Song of 2020: I Know The End

Somewhere in Germany
but I can’t place it
Man, I hate this part of Texas

The comic sense of dislocation that opens I Know The End lands us right in 2020. Few of us have ventured far this year yet familiar surroundings have acquired darker hues as we’re confined with an oscillating mix of panic, fear, boredom and, on the good days, contentment. There are millions of people who’ve had it worse. We’re reminded of it every day. So there’s an odd guilt present too.

Phoebe Bridgers is queer and I think there’s a queer specificity in the alienation-you-have-to-laugh-at that permeates her songs. That’s been present in the pandemic too. Queer bars aren’t just places we go to drink, they’re places where we go to at least feel welcome and safe and, really, to find a sense of ourselves that we feel comfortable with after years growing up where that often seemed beyond our reach. Queers don’t need to hear the Queen telling us ‘we will meet again’ – we need to be together, dancing to our queens. There are lots of pop records I’ve loved in 2020 and I’ll never experience them ‘unfiltered’, as it were, on a dancefloor. When I’m finally able to hear them in The Glory, they will already be at least months old, and they’ll forever be The Pandemic Songs We Danced To In Our Rooms.

When I get back I’ll lay around
Then I’ll get up and lay back down
Romanticize a quiet life
There’s no place like my room

It’s been a fucked up time. However much we may enjoy our own company, being unable to socialise in order to ward off death, whether yours or other people’s, is not something we could ever have prepared for. What’s made the pandemic particularly cruel is that, in this strange time of forced separation, we’ve faced an onslaught of the stresses that we all endure at some point. Turbo-charged and tossed at us like confetti. Like so many others, I went through a redundancy process at work. I kept my job but with a workload that’s the most demanding I’ve ever experienced. My boyfriend lost the job he’s had for his entire adult life. My dad got ill and has been in and out of hospital. Christmas was the one time I was expecting to be able to see my parents and the government cancelled this with less than a week’s notice. It’s tough. It’s tough. What else can you do but try and find, or invent, some positives from being stuck at home? There’s no place like my room.

But you had to go, I know, I know, I know
Like a wave that crashed and melted on the shore
Not even the burnouts are out here anymore
And you had to go, I know, I know, I know

Phoebe Bridgers’ plaintive, delicate delivery here speaks to an ache inside me. Grief for things lost, yearning for better times, an understanding that I’ve had almost no control over any of this. A hope that this, too, shall pass.

So I gotta go, I know, I know, I know
When the sirens sound, you’ll hide under the floor
But I’m not gonna go down with my hometown in a tornado
I’m gonna chase it, I know, I know, I know
I gotta go now, I know, I know, I know

We are, together but apart, living through a historical disaster. Just trying to survive is enough, whatever that means for each of us. And we’ve had to learn, and keep learning, to go easy on ourselves. Sometimes the yearning ache for life has been so overpowering that we’ve wanted to race out onto the streets and hug the nearest stranger. By and large, though, that sense of reckless abandon has only been directed inwards, as we second-guess ourselves, feed our sense of guilt, want to scream like Meryl. We’re surviving and that’s enough. A thought that snaps me into focus when I get lost in the certainty that none of this makes sense, and none of this is fair. We’re surviving and that’s enough.

Driving out into the sun
Let the ultraviolet cover me up

I mean, we’re going to get through this. We have to get through this. Then you remember climate change really hitting, in the sense of irrevocably changing the life of everyone on the planet, in our lifetimes. And it’s hard not to think, ‘fuck this’.

Windows down, heater on
Big bolt of lightning hanging low
Over the coast, everyone’s convinced
It’s a government drone or an alien spaceship

I’m not sure if beliefs in conspiracy theories, and distrust of traditionally ‘authoritative’ sources, is greater than it’s ever been or it’s just never been easier for us to hear about it. It was going to very dark places even before the pandemic, and political expressions like Trump and Brexit seem barely anything more than anti-human cults. Yet after this year, it’s difficult to get particularly worked up at people who distrust authority to quite extreme degrees. Our government has chosen to use the pandemic to enrich its class with cronyism and corruption placed well, well above the population’s survival, both in terms of actually being alive and also being able to live a good life. Yet on both sides of the Atlantic this has been set against the inflaming of a petty, nativist nationalism which sees large swathes of people actually cheering it on because they somehow believe governments stuffed with millionaires are actually anti-government. Aliens don’t sound too bad in comparison. The end is here.

Either way, we’re not alone
I’ll find a new place to be from
A haunted house with a picket fence
To float around and ghost my friends

To return to the particular cruelties of the pandemic, we’ve been forced apart due to reasons that have meant we need each other more than ever. So we devised new ways to relate. Friends became faces on a screen as we chatted, quizzed and experienced the uniquely 21st century buzz of getting drunk on Zoom. Good friends are the ghosts of our past, our present and our yet-to-be and even in digital form, they’re worth more than we understood a year ago. Even if sometimes, you just pretend you’re having internet troubles. We’re all going to be scarred by this. If we can all speak openly of these scars, maybe it won’t seem so bad?

No, I’m not afraid to disappear
The billboard said “The End Is Near”
I turned around, there was nothing there
Yeah, I guess the end is here

I don’t need to say much about how this captures 2020, do I? The absurd thing being that it’s perfectly possible, maybe even likely, that we’ll experience years even more apocalyptic than this one. The end is here.

But what else are we going to do? Let’s keep living.

Songs of 2020

Songs of 2019

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.

Madame X


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.

My 2018 Music

A playlist of my favourite albums of 2018:

And a playlist of my favourite songs: