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.

Kylie

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My photos and videos of Kylie at the O2 last night are here.

For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, Q Magazine’s review of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories in 1994 has always stuck in my memory. Its final line was “Is it too soon to say that it was fun while it lasted?”

It’s no secret (hey!) that I’ve been immensely frustrated by Kylie for a while now. If I can be awful enough to quote myself (I can be):

Kylie has willingly placed herself into the nostalgia circuit. With her previous few albums clearly struggling to sell outside of her fan-base, it’s difficult to see this changing…if we approach pop as merely fronting persuasive hits, Kylie’s age is clearly against her and she begins to seem increasingly irrelevant.  What’s the point of a blank slate for Calvin Harris when you have Rihanna, for example? I don’t think you have to be too concerned with ‘rockist’ notions to believe that delivering further albums of off-the-shelf electro-pop can only offer diminishing returns, both commercially and critically.

Despite some glimmers of hope that something interesting was stirring (the Anti-Tour, the Abbey Road album which had an air of putting the past to bed, the jump to Roc Nation) the resulting relaunch, Kiss Me Once, was an immense disappointment. It also bombed – the last time I checked, long after its speedy exit from most of the world’s charts, it had sold around 200,000 copies worldwide (2010’s Aphrodite was certified Platinum for shipping 300,000 copies in the UK alone). An artistic risk which doesn’t sell can be a noble failure; a commercial smash which treads water could be said to be giving the fans what they want. The stars don’t always align. With Kiss Me Once, however, the stars weren’t even visible.

Still, live is where Kylie has always truly excelled, right? There’s no doubt that she remains a hugely charismatic performer – and she deserves eternal credit for her live vocals which invariably knock it out of the park. Yet the infuriating, aimless, conservatism which marked Kiss Me Once (and has arguably characterised much of her career in the past decade) carries over into this tour. The show is overwhelmingly familiar – with over 40 top twenty hits in the UK and 12 albums to her name, do we really need all of the big Parlophone singles wheeled out yet again? Do we need performances of Sexy Love/Wow/Love At First Sight, three diminishing return rewrites of the same song? Do we need yet another PWL medley (as fun as it was)? There were the usual semi-naked male dancers, the same old ‘ad-libs’, the standard ‘impromptu’ rendition of an old hit. It was Kylie-by-numbers. There were nods to progression with interludes featuring the Garibay songs she surprise-released the other week but what would Kylie have to lose in performing some of these live? They are the most interesting, if half-sketched, songs she’s released in ages. Lest we forget, she debuted Can’t Get You Out Of My Head on tour back in 2001 while KylieX2008 featured two completely new songs.

In the Kiss Me Once show, however, we find a Kylie who seems hesitant and cowed. Perhaps the underperformance of the album meant she felt the need to ‘deliver the hits’ – but anyone around her with the slightest insight would understand that the vast majority of people (hello, gay men over the age of 30) attending a Kylie show in 2014 would go along for the ride, wherever it took them. The ‘casual’ fans have been drifting away for a while now, underlined by the fact that last night’s third evening at the O2 featured a curtained-off top section:

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Les Folies tour had 5 dates at the O2. KylieX2008 had 7. Are we seeing a trend here?

To go back to the quote at the beginning, I of course don’t think that Kylie’s career is over. Yet it’s conceivable that her time as a relevant concern is at an end and, on the basis of both KMO album and tour, she could be in Cher territory: release a ‘will this do?’ album for the faithful then go out on tour with essentially the same show as you always do. And we shouldn’t be in any doubt that a significant number of her fans would be absolutely fine with this – it’s all they want from her. My frustration, as always, stems from the fact that I know she is capable of so much more than that. I’ve been saying that she has nothing to lose for years – now we’re at the stage where surely even she must be aware of her decline. I think this could be her last chance to do something daring, as she has done before, to win over new hearts and minds. Alternatively, we’ll rendezvous in a few years for her three dates at Brixton Academy, marketed as an ‘intimate’ show but with a telling smattering of empty seats.

Nostalgia and Futurology

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Modern pop music came to prominence at the same time as the invention and rise of the teenager, a concept (and grouping) with which it has had a long, sweaty symbiosis. While pop may be at least 70 years old, it still carries associations with, and connotations of, youth and modernity. Yet while the dawn of the teenager is inextricably linked to guitar-based rock and roll music, the past 20-odd years has seen the rise of poptimism, which seeks to paint guitar-based ‘rock’ as conservative and backwards against the futuristic-leanings of a self-consciously ‘artificial’ dance-oriented chart pop. I’ve always found this attempted delineation to be weak and messy, a position which I feel has been vindicated the more dominant poptimism has become in the media. Shows like The Big Reunion and acts like One Direction (one of whose biggest hits was widely viewed as being an…homage…to The Who) have shown that conservatism and nostalgia are by no means solely confined to rock music.

The sway of poptimism is such, however, that the latter examples aren’t seen as retrospective. The Big Reunion may explictly involve reforming pop acts who were briefly popular in the 90s but, when placed against the mythical bogeyman of conservative rock, it’s viewed as an open-minded celebration. One Direction may make derivative music but their talent show origins, their youth and their appeal to young girls conspire to present them as exciting and modern. Nostalgia, then, is elided to the point where it becomes meaningless: little more than a tool to bash already-disliked acts with rather than any considered and/or sincere aversion to conservatism. It is enough to be heard as loudly opposed to conservatism, no matter how incoherent this may be upon examination. What matters is perception.

This warping of ‘nostalgia’ from meaning a sentimental yearning for ‘the good old days’ to a largely-empty signifier to be deployed against acceptable targets has permeated music criticism. You can view it in how acts like Prince and David Bowie were warmly welcomed when they stopped messing about (trying new things) and instead delivered albums which played to their archetypal images. Again, this was very clearly playing to nostalgia but in aligning themselves with audience expectations they opened a space for fluid, unforced perceptions. We don’t want to be seen to be conservative but we also don’t like it when acts make things hard for us by not being what we want them to  be; so, when they oblige us in the latter, we tell ourselves that they have ‘returned to form’ rather than ‘allowed us to love our own idea of them again’. It’s noticeable that this rationalisation is very rarely wheeled out for acts who haven’t deviated from who we want them to be – acts who conversely can end up as whipping posts for faux anti-conservatism because there has been no disruption there, nothing for them to return to us from.

The genius of Bowie’s The Next Day, one I still don’t think is widely appreciated, is how it completely understood this state of affairs and made it integral to the album and its campaign. The actual music wasn’t particularly different from Bowie’s previous few albums and I’ve no doubt that had it been released a decade previous, it would have quickly faded from view. Yet there was the ten year disruption and it was this Bowie made use of. It wasn’t just nostalgia presented as modernity – it artfully used the listener’s expectations to make it the first post-nostalgic album.

Manics_Futurology_Art_600This brings me to Futurology, the new Manic Street Preachers album which is providing them with the best reviews they’ve had in almost 20 years. It’s a very good album but I find it curious that most of these reviews have been focusing on the band’s ‘reinvention’, their ability to take the ostentatious trappings of Krautrock, Berlin-era Bowie and early-Simple Minds and craft their own ‘masterpiece‘ from the ruins. I find it curious because despite all the advance word, Futurology isn’t a musical reinvention at all – there’s almost nothing on there that a Manics fan won’t have heard from them before. In fact, from the moment the melodic opening title track riff recalls the band’s commercial peak through the post-punk blast of Sex, Power, Love and Money, the Know Your Enemy-jangle of The Next Jet to Leave Moscow and the energised Lifeblood-sheen of Walk Me To The Bridge, it’s a record which feels steeped in the Manics’ history. The same is true lyrically – the latter song’s clear references to Richey (despite the band’s denials) have already been noted while TNJTLM finds them renouncing their Know Your Enemy jaunt to Cuba (everything must go, indeed!). Let’s Go To War, meanwhile, is presented as the final part of a newly-formulated trilogy and its line ‘don’t forget we love you still’ harks back to both previous instalments (You Love Us/Masses Against the Classes). There are also, as noted in The Quietus review, several nods to particular aspects of working-class Welsh history threaded throughout the album.

It’s been noted that Futurology is the sister album of last year’s Rewind The Film. Less noted is the clear contrast in the album titles – the past and the future, or rather an idea of the future. The title track of RTW was an ode to the comfort of nostalgia: “rewind the film once more/turn back the pages of my post/rewind the film once more/I want the world to see it all.” The video for this and that album’s other two singles formed a short film about working-class Wales and the impact of the Miners’ Strike. The mood of Rewind The Film meant that critics easily identified its obsession with the past, with nostalgia. It also had a sense of anxiety for an unknown future which seemed certain to be warped and alien, irrevocably broken from the comforting myths of the past.

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of these themes – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. “We’ll come back one day… we never really went away. ” This is Futurology.

 

This was quite an interesting one. My well-documented disdain for Lady Gaga led some friends to jokingly note that I couldn’t possibly be ‘objective’ when reviewing her new album. Yet such ‘objectivity’ surely doesn’t exist? We all approach music with our particular notions of what it is and what it should be; we particularly approach specific pop stars with these preconceptions. In the case of someone like Lady Gaga, whose personality is absolutely fundamental to her appeal, it’s disingenuous to pretend that you don’t have a particular view. Indeed, if you didn’t have one it would beg the question of why you were writing as a ‘critic’ in the first place. Sadly the decline of criticism and rise of marketing means that this isn’t viewed as particularly odd –it’s expected that a review will offer little more than bland statements as to whether you should spend your cash on the music in question. Here music is an extension of lifestyle rather than a cultural force with socio-political meaning. “Pop will never be low-brow”, indeed.

FWIW, my personal journey with Gaga is peaks and troughs…her initial single run was dazzling, even if The Fame was largely dreck. As I note in this review however, The Fame Monster is an incredible record. Unfortunately its success, particularly that of Bad Romance, has derailed her entire career. 

Lady Gaga – ARTPOP

loved Teenage Dream, to the degree that I actually went to see Part of Me in the cinema (it was a 20 minute dvd extra stretched to feature length). Hopes were high for Prism and in my head I’d already planned a pre-emptively defensive piece on why Perry is a great pop star. Then I actually heard the album and it ruined everything – it’s just not that great and feels driven by marketing concerns more than anything else. Someone has pointed out in the comments that I mistakenly called International Smile, ‘International Lover’…but that’s because the former is so bland that after listening to it about 12 times I think I was subconsciously craving the Princely magic of the latter. Back in the day I loved Britney Spears and now I think she’s one of the worst pop stars in history; I had a similar trajectory with Rihanna; now I’m fearful Perry is heading the same way. I think there’s a lot in there regarding modern pop and commerce, touched on in the review…but that’s for another time.

Katy Perry – Prism

It’s heartening, then, that rkives allows Rilo Kiley to have the kind of send-off that they deserve. A career-spanning collection of previously unreleased tracks and obscurities, it is much more a labour of love than a perfunctory ‘greatest hits’ collection would have been – something underlined by the album artwork and promo video for lead single Let Me Back In, all of which use the band’s personal photos, film footage and handwritten notes. The whole affair has a sweet-natured grace which erases the uncomfortable bitterness which characterised the band’s demise.

Rilo Kiley – rkives

The Next Day Review

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Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire. – St. Catherine of Siena

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ten years ago David Bowie seemed to be in the middle of the graceful managed decline which we’ve come to expect from our music legends, putting out tasteful albums which, while critically acclaimed, were seen as inferior to his best work. He’d regained much goodwill by ditching the wilful experimentation of 1.Outside and Earthling and instead putting out albums which sounded like what you might imagine an archetypal Bowie album in the 00s to sound like; throw in post-9/11 reflections on mortality and ageing and it was critical catnip. He toured regularly and had overcome his reticence to play the hits, making his shows celebratory, nostalgiac affairs rather than the difficult and strange atmosphere which hung over much of his 90s appearances. Bowie was even playing along with the idea that his best was behind him, pondering how he “used to wake up the ocean” and “used to walk on clouds” on Afraid. He was making it very easy to like him yet there was little wider interest – after the flurry of interest which greeted Heathen (seen as a PROPER BOWIE ALBUM) people moved on – none of Reality’s singles troubled the charts and it spent only 4 weeks on the album chart.

And then he disappeared.

Whatever the reasons for his decade of near-silence, it wouldn’t be reaching to say that it’s probably the greatest thing that could have happened to Bowie’s career. By removing himself and leaving behind what seemed to be a solidified and settled body of work, he became a mythic version of himself – “David Bowie” was an abstract idea more than a person. People could love the Bowie in their head without the man himself popping up to ruin their pre-conceptions with some pesky new material. The longer the silence went on, the larger the myth grew. The advent of the Facebook and Twitter age brought with it a new breed of pop star who was expected to be ‘approachable’ and ‘down to earth’, tweeting their daily activities and instagramming themselves in their cars. And so Bowie’s myth grew even larger: the man who had so often portrayed himself as alien truly seemed to belong to another dimension. Dark whispers circulated that the man himself was dying, his particular terminal illness varying depending on who was presenting it as a fact. As we entered 2013 it seemed unthinkable that it would not just be another year of silence from Bowie the man while some unobtrusive reissues would further stoke Bowie as legend.

The hysteria which greeted Where Are We Now?, then, is completely understandable.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. It seemed like an ancient legend had deigned to grace us with their presence once more. WAWN’s genius is clear in retrospect: it plays like a release from the abstract Bowie rather than the corporeal one. The man is barely present in the video; he sounds frail and old and sings of memory and death. It ties in completely with the idea of Bowie which has taken hold in the past decade and, in doing so, it doesn’t disrupt people’s affectionate conceptions of him. This is its towering achievement. Make no mistake, as strong a song as WAWN is there can surely be little doubt that, had it been released in 2004, it would have quickly faded from the public consciousness and never would have charted in the top ten. Yet in being his first release since he became a myth it had a lot of pressure on it – it could easily have been the catalyst for Bowie’s fall to earth. Perhaps if he’d returned with some 1.Outside-esque experimentation, it would have been. Instead Bowie, ever astute, makes it easy for us to love him again.

His appearance in the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is when it all slotted into place: that odd, self-referential album cover, Where Are We Now?, the Berlin imagery, Bowie’s spectral presence and refusal to promote The Next Day with interviews or appearances. He knows exactly what he has become and he’s having enormous fun with it while being careful not to damage the cachet it affords him. Nothing on The Next Day is obtuse – even album closer Heat, the latest result of Bowie’s long obsession with The Electrician, is aesthetically graceful rather than difficult. The opening title track may be about a medieval tyrant but it positively bounds out of the speakers, eager to please. Many reviewers have rightly noted the chorus’ cheeky and amusing opening line of “Here I am/not quite dying!” but few have noted that it’s followed by “my body left to rot in a hollow tree”. Could he be making his intention to nurture his own myth, to feed into Bowie the abstract, any clearer? Heck, even his picking up of a tawdry celebrity gossip magazine in the video for TS(AOT) and Tilda’s subsequent binning of it now seems like a glaringly obvious pointer.

To this end the album is full of nods to his own past – with that cover, how could it not be? The sound of the album generally recalls the work he did with Iggy Pop on The Idiot and Lust for Life – both released, of course, in the same year as “Heroes” (1977). That title track invokes the spirit of Beauty and the Beast but within seconds of the second track, Dirty Boys, it’s clear that it’s not only that year in Berlin which is being used here as it deploys the famous riff from Fame. Valentine’s Day is a charmingly melodic number which, with its 50s influences, bears comparison to Drive-In Saturday while The Stars (Are Out Tonight) features a rumbling sax which nods towards Absolute Beginners. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, meanwhile, could pretty much be called I WAS ZIGGY STARDUST YOU KNOW such is its obvious intent to rewrite Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (it even ends with the drumbeat intro to Five Years).

Obviously The Next Day’s playful attempt at being a meta-Bowie album could have been a disaster if the songs weren’t up to much – fortunately that’s rarely a concern. While at 15 tracks it could certainly afford to lose a couple of tracks (Boss of Me and Dancing Out in Space feel functional rather than thrilling) it’s an electrifying listen. Even amongst all the references to his own mighty past, a song like If You Can See Me sounds daring and stirring. The crux of the album seems to be (You Will) Set The World On Fire, surely a reference to the famous St. Catherine of Siena quote above – Bowie understands that if he plays along with us at being the archetypal David Bowie, the world is his. This is the spine-tingling brilliance of The Next Day which manages the almost-impossible feat of being new and engaging without disturbing the myriad of different notions people have of Bowie. Where he goes next is impossible to predict – maintaining this artifice seems impractical. Indeed, it’s surely telling that the album ends not with the self-consciously epic You Feel So Lonely You Could Die but with Heat, where Bowie mournfully muses “I tell myself I don’t know who I am” and sings of a prison. It’s a glimpse of the other side of the abstract Bowie, a conceit which does not allow for works like Earthling and he’s clearly all too aware of that. For now, however, we can allow ourselves to be bewitched and thrill at the day we had allowed ourselves to believe would never  come: David Bowie is back.

08-03-13 EDIT:
Today this advert for TND appeared in the press – I think it’s fair to say that it reflects a lot of what I wrote above:

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