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 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.
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.
A few years after the infamous MTV kiss with Britney Spears (poor Xtina) Madonna revealed how she had explained it to her daughter:
“I am the mommy pop star and she is the baby pop star. And I am kissing her to pass my energy on to her.”
Certainly at the time, Britney Spears was the nearest thing we had to a ‘new’ Madonna and this was reflected in her increasing involvement in her own music. 2003’s In The Zone had featured 8 Britney co-writing credits, easily the most direct creative involvement she had yet had on her albums. Appropriately enough it was also the album to feature Madonna in its lead-single, ‘Me Against the Music’. Truly there was a sense that Madonna was anointing a chosen successor.
It didn’t quite work out as planned. While Madonna rebounded quickly from the failure of 2003’s American Life, it would be four years before Britney Spears released another studio album. And what a four years they were – Britney went haywire, quickly and decisively moving from an American sweetheart to a TMZ poster child for celebrity dysfunction and drama. She went off the rails in a way Madonna never had. However in doing so (and retreating once again, no doubt due to necessity, from creative involvement in her music) she ultimately delivered the album of her career. Blackout, which is five years old this week,is an almost-perfect postmodern pop album. Yet while it is different in many ways from Madonna’s work, it’s impossible for the ‘baby’ to fully escape ‘mommy’’s influence.
Conveniently enough, the Madonna album which Blackout owes a debt to is also having a birthday this week. It’s 20 years since Erotica was released and while time and familiarity has dulled its power, even today it sounds like an odd pop album. Madonna, coming off the back of the mega-selling The Immaculate Collection and the acclaimed Blond Ambition tour, was having one of her imperial phases (as Neil Tennant so memorably called the periods when commercial success and critical acclaim align for artists). She had cuckolded Pepsi with the Like A Prayer video; she had confronted the Catholic Church when it criticised her tour; she had even made MTV look uncool and turned its ‘ban’ of the Justify My Love video into both a money-spinner and an eloquent attack on moral hypocrisy. It’s understandable that she felt untouchable – but even so, few were expecting what came next.
In retrospect, of course, it’s easy to see that having pushed the buttons of the religious establishment and the moral majority, Madonna had to tread carefully. Moving swiftly onto an album called Erotica and an accompanying coffee table book called Sex was supreme, almost reckless, hubris and it led to the biggest backlash of her career. I can remember the period well – the tabloids had anti-Madonna stories on an almost-daily basis while the publishing of a book called The ‘I Hate Madonna’ Handbook summed up the prevailing attitude. Madonna has since said that the overlooking of Erotica amidst this maelstrom of controversy and recrimination is the biggest regret of her career. 20 years later the album is not quite popularly regarded as a ‘lost classic’ but it’s certainly seen as underrated and its influence is undeniable. Few grasped it at the time but Erotica is that most cumbersome of beasts – a concept album. Understanding this goes a long way to putting its strangeness in context – and boy, it is strange. It is difficult in a way none of Madonna’s previous work had been, the pure pop moments such as Deeper and Deeper and Rain sitting alongside jazz and blues influenced excursions which offer little ‘give’ to listeners. The decision was taken to use Madonna’s heavily processed demo vocals for much of the album, causing her to sound detached – on tracks like Bye Bye Baby and Fever she sounds like a sneering impersonation of herself. These sit uncomfortably alongside much more emotionally engaging material like Bad Girl and the gay rights anthem Why’s It So Hard? It all makes for a disorienting experience. Yet it’s intentionally so – as Madonna states in the album’s opening line, “My name is Dita, I’ll be your mistress tonight”’. Shep Pettibone’s ‘Erotica Diaries’ make clear that Madonna was in creative control and the irony of an album called Erotica which deliberately pushes the listener away is a masterstroke. It underlines that the album is not only about sex – it’s fundamentally about relationships and power. Indeed, much has been written about Madonna ‘opening the door’ for subsequent artists with her use of sexual imagery. This is missing the point. Madonna was very careful not to present her sexuality as mere titillation and Erotica’s genius is that she has the bravery to make a pop record which turns expectations upside down. Rather than being a come-on to ‘fuck me’, Erotica could more appropriately be described as ‘fuck you’.
Blackout could be similarly described. Its opening line has obvious echoes of Erotica’s – “It’s Britney, bitch” is an uncompromising invitation – command, even – into Britney’s world. What’s fascinating, however, is that whereas Madonna invented the persona of ‘Dita’ to play with her listeners, the character here is ‘Britney’. This is the fundamental genius of Blackout. At its core is the absence of its main star. Circumstances undoubtedly dictated this yet the producers took the ‘fuck you’ template of Erotica and went crazy with it. The album makes a virtue of her lack of presence, from its ironic almost-mocking title to its production. Britney’s voice is twisted, treated, transformed though-out so that she often doesn’t sound like ‘Britney Spears’. Instead she sounds like a demented robot, another production tool in an orchestra of sonic wizardry that goes far beyond anything on any previous Britney record. If Madonna played up detachment on Erotica, here it becomes the entire focus. In that regard Blackout is also a concept album – one about modern fame and modern pop music. Its power rests almost entirely on the persona of ‘Britney Spears’, not the person. The associations of that persona feed into the music and lend it an uncomfortable power – we know that as a person she is damaged and unhappy, yet as a popstar she is all-consuming. This subverts a dominant notion in modern pop – namely that the context is irrelevant and all that matters is whether a song is any good or not. We are under no illusion that Britney Spears had anything to do with most of this record – but the album confronts that head on and makes it into a dazzling virtue. As with Erotica, there is nothing seductive about Blackout – instead its pleasures lie in the confounding of expectations and the contorting of Britney’s image. “You think Britney and her music are manufactured? Fuck you. How about this?”
The contrast to be found between Madonna’s control in Erotica and Britney’s lack of it in Blackout speaks untold volumes about the differences between them. Yet in both cases the albums use their context as a weapon and make the listener complicit in their message. This more than ever underlines the truth behind the often-trite mantra that ‘manufactured’ music can be dazzlingly brilliant and, fundamentally, speaks to the power of pop music. Perhaps, in some small way, that’s what Madonna was passing on with that kiss.
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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
You can’t argue with that.