Madonna is making headlines again, and for the first time in two years, the topic of conversation is her music.
Over the past few weeks, demos of her latest songs have leaked into the Internet, forcing the pop star to think practically about her next move. In a seemingly desperate decision, Madonna made six finished tracks available to digitally download on 20 December 2014, and announced that her 13th studio album Rebel Heart, scheduled to be released on 10 March 2015, would come with 13 additional tracks.
Each Madonna release is held to the highest standard by professional music critics and die-hard fans. For better or worse, the Queen of Pop has an impressive legacy to live up to, and it is not enough for her to release a good pop album. She must release her best album every time, which is to say that each release must be trend-setting and iconic. This is why critics and fans were not too pleased with 2008’s Hard Candy and 2012’s MDNA. For other pop stars like Britney Spears or Katy Perry, these would have been solid albums, but for Madonna, they were lame attempts to appeal to the mainstream. This is obviously not fair, and such impossibly high expectations often overlook the fact that even Madonna’s lesser work is significantly more interesting than what passes for contemporary pop, but better this than to accept everything she does simply because her name is attached to it.
Unlike the Little Monsters, the Swifties, and the Arianators, Madonna’s fans are not afraid to tell her when she needs to step it up, and they don’t defend her every move for the sake of it. When she released “Give Me All Your Luvin’” as the lead single from MDNA, for example, fans expressed their disdain for the song, and the vast majority of them did not hold back their disappointment. How can pop music’s premier artist deliver such a trite, moronic single, they wondered? Such laziness was not going to be tolerated.
Whether or not the leak of Rebel Heart will impact first-week sales, Madonna fans can rest knowing that it will be her best album since 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, if not better. I have listened to the majority of the demos and can breathe a sigh of relief, but out of respect for the artist, I am only going to focus on the six finished tracks that were released.
The first track, “Living for Love”, is her most joyous since “Express Yourself”, and shows us why Madonna still matters today. The production, which is inspired by ‘90s house, is instantly listenable, and the uplifting lyrics fit right in with contemporary pop’s obsession with self-help DIY optimism. Like Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”, Ariana Grande’s “Break Free”, and Katy Perry’s “Roar”, “Living for Love” is a survivor’s anthem. However, unlike those other artists, Madonna has lived long enough to experience survival, which makes her song more powerful and emotional.
“Devil Pray” is the second track, and it is reminiscent of Madonna’s more introspective work from 1998’s Ray of Light and 2003’s American Life. The song finds Madonna searching for salvation, and it is bewildering and beautiful in equal measure. Track three, “Ghost Town”, is similarly introspective, and is arguably the most haunting love song of her career.
Although fans and critics are unanimous in their praise of the first three tracks, the latter three—“Unapologetic Bitch”, Illuminati”, and “Bitch I’m Madonna”—are more divisive. Some admire Madonna’s audacity to have fun, while others think that she is too old to be singing about the party life. Some appreciate Madonna’s ability to experiment with the current sounds, while others wish that she would stop trying so hard to stay relevant.
I understand the negative criticism, but it is impossible not to admire Madonna’s bravery. At a time when pop music is saturated with young twenty-something newcomers, the 56-year-old veteran takes a huge risk every time she returns to reclaim her throne. She risks alienating her older fans, as well as turning off younger generations that aren’t familiar with her aggressive persona. In a way, she reminds me of Jean-Luc Godard, who at age 84 decided to release his first digital 3D film, Goodbye to Language, in 2014. Despite the detractors who insist that she gives it up, Madonna is determined to dominate the cultural conversation once again.
That she has succeeded, at least for now, is an impressive achievement, and calls into question the significance of sales in the digital era. An artist like Madonna doesn’t need a number one hit in the same way that Swift might, and at this point in her career, she seems more interested in the quality of the music than anything else. Rather than chase the top of the charts like she did with Hard Candy and MDNA, Madonna finally seems to realize that the pop culture landscape she once dominated in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early ‘00s has drastically changed. These changes have liberated her, and have inspired her to make some of the most personal and fully realized music of her career.
The idea of an artist’s legacy is worthy of contemplation, especially when icons like Madonna continue to create. How should we measure Madonna’s latest album, and in what ways can it influence her reputation? Do the first week sales and amount of top ten singles really matter? What about positive reviews from critics or fans? How important is quality?
Perhaps none of these things matter unless the artist can enter the cultural conversation, which Madonna continues to do with each release. Whenever someone expresses their opinion about her, whether it be positive or negative, they reinforce her relevance. Social media users around the world have joined the discussion after the surprise release of the aforementioned six songs, with some celebrating her return and others condemning her entire career. Regardless, everyone cares enough to offer an opinion.
When the dust settles, Rebel Heart will be cited as one of Madonna’s better albums, and fans and critics will praise her return to form. However, as we all know by now, it’s never been just about the music with Madonna, and more than anything else, Rebel Heart shows that she is still the most talked about pop star in the world.