Madonna has been everything. Madonna is the reason female pop stars are able to be multifaceted, evolutionary, sexy-and-smart, vulnerable-and-empowering creatures instead of fembots programmed to either be contagiously happy or soul-stirringly sad for the sake of easy entertainment. Without her, the world would have a different idea of the entire modern concept of what a female pop star is/can be/should be. Sure, someone else with a big attitude and an even bigger nerve might have come along at the right time, but it’s hard to imagine just anyone becoming such a permanent visionary in our musical landscape as Madonna — particularly in a way that, for the most part, has retained relevance.
When you start to think like this, it’s easy to give the 56-year-old icon a break. The thing is, Madonna doesn’t want you to cut her any slack. She is prepared for you to compare her to the very competition she is responsible for creating. (I imagine it would be hard for her to not think about them, in at least some small way she’d never admit, as children — and would anyone with an active ego blame her?) There’s at least one point in every Madonna interview where the reader may think, “Holy shit, this woman could devour me whole.” It starts to become clear that Madonna doesn’t set expectations on the basis of her audience or her critics — she’d go this hard whether they were watching or not. But like most gym rats, she would prefer to catch your eye while she’s bettering herself.
Ageless, innately intense, obsessed with relevance, and refusing to be pinned down: if the last decade of Madonna’s discography are any indication, it is difficult even for her to be all these things at once. And so, she often works in cycles that explore the dichotomy of personal songs and party songs. After a string of personal, pseudo-political albums in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s albums (starting with her middle-aged opus Ray of Light), Madge stacked her last three albums — 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, 2008’s Hard Candy, and 2012’s MDNA — with dance-floor frivolity of varying styles. The formula got less successful as the years passed — Confessions was one of Madonna’s most musically forward-thinking albums despite being a disco homage in many ways, but by MDNA, instead of an innovator obsessed with the next big sound, Madonna came across a little like Amy Poehler’s character in Mean Girls: trying way too hard to be cool. It was time for a new cycle.
On Rebel Heart, Madonna’s new album out this week, she offers up a nearly even split of personal and party tracks on her 19-song deluxe edition — something 2000’s Music also achieved. Her collaborators here are either contemporary commercial giants (Ryan Tedder, Avicii, Toby Gad), sonic innovators (Blood Diamonds, Ariel Rechtshaid, Sophie), or both (Kanye, Diplo). Boss-ass bestie Nicki Minaj returns to guest on the so-bad-it’s-good “Bitch I’m Madonna,” retribution for Madge involving her on two pretty forgettable MDNA tracks (then again, what wasn’t forgettable on MDNA?). Nas, Chance the Rapper, and Mike Tyson guest too, in that descending order of quality. There are plenty of new and shiny ideas in this melange of sounds, but lyrically, Rebel Heart is Madonna’s most self-referential album to date, complete with puns based on her past hits (Nas collaboration “Veni Vedi Vici”) and a brief sampling of “Vogue” (“Holy Water”). Pop’s all-time provocateur shocks in a new way: as she recently told Pitchfork, “It feels like the right time to look back.”
Madonna hasn’t been relegated as a personality to just two dimensions in a of couple of decades now, but musically, her desire to be everything at once has decreased over time. This is a quality I’ve always appreciated in late-career Madonna: the sense that she has all the time in the world. On record, there’s not this pressure to be, all at once, as serious as possible, as sexy as she can be, as controversial, and as carefree. Each album doesn’t have to be a complete self-portrait. This is what makes Rebel Heart different. By the end, it starts to take the misshape of a career retrospective — something it has no business doing, considering its hit-or-miss variance from song to song, lack of cohesion, bad sex jokes (if there is one thing Madonna can’t pull off in her music, it’s humor), and Madge’s own transcendent history.
Given this, I’m left to wonder why it is that I hear so many other pop stars in Rebel Heart. Is it Madonna’s influence, or Madonna’s trend-chasing? With their slight electro-reggae vibes (i.e. Diplo making his presence known) and bad attitudes, “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Hold Tight” could be huge hits for Rihanna. “Joan of Arc” sounds like the sonically generic soul-searching of Katy Perry’s Prism, despite containing the album’s strongest, realest lyrics (Madonna discusses the toll of fame on her life). With its foreboding trap chorus, stupid-big EDM drops, and wildly Kanye bridge, “Iconic” would sound incredible as a Minaj track. “Ghosttown,” one of the album’s best and most vulnerable tracks, embraces a post-Lorde/Drake flood of spacious electronics in pop; when the bridge goes to a gospel organ, remember to note that “Like a Prayer” is part of why this sound even exists in white pop (and Madonna’s intense Catholicism one reason why religious imagery is common). No doubt the infectious house throwback “Living for Love” is Madonna’s “Believe,” though it would be hard to deem someone who performed at the Super Bowl three years ago in need of a big comeback like Cher was back in ’98.
In recent years, Madonna has found herself — with an increasing frequency that I have no doubt correlates with age — compared to Cher and Kylie Minogue. I get it — the still-got-it dance-floor divas with a flair for dramatics and mad love for the gays. Though the big, sassy hits on Rebel Heart — “Living for Love” and “Bitch I’m Madonna”— are likely what will endure, it matters — considering Madonna’s recent output — that they’re in the context of an album with emotional intimacy. I’m certainly curious to see where she goes for her 14th record, while MDNA left me less than hungry for Rebel Heart initially.
I’m not saying it’s ever easy to ignore the promo circus and new personas rolled out around every Madonna release, but Rebel Heart has been particularly present. Though the album’s December leaks left her defeated and dramatic as ever (she called it “artistic rape”), the act may have helped Madonna bring awareness to the album. For all the fuss, it’s a shame Rebel Heart isn’t all it could be, all Madonna has been previously. I suppose when you’re Madonna, your biggest competition is yourself.