Madonna - Madame X (Review)

Martin_Canine MADONNA
Madame X

Welcome back, Queen of Pop. We dearly missed you.


Madonna is the greatest pop artist to have ever walked the Earth. Looking through all of her discography, there's simply no other conclusion. There are others who brought invention, others who had numerous hits, and others who can sing better than her, but there's not a single soul in the pop universe that combined her larger than life aesthetic ambitions, her ability to transform into any stylistic direction she wants to, her thought provoking imagery AND her pop appeal, in combination with her impact. Pretty much everything that mainstream brought to us in the last three and a half decades can in some way be traced back to her. She basically defined what we consider a pop star today, and most importantly, she has a catalogue full of great music to back that up.

Everything from True Blue to Hard Candy was among the best pop had to offer, often testing out the limits of what is even possible within mainstream boundaries and then crashing right through them. Picking True Blue as the starting point of her greatness is unusual - people either select the follow up Like a Prayer, her first risky move, or decide she's been brilliant right from the very beginning. And don't get me wrong here: The First Album and Like a Virgin are full of awesome earworms, but they are just that. Yet the dramatic teen pregnancy drama Papa Don't Preach, the epic ballad Live to Tell or the bittersweet summer breeze of La Isla Bonita are a whole nother level. In the years to come, she'd challenge religion, try out swing, speak no holds barred unashamedly about sex, fuse singer-songwriter qualities with RnB, performed wonderfully in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, went full Björk mode with bizarrely organic electro music, went back to imaginative pop, enraged the world with radical political statements over highly experimental electro-folk music and brought disco back to the mainstream. Although 2008's Hard Candy basically already was within the range of the predominant sound that pop already had around the time of its release, it still worked out really well and offered maximum variety within its specific style. There was no other Timbaland banger as majestic as 4 Minutes, and never have his productions sounded more mysterious than on Voices, and Madonna's artful visions and words are the reason for that. But then came MDNA in 2012. I still don't know whether it's a pun on DNA or MDMA, but what I know is that Madonna never sounded as uninteresting before. Not only did it sound very much like every other song that was on the radio back then, it actually left less of an impression. It's an album that not merely sounded like someone tried to imitate other successful artists, it sounded like it was made from the leftovers of said artists, like the fillers they excluded from the final cut. In 2008, around the time Hard Candy dropped, Lady Gaga arrived - and what she released from then until MDNA dropped completely blew Madonna's recent content away. Pretty much the same can be said for Madonna's 2015 effort Rebel Heart - only that this time Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus were her competitors. And especially the latter seemed to have been a major influence for the former Queen of Pop, as her signature provocative image and hip hop swagger could be felt all over tracks like B-tch I'm Madonna or Illuminati.

At this point, I didn't expect Madonna to ever drop a game changer again. Apparently, she ran out of her creative visions, and her last two albums had little that distincted them from anything else. They were stripped of everything unique. My hope was that she would simply deliver what others made, but in high quality. Maybe something like Bebe Rexha does.

And now Madame X arrives. And damn, is she back to form. Much more than I could have ever imagined.

The album was preceded by the singles Medellín (feat. Maluma) and Crave (feat. Swae Lee), the first one being a light summery Latin pop number, the second one being a mix of singer-songwriter pop and trap. I was especially fond of the latter, that - unlike Madonna's other efforts in the 2010s - actually managed to get stuck in your ear, and that seemingly without trying too hard. And the lead single wasn't half bad either. It was more Madonna's own vision of Latin rather than her jumping on a bandwagon. She's not copying the sound of Despacito and she's certainly not copying I Like It. Little did I know that was just the tip of the iceberg. What really caught my attention was her Eurovision Song Contest 2019 guest performance. Most media outlets focused on her off-key performance of Like a Prayer (and yes, that was frustrating for a singer that once managed to blow the audience away with her energy), but what happened right afterwards was the most avantgarde Madonna has ever been. A spoken skit hinting at the topic of religious crimes, and a stage show featuring gas masks and the Israeli and Palestine flags announced a comeback for the controversial but thought provoking side of Madonna. Yes, please.

Madame X is in many ways a sequel to American Life. Both were largely co-produced by Mirwaïs and therefore share a common sound, and both are filled to the brim with no holds barred shocking social and political commentary. Dark Ballet, the track that turned out to contain the spoken skit heard at ESC, is also her musically most experimental song since the aforementioned album's title track. When it was released, American Life was seen as Madonna's biggest failure. Having contained attacks against the George W. Bush era, gender identity and commercialism, the cynical album contained too many topics that were taboo back in the days, especially towards an audience that just wanted catchy earworms. It did a lot better in Europe though, where it received positive reviews and where its bizarre yet great title track became a hit song. Americans back then hated criticism for their president, Europeans just openly spoke about their thoughts (which is also evident by the fact that P!nk's Dear Mr. President didn't chart in the US, but became the third best selling song of the year over here in Austria) - unless it's about who they vote for. And the Iraq war was a major topic that concerned many - just listen to French rapper MC Solaar's La vie est belle or Austrian pop rock singer Christina Stürmer's Mama Ana Ahabak.

If you need one prime example of how the zeitgeist has changed within the last 15 years, just take a good look at how much better Madame X, an undeniably similar album, is received these days. In between these two records, it has become the norm for major celebrities to be outspoken on controversial topics: Beyoncé, Barbra Streisand and Childish Gambino are just a few of the musicians who released commercially successful political music this decade, and it has become very much accepted to criticize Donald Trump, while bashing Bush was much more controversial. On Killers Who Are Partying, she unleashes these lyrics to the audience: "I'll be Islam, if Islam is hated / I'll be Israel, if they're incarcerated / I'll be Native Indian, if the Indian has been taken /I'll be a woman, if she's raped and her heart is breaking". That's… hella bold. On God Control, these brutal lines about gun violence hit us: "Everybody knows they don’t have a chance / Get a decent job, have a normal life / When they talk reforms, it makes me laugh / They pretend to help, it makes me laugh". I also love this line from Extreme Occident, which is found on the (superior) deluxe edition: "I went to the far right / Then I went to the far left / I tried to recover my center of gravity". Pictures come to mind from both the neo-nazis who hunted down migrants in Chemnitz in 2018, and the riots and vandalism by the far left extremists in Hamburg in 2017 at the G20 summit. But everyone will have their own associations. I am certainly left wing, but what Madonna's line raises awareness for is that radical extremism is never an option, no matter what you're fighting for. You're always doing damage. Lines like these, sung by the biggest pop star in the world, were released in the same year Bavarian radio stations have issues with Sarah Connor's new hit song because it starts off with a line about a homosexual boy not getting excited by a woman. But like American Life, there's also a fine share of much more harmless topics to give you a break in between and let the harsh criticism sink in. When you do so, please take your time to appreciate that Madonna actually managed to call out problems without ever falling into conspiracy theorist mode, instead blaming the structural system and those in charge of it.

Musically, this is Madonna's most adventurous album. By far. And that means something. For most of the time, it's not even really pop. The two singles are the closest we ever get to radio friendliness on the record, spare very few other Latin or trap inspired numbers (like B-tch I'm Loca or Future). Dark Ballet, the song with the masterful but horrifying video starring Mykki Blanco (who by the way isn't heard on the track), is so weird and artsy, it makes American Life almost sound conventional. Halfway through the song, the RnB style music suddenly stops to play a synthesizer/vocoder rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker begins playing while Madonna delivers a speech. The epic 6 minute God Control is the other way around: starting out slow and with a church choir before going on full disco mode, yet not without mechanical, Poppy-esque vocals. Batuka arrives with African drums from Cabo Verde that aren't just used as an addition to an otherwise Western song (like in 2 Unlimited's Tribal Dance song from the 90s), but actually make up a majority of the music. And there is simply no way of describing the beat of Come Alive other than "one of the most unusual ones in existence", simply for the bewildering drum kit that is used and played in 12/8 time signature. Also, Madonna's vocals are almost constantly drowned in effects that make them sound surreal and otherworldly.

Madame X is definitely not the album you'd expect after its single releases. In its most experimental parts, it even out-does artpop albums by Rihanna and Miley Cyrus in terms of freakiness. However, this is also the main reason why it's always one step behind American Life: it lacks a certain replay value. Experienced in its entirety, it's an unpredictable trip through different shapes and sounds, that directly and unashamedly addresses severe issues of society. But there are few individual tracks that you feel the urge to listen to again and again afterwards. In the meantime, her 2003 effort was an album filled with earworms hidden between the challenging, creaking production, that are still as gripping as they were back then - if they haven't even gained quality.