You can’t argue with that.
Britney Spears’ previous album, Britney Jean, staggered onto the stage as the pinnacle of ‘zombie pop‘ and was “one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard.” It was so wretched that I thought we might have reached the bottom of the barrel:
…pop isn’t taken seriously as an art form yet a trite populism means that it’s instinctively defended against any and all criticism. When the banal output of One Direction is celebrated as a joyful cultural force, the pressure to do something great is pretty much non-existent. Add to this the fact that record sales are in decline, resulting in labels increasingly relying on their star artists for revenue (which itself comes more and more from advertising and endorsement deals) and you have a recipe for conservatism. The results of this have been unavoidable this year in most of the big pop releases: Prism’s dry self-denial; Gaga and Justin’s need to smother their music in tortured conceits to lend it ‘worth’; Miley’s ‘will this do?’ singles-and-filler effort. There’s been a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring. If Thriller was the music industry’s Star Wars, it feels like we’re at the stage where the results are market-driven dreck akin to Pearl Harbour.
Reading this in 2016, it’s certainly more difficult to complain about ‘a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring” when the pop mainstream is dominated by artists like Beyonce and Frank Ocean. The former surprise released Lemonade with an accompanying feature-length ‘visual album’ while the latter, not to be outdone, preceded his second album with an entirely separate visual album and then dropped blond with international pop-up shops. Both ‘campaigns’ generated enough hyperbole to power a nuclear power station, massive critical acclaim and commercial success. On the more prosaic end of the pop spectrum, teen idols like Justin Bieber and Zayn Malik have been reinvented in collaborations with electronic and r&b producers like Skrillex, Diplo and Malay.
Britney Spears has kinda been paying attention. This week she releases a new album, Glory, and it’s a step away from the formulaic EDM which characterised her recent efforts into more diverse, but not unexpected, areas. It seems a major pop album in 2016 isn’t complete without forays into reggae, hip-hop, minimalist r&b and other ‘sonic terrains’ which would please the Pitchfork and Vice crowd. Glory is miles better than Britney Jean (it would be very difficult not to be) but it still feels dead behind the eyes without turning that quality into a dazzling strength, as Blackout did. More to the point, it feels very traditional, in this age of the pop arms race – it’s just a collection of songs with no particular theme, trailed well in advance and preceded by a single. Perhaps it was felt that ‘the return of Britney Spears’ was a big enough splash on its own but it seems doubtful that this will be the case.
Listening to Glory, a couple of things conspired to lend context and get me thinking about pop in 2016. Firstly, Madonna’s Cherish came on random play soon after Glory ended:
Madonna of course has had plenty of her own creative conceits and bold marketing moves but it struck me, listening to Cherish, that you so rarely hear pop music like it anymore (even from Madonna). It’s guileless, charming and feels unencumbered by an acute self-awareness or concern for a wider context. In an era when songs, videos and albums show an eagerness to launch a thousand memes and our popstars offer carefully curated connection via social media, it seems increasingly rare to hear pop songs confident enough that they themselves are enough.
Rare but not unheard of. My thoughts turned to what seemed to me the most obvious example of this kind of pop in recent years: Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION, which saw its worldwide release one year ago this week. This anniversary was fresh in my mind as Jepsen has announced a companion release, E•MO•TION Side B, to mark it. The five-day gap from announcement to release is as far into the pop marketing arms race as Jepsen has yet ventured and while Call Me Maybe launched a plethora of viral videos, they felt like a cute aside to the song rather than a calculated part of its appeal.
In a review of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP I once wrote:
…Gaga lacks confidence in pop as an art form in itself, seeming unable to let a song breathe and instead overbearing it with very deliberate efforts to be seen as a ‘proper artist’. Throughout ARTPOP signifier upon signifier is piled on top of sometimes brilliant melodies, creating enough room for breathless readings of Gaga’s ‘art’ certainly, but failing on the more basic level as engaging pop music. One of her early statements was that ‘pop will never be low-brow’, a suggested understanding that the simple pleasures of pop songs like (for example) Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe or Gaga’s own Poker Face were a powerful and admirable art form in themselves. With ARTPOP, however, it instead seems that Gaga thinks pop needs to be smothered in the language and aesthetics of more traditional art forms in order to have ‘value’.
It strikes me that this manifestation of Poptimism, wherein there’s a significant audience which requires its pop to be heavily signposted before they take it seriously, has gone turbo, feeding directly into the arms race of works which drape themselves in signifier after signifier that they are a ‘cut above’ your usual pop. It’s instructive that, for a mass audience, Carly Rae Jepsen is a semi-ironic one-hit-wonder to be enjoyed alongside Gangham Style. For a relatively small but vocal group, however, E•MO•TION marked her out as a pop artist in the most classic sense – someone who takes pop seriously enough to let it do the talking. From that plaintive sax which opens Run Away With Me, E•MO•TION grabs the heart with a charming sincerity atypical of the current pop scene: there is no overarching conceit tacked on, the music is not hinged on ‘Carly Rae Jepsen’ as a personality or cipher and for all the involvement of cool hitmakers like Sia and Blood Orange, it feels like an artist’s labour of love. It’s telling that in an article ostensibly praising the record, Vice still feels the need to observe that “maybe being marketed as a leftfield-leaning pop artist in the vein of Robyn is what Carly Rae Jepsen should be striving for”. It feels like we are increasingly unable to parse pop which doesn’t either make clear that it is SERIOUS AND CREDIBLE or allow itself to be framed as something apart from ‘real music’ which you are very broad-minded for enjoying. We expect the artist, and the marketing, to do a lot of the work for us. Hence Madonna recently distinguishing herself from ‘pop acts’ and labelling herself as an ‘artist’ – the people have to be told!
This is a large part of why Glory feels like an album out of time. I think it’s largely going for the latter kind of appreciation, relying on Britney as the kind of popstar many will like in a performative way without any real belief that she is an ‘artist’, yet it was preceded by an atypically ‘mature’ single and advance word labelling it a ‘new era’. It’s a mish-mash which feels like it doesn’t understand the current scene or its dominant strain of Poptimism and it will probably struggle to make much impact as a result. If you want commercial success and critical acclaim in the arms race of 2016 pop, you gotta work, bitch.
In 2012 I wrote the following to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Madonna’s debut single. To mark her birthday today I present it here again, order rejigged to mark the passing of time and with Rebel Heart added. The loss of Bowie and Prince this year has made it clearer than ever how dearly we need to cherish these icons while we still can.
October 6th, 1982: I was 2 years old, “Pass The Dutchie” was No.1 in the charts (and Dire Straits in the album charts) and ‘E.T.’ was conquering the box office. With no fanfare, the world got its first chance to hear the debut single by an unknown artist with the striking name of ‘Madonna’. ‘Everybody’, written solely by Madonna, so convincingly blended new wave with r&b and an increasingly unfashionable disco sound that (as the now infamous story goes) listeners thought Madonna was black and Sire capitalised on this by keeping images of her off the sleeve. Although the single didn’t make many waves, it wouldn’t be too long before Madonna’s image was imprinted on our culture as part of a rarified breed of pop music icons.
2012 is a big year for Madonna – her first album in 4 years (the previous, ‘Hard Candy’, was incidentally also released in April), her first world-tour since the record-breaking ‘Sticky & Sweet’ and, perhaps biggest of all, the 30th anniversary of the start of her pop career. In typical Madonna fashion she has yet to acknowledge the landmark – no ‘M30’ or ‘30YO’ for her. Indeed, on the October date of ‘Everybody’s widespread release she is due to be playing a gig in San Jose – as a symbol of her restless hunger to keep looking forward, it’s hard to beat.
Yet if Madonna rarely takes the time to celebrate what has come before (even the self-explanatory ‘Celebration’ hits collection was largely ignored by her), it doesn’t mean no-one else should. Here, in honour of 30 (edit: 33!) years of Madonna, are my thoughts on her albums (presented in reverse order of my personal preferences – today!):
‘I’m Breathless’ (1990)
‘I’m Breathless’ is largely ignored, probably because it’s not viewed as a studio album. Indeed, it was noticeably absent from this year’s ‘Complete Studio Albums’ collection. Yet if ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Parade’, ‘Graffitti Bridge’ and ‘Batman’ are widely viewed as Prince albums, this (with 12 original songs and 6 Madonna co-writes) surely qualifies as worthy of sitting alongside Madonna’s 12 other albums.
The album’s tagline is ‘Music from and inspired by the film “Dick Tracy”’ and, as a result, it’s a bit of an oddity. The predominantly jazz and swing tone of the album suggests it as a precursor to Christina Aguilera’s ‘Back to Basics’, yet it’s far more knowingly camp. It features 3 Sondheim songs which are, predictably, brilliant. They also inspire some of the best vocals of Madonna’s career (and if you haven’t seen her performance of ‘Sooner or Later’ at the Oscars, get over to Youtube immediately). The rest of the album is a mixed bag – fillers like ‘I’m Going Bananas’ and ‘Cry Baby’ sit uneasily alongside moody ballads like ‘He’s A Man’ and ‘Something to Remember’. Then, somewhat tacked on at the end, we have the legendary ‘Vogue’. Suffice to say its shadow looms large over the rest of the album as it demonstrates that Madonna is at her best when she’s doing Madonna, and not doing Breathless Mahoney. The album is a curious failure – one that, bizarrely, Madonna chose as her own favourite when promoting ‘Bedtime Stories’. Which leads us nicely to….
‘Bedtime Stories’ (1994)
Madonna is so regularly and easily mocked these days that the notion of a ‘Madonna backlash’ seems rather quaint. Nevertheless, this album arose from the ashes of the biggest backlash she had faced in her career to that point. This context is key to the record, which must sound rather odd without it. Despite the combative ‘Human Nature’, this is a Madonna burned and cowed by relative failure. She worked with mainstays of the American charts like Babyface, Dallas Austin and Dave Hall, lending at least half the album a glossy, mainstream r&b sound which, at the time, seemed like a radical departure. Still, this is Madonna, so she contrasts the chart-ready material with some of the most unusual and ‘difficult’ songs of her career. Who else would blend r&b, Herbie Hancock and Walt Whitman (‘Sanctuary’) and, more than that, get away with it?! The more experimental efforts don’t always work – Bjork’s ‘Bedtime Story’ is ill-fitting – yet they lend the album a messy warmth that makes it far more interesting than the sales-chasing vehicle it could have been. Madonna doesn’t seem very fond of it herself – 7 of its 11 tracks have never been performed live.
‘Hard Candy’ (2008)
Whereas ‘Bedtime Stories’, Madonna’s previous courtship of Hot 100-pleasing r&b, came from failure, ‘Hard Candy’ arrived as she once again ruled the pop world. Many were confused, then, that she chose to work with ubiquitous producers Pharrell Williams and Timbaland. More than confused, even – there was a real sense of anger in some quarters, much of it founded in the mistaken belief that Madonna has always nurtured undiscovered talent (and, perhaps most importantly, talent rooted in European dance rather than American r&b). As a result this is a much maligned album. However, as the US counterpoint to the far more respected ‘Confessions….’, I find it a much better record. It’s far more personal, for a start – for all the complaints about her latter day lyrics, songs like ‘Miles Away’, ‘She’s Not Me’ and ‘Voices’ give a devastating insight into a relationship in meltdown. Even something like ‘Incredible’, which ostensibly seems to be a sweet celebration of love, carries the weary sense that an end is near (‘I remember when you were the one, you were my friend…I need a reminder so I can relate, I need to go back there before it’s too late’). The ballads are back too, with ‘Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You’ being an instant Madonna classic, albeit one that suffers from Timbaland’s tendency towards generic production. I am definitely in a tiny minority in rating this above ‘Confessions…’ but for me, it’s far more rewarding and a perfect example of a relevant pop album made when the artist has reached middle-age.
‘Ray of Light’ (1998)
‘Ray of Light’ is without doubt one of the most spectacular ‘comebacks’ in pop music history, easily up there with ‘Achtung Baby’ with which it shares much. Like U2 in the run-up to that album, Madonna had remained a consistent commercial force but there was a real sense of decline hanging over her. ‘Bedtime Stories’ and ‘Erotica’ had sold less combined than ‘Like a Prayer’ did and, with ballads compilation ‘Something to Remember’ and the film/soundtrack ‘Evita’, there were worrying omens that she was positioning herself as an MOR artist to compete with then-huge artists like Celine Dion. The gap between this and ‘Bedtime Stories’ was also the longest yet between her studio albums, causing many to wonder if her heart was still in the game. By now we should know that every time we ask this question, she knocks it out of the park. Again like U2 with ‘Achtung Baby’, Madonna had gone away and rediscovered herself – in the process reinventing her music for the 21st century. This album is outstanding – an emotionally honest, sonically radical collection that, crucially, sounds completely liberated from the pressures that led to it. One of the most transcendent moments of her career comes midway through opener ‘Drowned World/Substitute For Love’. The sumptuous electronica was already unfamiliar territory but when her voice takes off in the ‘No famous faces…’ section, it was a Madonna we had never heard before. Against all odds, she delivered the third-biggest seller of her career and this album laid the template for the latter half of her career.
I have already written about this here and, happily, the weeks since have not dulled my appreciation. As much of a crossroads album as ‘Ray of Light’, this could so easily have been a disaster. Instead it manages the tricky task of being an album largely packed with lyrics about being a wealthy, middle-aged pop icon who has recently experienced divorce – yet being immensely enjoyable and fun rather than alienating. Fun, in fact, in an endearing way which harks back to her 80s peak – songs like ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’, ‘B-Day Song’ and ‘I’m A Sinner’ sound borne out of relaxed creativity rather than an eye on chart placements (though the presence of Nicki Minaj and MIA show that this is clearly not an absent consideration). She still manages to surprise – the camp noir of ‘Gang Bang’ sounds unlike anything she’s done before while ‘I Fucked Up’ is one of her most affecting ballads.
‘True Blue’ (1986)
Madonna’s biggest-selling studio album and essentially her own ‘Thriller’ – 5 legendary singles dominate and the other 4 songs feel like filler beside them (and, to be fair, ‘Love Makes The World Go Round’ is one of the worst things she’s recorded). This is where many who had previously dismissed her as an ephemeral pop dolly sat up and took notice – ‘Live to Tell’ announced a new Madonna, with its sombre tone, allusions to child abuse and a singing voice far weightier than the previous coquettish come on. Decades of the singles being presented on hits collections has dulled their impact here and the album almost comes across as its own little greatest hits, yet its brilliance is undeniable. Many other artists would have fought tooth and nail for a pop song as carefree and exhilarating as ‘Where’s The Party?’, possibly the album track least deserving of the phrase ‘album track’ ever.
‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’ (2005)
Like Ray of Light, this album came from a massive backlash. ‘American Life’ is probably Madonna’s biggest commercial failure and (for the hundredth time) detractors were wondering if perhaps her time as a major force was at an end. Madonna responded with her most successful single ever. ‘Hung Up’ is undoubtedly a classic – not only a Madonna classic, but a CLASSIC classic. What’s remarkable about this album is that there is rarely a sense of the other songs playing catch-up – at least ¾ of them could be singles. What’s even more remarkable is that, despite the advance publicity playing up its floor-filling qualities, it lyrically covers much of the same ground as ‘American Life’. Fan favourite ‘How High’ is essentially a much more digestible rewrite of ‘American Life’ (the song) while ‘Isaac’ is as unusual a dance song as has ever graced a 10 million-selling album. Nonetheless, some of Madonna’s persuasive spikiness is lost in a set which aims to please and the absence of a ballad (one of her real strengths) is a sore disappointment.
‘Like A Virgin’ (1984)
In retrospect, this is where she began her rapid ascent to iconic status – at the time, it was probably just a massive pop album. It builds on her debut but goes ridiculously beyond it, adding Motown riffs, sugar-sweet ballads and that now-infamous knack for controversy. The more versatile sound no doubt has a lot to do with this being her first co-written album – the gorgeously clumsy ‘Shoo-Bee-Doo’ is the last solely-attributed writing credit on her studio albums. The ambition here – to rule the pop world – is clear but it doesn’t detract from the sheer joy that permeates the record. Songs like ‘Stay’, ‘Pretender’ and ‘Over & Over’ still rank amongst her best album tracks – ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ is, however, one of her worst. It’s the sole misstep on what must be approaching a perfect pop album – indeed, if you remove it and replace with ‘Into The Groove’ (which was later added to the tracklist), the case is pretty overwhelming.
In light of what came after, it’s impossible to review this record as a debut; impossible to really see if the clues were there or guess how the record would now be perceived (if it was perceived at all) if it hadn’t led to a phenomenon. Reviews written years after the fact almost uniformly declare it a masterpiece yet, at the time, it’s safe to say that it had a mixed reception. It’s easy to see why – it’s largely unassuming, making no huge statements about Madonna as an artist and giving few glimpses into her inner life. However it’s worth noting that this is Madonna before she discovered co-writing – 5 of the 8 songs are written by her alone, including the iconic ‘Lucky Star’. What it does demonstrate, then, is the savvy talent for pop melodies and hooks that has largely stayed with her in the subsequent 30 years. Also present, in songs like ‘Burning Up’ and ‘Think of Me’, is a aggressively independent streak demanding that we pay attention. Perhaps most important is the fact that, despite her thin voice, Madonna owns these songs. No one else could do this.
‘Rebel Heart’ (2015)
As I wrote upon its release, Rebel Heart was as much as restatement of core values from an ageing icon as Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, Bowie’s Heathen or Prince’s Musicology were. This was a Madonna who understood that she didn’t rule the charts any longer but was determined to remind everyone why she is so special. The lyrics of the (bumped from the official release) Queen are particularly apropos following the death of Bowie and Prince:
Who will take her place?
It’s written on everyone’s face
The truth is slowly dawning
I hear tomorrow calling
Some things can’t be replaced
The realization of a new generation
Still, if the album’s maudlin undertone was a reflection of Madonna’s age and status as an ageing Queen, Rebel Heart contained its fair share of precision-tooled pop. Ghosttown especially was a glorious, haunting anthem which once again highlighted that few pop artists do melancholy like Madonna while infectious, airy tracks like the sitar-driven Body Shop and the Diplo-assisted Unapologetic Bitch showed she could, after all this time, still surprise us. The album’s sprawling diversity (24 tracks spread over various editions) was testament to a still-beating creative heart, though the messiness was reflected in both uneven tone and production. At a stage when most pop icons either fall into kitschy nostalgia or covers album hell, Rebel Heart found Madonna still very much in the game.
‘The Immaculate Collection’ and accompanying Blond Ambition tour in 1990 found Madonna in an imperial phase, with massive commercial success, huge critical acclaim and a general air of being impervious. It’s understandable, then, that she felt that she could afford to take increasingly radical risks – leading to this album and the ‘Sex’ book. Even in 2012, the thought of the world’s biggest pop star releasing a concept album and coffee-table book about sex, featuring many images of her and her famous friends in various states of undress, is staggering. Yet in the enormous backlash that ensued one crucial thing is lost – the fact that ‘Erotica’ is an utterly brilliant album. It was easily the most intelligent, complex and demanding work she had yet released. The cold production almost deliberately pushed the listener away while Madonna’s delivery on many songs is so detached that it brings to mind a drug-addled drag queen singing someone else’s pop hits. The questions raised about sexuality, commerce and personal identity were almost completely missed (and indeed remain so). It doesn’t all demand effort – ‘Deeper and Deeper’ marries a peerless narrative about coming out with an effortless disco ferocity, while the plaintive ‘Bad Girl’ is just gorgeous (and led the 12 year old me to write a letter to Michael Stipe asking him to sing with Madonna…!) It’s intriguing to wonder what would have come next if this had been a massive success. Instead, we’re left with a record that was her first commercial failure but is undoubtedly one of her biggest creative successes.
‘American Life’ (2003)
A similar context preceded ‘American Life’ – two commercially and critically successful albums of sometimes radical electronic music and a world tour which managed to sell-out despite largely ignoring all her hits, Madonna probably felt she was taking millions of people on a journey. It’s easy to comprehend how pushing further must have looked like a logical step. Nevertheless, this odd album – with its blend of electro and folk, its sometimes self-important and sometimes disarming personal examinations and its over-arching theme of a naval-gazing culture – was a step too far and lost 2/3 of the listeners who had embraced ‘Music’. It was also the first Madonna album not to produce a worldwide hit single – the kiss of death for any global popstar. It’s a shame because this was a Madonna leaping into the void, showing a fearless creativity which her detractors don’t believe exists. It takes either massive chutzpah or titanic delusion to believe that the awkward, absurd title track could be a lead single, though the hilarious rap shows a sense of humour usually missed by listeners (though some missed it even here!) It’s interesting that the fearlessness did not extend to the original, provocatively anti-war video for the song, a stance that was at the time liable to kill careers yet is now the consensus view. Nothing could save the album’s sales after that, though God knows Madonna tried with an air of desperation that was entirely missing from the record itself. For all the headline-grabbing politics, it’s a largely intimate and very adult affair, with little for pop fans of the period (the biggest pop albums of the period were Beyonce’s debut and Britney’s ‘In the Zone’) to grab hold of – and it’s all the more admirable for it.
The singles from this certainly didn’t sound quite like anything on the charts at the time – yet they succeeded in re-shaping tastes in a way which ‘American Life’ could only dream of. With characteristic restlessness Madonna largely ditched William Orbit and instead collaborated with the (still) relatively unknown Mirwais. So successful were the results that a slew of imitators followed. Madonna is at her very best here, bringing innovation to the mainstream with a gold-plated commercial nous and combining the sounds with peerless pop lyrics. ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ is a perfect representation of why she’s so valuable, accessibly communicating complex ideas regarding gender identity and roles in a moving, warm pop song that sounds quite unlike any other pop ballad of the period. The title track, her last American number one, is as much a manifesto as ‘Everybody’ was 18 years later while ‘Don’t Tell Me’ is surely one of the most interesting massive pop hits ever? ‘Impressive Instant’ is a great lost single, rightly chosen for release by Madonna but thwarted by her label who wanted the fun-but-derivative ‘Amazing’ instead. Here also marks the beginning of the ‘Guy Ritchie songs’ which have recently climaxed with ‘MDNA’.
‘Like A Prayer’ (1989)
Every pop fan by now surely knows the famous Rolling Stone quote claiming that this album was ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. I couldn’t put it any better myself. ‘True Blue’ may have made critics start to take notice but with ‘Like A Prayer’, Madonna surpassed even the kindest of expectations and ensured that she would never again be seen as ‘Minnie Mouse on helium’. It’s here that she first exposed the brutal honesty that has largely dominated her best work since and saw her lyrically more comparable to rock singers of the period than to Michael Jackson or Prince. It is, in fact, her most ‘rock’ album in that it is largely based on a traditional band sound and not disco or dance music. The legendary title track’s blend of gospel and rock, the sacred and profane is obvious. She called the wonderful ‘Oh Father’ her ‘homage to Simon & Garfunkel’ while the influential ‘Express Yourself’ was conceived as a tribute to Sly and the Family Stone. Prince himself pops up on ‘Love Song’, as unassuming a duet between icons as you could ever hear. ‘Cherish’, meanwhile, is a gorgeously sincere frolic of the kind she has (sadly) rarely returned to since. Aforementioned ‘Oh Father’ together with ‘Promise to Try’ (about her mother) and ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ (about an abusive marriage – never explicitly commented on but rumours abound that Sean Penn assaulted her) form the emotional core – popstars of Madonna’s level simply weren’t expected to turn their inner lives into pop songs. It’s an album she will never surpass – but in her defence, almost no-one will.
I’ll tell you the reason you couldn’t get home,
Cause there’s nowhere you’ve been and it’s nowhere you’re going,
Home is only a feeling you get in your mind,
From the people you love and you travel beside
Today marks exactly 10 years since I climbed into a white van with three friends and embarked on the long drive to London. One of my most vivid memories of that morning is of my final moments in the flat I shared with my brother in Bridgeton. Looking into the rooms for what felt like one final time (I would of course return for visits) and closing the doors behind me, it felt like the final episode of an American sitcom. “Sorry, we’re closed.”
It was definitely the end of something. I had no idea what was about to begin.
Today lends itself to reflection and taking stock. I’ve already written about my move in the context of one of its primary soundtracks, Confessions on a Dance Floor. As I describe there, my first year or so in London was tough. From the vantage point of a decade later I can look back with some affection at the loneliness which threatened to devour me yet I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Still, things got better. The terror went away and some great people came into my life to steal me from loneliness. Life happened, as it always must. One of the (many) things I had yet to learn back then was that I wasn’t losing a home in Glasgow but rather gaining one in London. A week ago I visited Glasgow for my 36th birthday and I remarked to my boyfriend that it never felt jarring going back; there is never a moment of ‘ok, I’m in Glasgow now’. It just feels like I’m in another part of my home, as effortless as if I’ve just walked from my living room into my bedroom. I know enough about the world to know that I’m very fortunate to be able to say that.
I am getting older now. 36 obviously isn’t old but it’s not an age you can ever imagine being when you’re 14, 20, even 25. When you’re younger there’s always a sense that you’re at the beginning of something; now I understand that life doesn’t work like that. There isn’t some point where you suddenly feel, “ah, this is it! Life is beginning!” Instead you just realise that life has been happening all along – this is what you have, for better or worse. Who you are right now is who you are, not some prototype version of something better. You better make the most of it.
If I’d never imagined being 36, I may have had some vague notion that when I was older I’d be a rock star or a famous writer or the Prime Minister. While there is nothing wrong with these aspirations, I am instead aware of far more mundane achievements which all seemed unimaginable at some point. I am gay, out to my family, friends, work and living with my boyfriend. In Glasgow I had a ‘family lunch’ which included my partner, his brother and his brother’s boyfriend and it didn’t feel in the slightest bit strange or awkward.
To the teenager who used to lie awake in bed and pray to God to make me ‘normal’, that feels like being a rock star.
There have been times in life when I couldn’t imagine having a circle of friends whom I loved, a job which didn’t fill me with dread every day or any money to do things which I enjoy. Things which seem quite small, really, yet are so, so big. I made what felt like an earth-shattering move to London and ten years later I find myself living a pretty average life, finding happiness in lying beside my boyfriend in bed and reading a book. The little things… there’s nothing bigger, is there?
Life is never movie perfect. Sadness, dissatisfaction, boredom and yearning are all things you will always feel to some degree. I think part of adulthood is accepting that and not trying to fight it; not trying to ward off the compromises which inevitably come but facing them head on. I understand that even living a mundane life is a privilege many don’t have and often that’s because of circumstances which are well beyond individual choices. Perhaps I am being trite but while we should never settle for misery, we should also never fail to appreciate what we may have while we still might have it.
Life moves on and I have no idea where I’ll be in ten years’ time. I always find myself morbidly fascinated by stories of people who tragically die relatively young: I think that, surely, they weren’t so different from anyone else? They were just ordinary people taking each day and then suddenly they were gone. The vast majority won’t be remembered by anyone other than those around them whom they loved and were loved by, if they had anyone at all. So I return again to the little things and the prosaic joy of a rainy Sunday.
Today is my boyfriend’s birthday and I’m off work. We’re going to walk up Primrose Hill and then meet some friends in a pub. Tomorrow, fittingly, there is an all-day Madonna party in Soho. I’ll get drunk, dance and come home to slump on the sofa. I couldn’t think of a better way to mark my decade in London.
(click on image for video)
When Rebel Heart was released I wrote that “‘some things can’t be replaced’ could fairly be described as the over-arching theme of the album”. This is, it’s safe to say, underlined by the Rebel Heart tour. I had read reviews describing it as a joyful experience but I couldn’t quite fathom how the setlist, which looked somewhat schizophrenic and jarring on paper, could lend itself to that.
Well, it does. It really, really does.
This was a Madonna at ease with herself: with her massive legacy, which she has sometimes shied away from, and with her current status as the grande dame of popular music. It’s no accident that the tour opens with Iconic and Bitch I’m Madonna before roaring back to 1983 with Burning Up, where “I’m not the same, I have no shame, I’m on fire!” was a prescient mission statement. The Rebel Heart songs, packed with allusions to Madonna’s position as an ageing pop star, sit surprisingly comfortably alongside old classics overwhelmingly taken from the first decade of her career. Perhaps most shockingly of all, these older songs are largely performed straight, rather than transformed in one of her trademark reinventions. There was a palpable sense of love pouring towards the stage when she performed True Blue, Like A Virgin, Like A Prayer, La Isla Bonita, Deeper and Deeper, Material Girl, Holiday in versions everyone could dance and sing-a-long to. Even a jazz version of Music quickly reverts to the squelching electro everybody knows. For once she was giving people the nostalgia they crave in their iconic pop stars – and she seemed to enjoy doing it.
As opposed to the brilliantly oppressive darkness of the MDNA tour, there was little here to disrupt audience expectations of ‘Madonna’: religion, sex, love, politics, defiance and feminism all dutifully appeared (sometimes all at once, as when Madonna surfed atop a dancer dressed as a nun on a rotating crucifix(!)) but always with a knowing, humourous wink. The flashes of steel were a lot more subtle this time round: the inclusion of many Rebel Heart songs was sweetened with the sugar of classics for casual fans, flashes of Give It 2 Me’s ‘Nothing’s gonna stop me now’ interspersed Music while the pre-encore show ended with new album track Unapologetic Bitch. Even the latter, however, was made more palatable for casual listeners by being delivered with light-touch humour and by dragging Graham Norton up on stage.
Given the title of the album, tour and the heart-shaped stage, it was only fitting that the song Rebel Heart felt like the throbbing centrepiece of the show. It was delivered alone by Madonna, standing in front of a screen depicting fan art of her throughout her past three decades:
(click on image for video)
It was both moving and celebratory, a testament to one of the most spectacular careers in popular music. That’s what this show is. Madonna might be one of the hardest working people in pop but she seems to finally feel that she has little left to prove. All she has to do is remind us of who she is, what she’s done and let us love her because, by and large, her fans have been on much of the journey with her. “We’re alive. We survived. And amen to fucking that!” she exclaimed at one point. Amen, indeed.
And she performed Candy Shop, of course. Bitch, she’s Madonna.
Photos and videos are here.