Watching Madonna attempt to wrestle the 21st century into submission ahead of her new studio album, Rebel Heart, has been fascinating.
A refugee from music’s monocultural heyday, Madonna has tried to seem nimble and flexible rather than an MTV relic.
One stumble after another has dogged Her Madgesty, whether it’s her recent, painful tumble at the Brit Awards or Heart’s Internet leak a full month ahead of its release.
In each instance, she has forged ahead, but these missteps underscore how difficult a high-profile publicity campaign is — no matter your stature — in the Internet age.
She even included a brief memo to journalists with Heart, her first studio album in three years, following 2012’s MDNA.
In it, the 56-year-old singer-songwriter shares her initial vision — “I knew I wanted to explore the duality of my personality which is renegade and romantic,” Madonna writes — as well as what seems like a disclaimer as defensive as it is paradoxically vulnerable.
“I have opinions,” she writes. “What else can you do if you’re an artist? I don’t know any other way except to offer up my heart, or ‘Come on, you wanna [expletive] with me? Let’s go.’ ”
Such overbearing, pre-release micromanaging gives a whiff of preemptive damage control, mitigating the impact of a forgettable record (for my money, Madonna’s last high-water mark was a decade ago, on 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor), so imagine the pleasant surprise: Heart manages to balance the tough and tender sides of Madge’s personality in entertaining fashion.
For a substantial stretch of Heart, from the gorgeous atmospherics of Ghosttown through to the gritty Joan of Arc, Madonna offers a side of herself she hasn’t exhibited since the transitional ’90s. The human side of being an icon is fertile terrain often left unexplored, because introspection doesn’t always mesh well with pop escapism.
While Madonna has some fun with tabloid rumors — Illuminati, her much-touted collaboration with Kanye West, is bitingly funny, as well as pleasingly of-the-musical-moment — Heart takes hold when she drops her guard, and distances herself from guests like Nicki Minaj and Chance the Rapper, admitting the high cost of global superstardom.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now/Just hold me while I cry my eyes out,” she sings on Joan of Arc, a midtempo ballad providing sharp contrast with boastful tracks like the reggae-tinged, Diplo-produced Unapologetic B—-.
What sneaks up on you as Rebel Heart unfolds — a little lengthy in its 55-minute version; absurdly overlong in its 75-minute “deluxe edition” format — is that Madonna, for all the hiccups in the months before the album’s release, hit upon a realization as true in the 21st century as it was in the 19th: Being yourself, regardless of the consequences, will win out every time.
In other words, substance almost always trumps style, but for a rare few artists, one can enhance the other.
Having the chutzpah to pull it off, in this short-attention-span age, is Madonna’s true act of rebellion.