Discussing Madonna around a dinner table will likely garner her some ridicule. “Relevant” seems to be the last compliment people want to give her, these days. The typical naysayer will give praise for what she used to be but express disdain for her continued eminence in culture. Reasons for such contempt usually circle her 56 years of age and the belief she’s desperate to still be doing what she’s already been doing for 30 + years.
Ironically, considering this apparent attitude, there are forces at work,which want Madonna’s new music in the world before she’s quite ready. The release of her 13th studio album Rebel Heart will be remembered for its premature leaks. Even before last year was through, numerous demos seeped onto the internet, prompting Madonna and her team to make six tracks from the LP immediately available on iTunes. An Israeli man was eventually arrested under suspicion for the hack, but the full album, in its completed form, subsequently emerged online earlier this month.
For an artist who has always muscled an iron grip on her career, it seemed, for the first time, Madonna was without considerable control. Interestingly, loss of control is a developed theme on Rebel Heart. In Wash All Over Me, she questions, “Who am I to decide what should be done?” There’s a sense Madonna has learnt to lean into seeming unease. “If this is the end then let it come. Let it come, let it rain. Rain all over me” she sings over the song’s majestic pace of marching band percussion. Lyrically, she’s releasing. And, at a point in her career where ageism is tugging at her seams, it’s a needed expression of self-awareness in being a mature icon, in today’s condemnatory pop world.
With letting go, Madonna is also willing to be vulnerable. Exposure runs rampant on Rebel Heart. Ten years ago, she was making frivolous confessions on a dance floor, now she’s confessing from a deeply honest place. On Joan Of Arc‘s tuneful chorus, she vents, “I don’t wanna talk about it right now, just hold me while I cry my eyes out.” It’s a tender moment from a woman who’s physicality, at the very least, suggests nothing can break her. Joan Of Arc leads us to believe that despite her astonishing resilience, her armour can be shattered by what they say. Perhaps it’s responsive to claims of her irrelevance and desperation – “Each time they write a hateful word, dragging my soul into the dirt. I wanna die.” It’s an admission from Madonna that feels like a rarity, considering her typically steely persona.
Madonna’s previous album, 2012’s MDN, was deemed her divorce piece. Her lyrics often detailed the drama she experienced in leaving ex-husband Guy Ritchie. On Rebel Heart, Madonna articulates her experience with separation on a greater spectrum. Sentiments travel from anguish to the power found in goodbye. HeartBreakCity is a clear cut from her material defined by grief. “Cut me down the middle. Fucked me up a little”, she tremors over a forlorn piano, which is later intensified by another percussive march. Notably, marching is the sound of endurance on Rebel Heart, and we’re taking Madonna’s steps of survival in listening.
From the strength she finds in moving on, Living For Love is manifested, as the album’s lead-single. The Diplo made sequence of house lifts the roof like her titanic benchmarks, Like A Prayer and Express Yourself. There’s also duality within the song’s context of life-after-love. The secondary message is making love the point of life. And, for this reason, one can easily imagine pride seasons around the globe elevating Living For Love to a higher anthemic level than where it already stands.
The reverse side of Madonna’s loss of love is her undying affinity with romantic idealisation. Such musings gain tremendous momentum on Ghosttown, where her perspective is starry-eyed, as she narrates a tale of love’s survival in a post apocalyptic world. Adorned with a far-reaching chorus, Ghosttown is an electro-ballad with melodies that curve deeply. Despite minor flourishes of auto-tune, Madonna’s voice sounds wholesome and less cartoonish here. Behind all that goes on, sonically, the cinematic embellishments of this tune are lassoed in by a series of humble yet mighty chord progressions, which work to keep everything tightly arranged. Solely written by Madonna, Ghosttown feels more concerned with song-craft than trend, making it a rewarding listen.
The delightful Body Shop is another rose-tinted vision. Madonna likens her romantic needs to upkeep on a car, which ought to be attended to by her beau in the body shop. “Jumpstart my heart, you know what you gotta do.” The metaphoric discourse is endearing and the song twangs somewhere between India and Middle America. Is it a sitar or banjo playing? Either way, it strums blissfully on the ears. Not dissimilar to ‘Ghosttown’, it’s a track where Madonna doesn’t seem preoccupied with staying current, and the results are actually quite fresh.
Of course, there are ticks on Rebel Heart, where Madonna’s penchant for appealing to the youth market makes the production overexcited. Bitch I’m Madonna, featuring Nicki Minaj, swanks a flatulent synth that ambushes the listener with its teenage enthusiasm. With lyrics like – “Yeah, we’ll be drinking and nobody’s gonna stop us”, the song essentially uses the age-appropriate-guidebook as toilet paper. Likewise, on Unapologetic Bitch, Diplo edges the production with raving alarms, as it’s reggaeton beat struts with brazen confidence. “I’m popping bottles that you can’t even afford. I’m throwing parties and you won’t get in the door”, it’s a brattish ode to validating oneself against the ex. The pressing break-up suggests one she had with a recent boy-toy, perhaps twenty-something Jesus Luz or Brahim Zaibat? Surely Guy Richie could afford expensive champagne.
Even among the party packages, Rebel Heart is an album laced with lush guitar and strong song writing. A noteworthy number, which attests to these qualities, is the title track, Rebel Heart. It’s a mid-tempo ballad so melodically sophisticated, with its sing-along euphony, that the chorus reaches a much higher plane. The instrumentation of heart-tugging strings and percussive punch helps to support a vocal performance from Madonna that echoes wisely from her point of reflection. The song, thematically, is a look back, “So I took the road less travelled by, and I barely made it out alive.”
Unlike the Madonna of previous eras, this one is absorbed in pronouncing all she’s done before. The album explicitly rejoices in her legacy and that’s evident in song titles like Iconic and Veni Vidi Vici. In the latter, Madonna self-references her litany of hits by weaving big names into autobiographic lines like “I expressed myself, came like a virgin down the isle… I opened up my heart. I learnt the power of goodbye. I saw a ray of light. Music saved my life.” In the Natalia Kills assisted Holy Water, she goes as far as resurrecting the rap from Vogue to commemorate her history. And after three decades of prominence in the music industry, she’s earned her privilege to revel in such rich heritage.
No one has matched the endurance of Madonna in pop. No one has had a career of consistency to compare to her achievements. Rebel Heart can be enjoyed as a testament to her continuance. Usually, persistent success in one’s career, over a lengthy period, is societally regarded as an achievement worthy of applause. Therefore, it seems contradictory for cynics to drag her for prolonging a career. The alternative perception is to simply appreciate the music, as it so easily is, with Rebel Heart.
Inarguably it’s her best release in ten years. This is Madonna’s new era. If attention looks beyond the music, perhaps it’s time to notice that what she’s doing, as a 56-year-old female in pop, is shifting the paradigm for what it means to be middle-aged. We’re all living longer lives, let this central part in our life become more abundant. Let’s look to Madonna as an example on how to express freely.