For more than 35 years, Madonna has somehow remained one of the most talked-about and game-changing artists in the music world. However, throughout her career, she’s never had a particularly easy time of it, particularly when it comes to the way she’s discussed in the media and regrettably, even after decades of fighting off backlash after backlash, it seems the knives are still out for the Queen of Pop.
Despite proving herself as an artist not to be underestimated or written off on countless occasions, her detractors are still looking for any opportunity to drag her down, for reasons usually rooted in misogyny and ageism (you’ll notice her male peers are almost never at the centre of similar debates about when they’ll “give it up” or “call it a day”) often before she’s even had the chance to speak or act for herself.
This has been all too apparent in the lead-up to her new album Madame X, her 14th. When its bilingual lead single Medellín was released in April, many were quick to hone in on the age gap between Madonna and featured vocalist Maluma, rather than the fact she’d chosen to launch her album with such an unusual song, or anything she might have been trying to say in the song’s lyrics.
Similarly, look at the reporting around her performance at the Eurovision final in Israel this year. True, there was no escaping it was far from her finest performance vocally, but it was nonetheless disappointing to see just how much of the conversation around the performance was dedicated to Madonna’s appearance, her clothes or her supposedly “shaky” moves on stage, compared to her call for peace in the Middle East, which barely registered for some critics.
Even since then, there have been a slew of headlines about how she’s been “struggling” to sell seats for her upcoming Madame X tour, despite the fact that tickets hadn’t even gone on sale to the general public when these stories were published.
Unfortunately, these needless criticisms are now beginning to overshadow her actual musical output, which is a particular shame as Madame X is one her most intriguing and ambitious albums to date. It could also spark the most conversation, if people were only willing to actually hear her out. Thankfully, though, as she reveals over the course of the album, she’s definitely not done fighting yet.
The backlashes Madonna has previously fought off are well-documented and engrained in pop culture – the merging of sexual and religious imagery, the Erotica album and Sex book that followed – but the one that probably caused the most damage is often slightly overlooked.
In 2003, Madonna released what was, at the time, her most experimental and political album to date, American Life. During that period, she was unrelenting in using her platform to speak out about what she believed in, mostly her dissatisfaction with then-President George W Bush and the Iraq war, and what she felt was too much emphasis on materialism and celebrity in US culture.
The final straw was the politically-charged music video for the album’s title track, which featured Madonna storming a fashion show in military garb, eventually throwing a grenade at a Bush lookalike, who then caught it, using it to light his cigar.
Even Madonna appeared to agree she’d crossed a line, pulling the music video and releasing a statement saying she didn’t feel it was “appropriate” to be shown on TV. The damage was done, though, and what followed was a notably shaky period in her career. The American Life album was met with mixed reviews, and was Madonna’s lowest-selling at that time, with follow-up single Hollywood becoming her first not to chart in the US since 1983.
Of course, she would bounce back a couple of years later with the disco-heavy Confessions On A Dance Floor, but while it was hailed as a return to form, there were some who felt it smacked a little of damage control, not helped by the collaborations with trendy producers like Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Paul Oakenfold, Avicii, Martin Solveig and Diplo that would come in the decade that followed.
It’s worth noting then, that now the expectation for Madonna to have a hit single has disappeared (of the three singles from her last album Rebel Heart, only lead single Living For Love charted in the UK, peaking at number 26), she has reunited with her American Life co-producer Mirwais, and released what has already gone down with critics as her boldest, most experimental and, indeed, her most bizarre album to date.
Madame X was borne out of Madonna’s stint living in Lisbon, where she moved her family so her teenage son could pursue his burgeoning football career. As a result, the album is heavily influenced by music from all over the world, beginning with Portugal, but also featuring influences from South America, Spain and Jamaica, incorporated with the pop and dance sound she’s perfected since her rise to the top.
In all honesty, this musical melting pot approach makes Madame X a jarring listen at first as Madonna takes on a fairly heavy-handed spin around the globe, but while it’s not a perfect album, it’s definitely an uncompromising one, and gives you the impression it’s one Madonna has been waiting a long time to record.
Not only is it the most experimental album she’s released since American Life, it’s also the most political. There’s probably no better example of this than God Control, in which Madonna laments the need for gun laws in America.
“Everybody knows the damn truth,” an almost-inaudibly-vocordered Madonna sighs, “Our nation lied, we lost respect”. From there, a gospel choir is swiftly introduced, before the ballad explodes into a disco track reminiscent of Kylie Minogue or Cher, while Madonna raps in a baby voice about the reasons she doesn’t smoke weed. And believe it or not, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
She goes in further on Batuka, a call-and-response track inspired by the traditional music of Cape Verde, in which she sings: “I was up all night, I said a little prayer, get that old man, put him in a jail, where he can’t stop us, and he can’t hurt us.” She doesn’t say it explicitly, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out she’s probably singing about the man who referred to her as “disgusting” and “disgraceful to our country” after her speech at the Women’s March in 2017.
And while she’s been referring to the “revolution of love” she wants to kickstart since as far back as 2012, it sounds like it could be inching nearer if the almost-threatening Future is anything to go by, as she warns those who refuse to move with the times: “Not everyone is learning from the past, not everyone can come into the future, not everybody here is going to last.”
Ahead of the new album’s release, Madonna introduced us to her new alter-ego Madame X who she teased was, among other things, “a prisoner, a student, a mother, a child, a teacher, a nun, a singer, a saint [and] a whore”. What’s interesting, is that in her Madame X guise, Madonna has been able to reveal more of her vulnerable side musically than ever before.
While both the aforementioned Medellín and God Control are party tracks tinged with sadness (on the latter she suggests her only friend is her own brain), she gets even more introspective as the album progresses, hinting at homesickness and loneliness on Crave, when she sings: “I’m tired of being far away from home, far from what can help, far from where it’s safe.”
Later, on Extreme Occident, Madonna essentially takes us through her entire life journey in torch song style, beginning, as she notes, “in the Midwest”, before travelling the world and, notably, “having to pay the cost”.
These two contrasting ideas of Madonna’s vulnerability and strength battle it out on Dark Ballet, probably the strangest cut of all on Madame X, which starts out as a piano ballad before swivelling completely, transforming into a spoken-word piece about “love and loneliness”, accompanied by an electronica version of Tchaicoksky’s Dance Of The Reed Flutes.
Dark Ballet is also where Madonna takes the opportunity to let her detractors know that no matter what is thrown at her, she won’t be backing down, in a vocally-distorted section that sees her compare herself to Joan Of Arc.
“I will not denounce the things that I have said,” she says, her voice so disguised it’s difficult to make out her words. “You can cut my hair and throw me in a jail cell, say that I’m a witch and burn me at the stake, it’s all a big mistake… I will not give in.”
It’s fitting that the album’s deluxe edition should end on I Rise, a message of hope for those who feel uncertain in the current political climate. The track opens with a sample of a speech from Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez, and again references gun control in its lyrics – but can also serve as an allegory for the highs and lows of her career.
“Died a thousand times, managed to survive,” Madonna sings, in what could easily be her official mission statement. “I can’t break down now… I rise, I rise, I rise, up above it all.”
Madonna has already told us that Madame X is “an equestrian”, “a thief” and “a cha cha instructor”, but what she’s also proved time and time again is that she’s a fighter. Her days of dominating the airwaves and the singles charts might be behind her, but Madonna is still very much a force to be reckoned with, taking risks at a stage in her career, and her life, when others would be resting on their laurels.
And when life, her critics or even the literal US president try to knock her down, she’s still able to pick herself up and “rise... up above it all”.
Madonna’s Madame X is available to download and stream now.