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 playlist of my favourite albums of 2018:
And a playlist of my favourite songs:
My photos and videos from last night’s U2 gig at the O2 are here.
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.
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.
Given singles are increasingly irrelevant, I’ve done a list of songs I loved this year.
In no particular order, though ★ was definitely my number 1. It goes without saying that three artists loomed large in my listening this year and here are the posts I wrote to mark their passing:
George Michael died late in the year, during that period when everything grinds to a halt. I marked it on Instagram.
2016 was a fucking terrible year in so many ways. I hope 2017 is better.
I cannot believe we are here again. It feels like the cosmos is snuffing out the lights, one by one. Yet I know that Leonard Cohen would not agree. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in. And oh how brightly, how magnificently, Leonard shone, illuminating and warming the world.
I came to Leonard very late, in his latter-day renaissance when he was a man in his late seventies. He was producing some of the greatest work of his long career and remained doing so right until the end. As I wrote then I felt, and I feel, enormously privileged to have been able to see him live (twice, as it turned out). Truly, in a world where the word ‘privilege’ is thrown around with abandon, we were fortunate to find Leonard:
Watching Cohen made the modern obsession with mocking ‘authenticity’ seem infinitely mean-spirited and short-sighted. Here was a man who clearly approached his craft as high art, giving himself entirely to its calling with a refreshing and seductive humility and self-deprecation. At one point he praised his backing singers (a phrase which seems almost insulting, such was their brilliance and centrality to the show), begging them to never leave as without them, ‘no-one would come to see my show’. The musicians on stage all clearly had a profound respect for one another, a spark amongst them which frequently ignited into a dazzling flame. So often I felt that I was witnessing true brilliance, a transcendental magic which made me feel privileged to even be in the same room.
The poem at the top is taken from a pocketbook of Leonard’s poems and lyrics which I have returned to many times over the years. Sometimes, like today, I put it in my bag and carry it with me. All of the wisdom of the ages seems contained in its pages. Only yesterday I was listening to Everybody Knows and thinking how apropos it was for the age we live in:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows – but few knew like Leonard. There is some comfort to be found in the awareness that he seemed to know this was coming and had made his peace with it. You didn’t have to parse his last album very closely to know what much of it was about. I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game. I’m travelling light, it’s au revoir. Hineni, hineni – I’m ready my Lord. In his final letter to Marianne Ihlen he wrote:
Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.
These two lines, with their compassion, comfort, self-deprecation and deep, deep well of love capture Leonard wonderfully. Even as an old man he seemed to possess wisdom drawn from another place and a grace which took you gently into its arms and cradled you. Now he is going home and he has earned his sleep:
Leonard will always be with me. I know that I will return to his songs and his words, so without parallel, until the day I too am taken. For now, it’s closing time and I will raise a toast to a truly wonderful man before heading out into the cold.
The days may not be fair, always
That’s when I’ll be there, always
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year, but always.
RIP Leonard Cohen.