away from government and capital”. We have seen this in abundance in this campaign, where mendacious politicians who have been cutting and privatising our public services, imposing harsher immigration regimes and building a low-wage, precariat job economy have had the audacity to blame immigrants for their continuing policies.

This has gone on too long and we on the left have been too complacent in fighting it – and fight it we must, from germs of hatred expressed in casual racist remarks in Hackney to EDL marches in Coventry to the far-right killing Jo Cox in Birstall. People usually wheel out Lincoln’s quote about ‘the better angels of our nature’ as a trite Hallmark sentiment about everyone getting along, depoliticising what must be a political fight against hatred and bigotry. Fighting fascists and the far-right is a political act. Fighting Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove is a political act. Fighting racism requires action above platitudes. This is why, whatever the faults of the EU, in the current climate voting Remain is a political blow against these forces. Make no mistake, the fight will, must continue past today but it’s time to draw a line in the sand and say ‘no more’ to the wretched rhetoric and policy that has characterised our politics for too long. Vote Remain. Vote ‘no more’.

It’s up to all of us.