“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
For a bunch of people who tried to illegally download Madonna’s 2003 album American Life, this was the exact phrase they heard, spoken by the Queen of Pop herself, followed by minutes of silence. Some context: as a way to try and counteract file-sharing in the immediate aftermath of Napster’s shutdown, Madonna and her team thought that by creating dummy files that mirrored the run times of the actual album tracks and uploading them to various P2P servers, Madge’s stern warning would help curb any sales losses and force digital thieves to reconsider their actions. The plan ended up backfiring, with one irritated hacker defacing Madonna’s website and posting the MP3s to every song on the album, adding the message “This is what the fuck I think I’m doing.”
On 16 December 2014, Madonna received word that more than a dozen demos for her pending album Rebel Heart had leaked. With iTunes executives on vacation, there was little Madonna could do outside of decrying the leak as “artistic rape” on Instagram, eventually holing up in studio and putting some finishing touches on a handful of songs while her manager Guy Oseary called in every favor to rush-release a short EP of album tracks that would come with every album pre-order. Astonishingly, the gambit worked, and Madonna topped iTunes charts around the world.
The parallel between these two incidents is uncanny, and in the case of American Life, all that behind-the-scenes drama ultimately overshadowed Madonna’s usual boundary-pushing narrative, her defiant attitude, controversial music video, and political grandstanding all working in tandem to relegate American Life as nothing more than a footnote in her legacy, many calling it the worst album of her career. While Rebel Heart‘s leak was one of the most high-profile in recent memory (and, all things considered, it wasn’t nearly as bad as when Bjork’s entire album Vulnicura got out before its existence was even announced), Madonna’s less-abrasive response has softened the blow, with most people either taking issue with the lyrics to the new song “Illuminati” or commenting on her spectacular stage fall and recovery at the 2015 BRIT Awards instead of the fact that over 20 demos made their way onto the internet so easily.
Although the Diplo-produced “Living for Love” is hands-down the best single we’ve heard from Madge since 2005’s ABBA-sampling “Hung Up” and some have already declared that this will be her greatest triumph since Confessions on a Dance Floor, the truth of the matter is that when removed from all the hullabaloo, Rebel Heart is unlike any other album in Madonna’s discography. Instead of creating a brand-new aural persona as she’s done so many times before, Rebel Heart is very much the first Madonna album that’s actually about Madonna with a majority of these tracks commenting on her own history and accomplishments with varying degrees of success. While there is the usual glut of mindless sex jams and of-the-minute trend chasers that have so characterized her last three full-lengths, those few meta moments that actually work reveal a rare poignancy that hasn’t been seen since 2000’s Music.
Take “Holy Water” for example. Describing what she thinks she tastes like when you go down on her, Madonna sounds very much at home with aggressive sentiments like “Bitch, get off my pole” and “Yeezus loves my pussy best” (Kanye West shows up in a small production capacity here), blatantly toying around with religious iconography while having a bit of provocative fun. During a breakdown near the end, she somewhat inexplicably interpolates the entire “Ladies with an attitude” verse from “Vogue”, presumably to give weight to the song’s theme of owning your own sexuality, even if its inclusion entirely unnecessary. So why add it? While the verse does fit nicely over the song’s mid-tempo electro throb, this is a rare case of Madonna acknowledging her own legacy (much like Prince, she’s not one for a lot of reflection), leaving these well-worn tropes out in a window display for all to see instead of keeping them in the stock room in back and hoping no one will notice.
The sense of dirty fun that permeates “Holy Water” is what ultimately makes it succeed over tracks like “Bitch I’m Madonna” and “Illuminati”, two songs that absolutely reek of desperation, wanting so badly to shock and offend listeners that they fail to resolve as satisfying songs first and foremost. Discounting notable exceptions like Music and Confessions on a Dance Floor, a majority of Madonna’s post-millennial work has been about chasing trends instead of making them, and discs like Hard Candy and MDNA end up being filled with easy chart hits but ultimately lack any real convictions underneath, the importance of style being prioritized over the songs themselves.
Thus, in working with the likes of Diplo and Avicii, some may have thought that Rebel Heart would follow that same trap, playing shadow games with the Hot 100 instead of carving out a distinct emotional identity. Part of the reason why Rebel Heart feels much more lived-in than her last few albums is because there is still some bitterness coursing through its veins, Madge telling us “I can’t be a superhero right now” on “Joan of Arc” before angrily carping “I’m popping bottles that you can’t even afford” to an ex-lover on the defiant “Unapologetic Bitch”. At other points, she seems to be wrestling with her own legacy, observing “I-can / I-con / Two letters apart” on the appropriately-titled “Iconic”, later noting that “If you don’t make the choice / And you don’t use your voice / Someone else will speak for you instead.”
Madonna aficionados, however, will find the most to decipher in “Veni Vidi Vici” and the album’s title track, two songs that show Madge at her most introspective and biographical, aspects she herself rarely touches upon (and, of course, these songs are relegated only to Rebel Heart‘s Deluxe Edition). In “Veni Vidi Vici”, Madonna actually outshines her own guest Nas by dropping verses that stroll through her past hits while commenting on her own influence with a wink and a smile:
I expressed myself
Came like a virgin down the aisle
Exposed my naked ass
And I did it with a smile
And when it came to sex
I knew I walked the borderline
And when I struck a pose
All the gay boys lost their mind
I justified my love
I made you say your little prayer
They had me crucified
You know I had to take it there
I opened up my heart
I learned the power of good-bye
I saw a ray of light
Music saved my life
Meanwhile on the strum-and-drum title track, which is easily the album’s most successful pure pop moment, she makes numerous references to her past, ranging from defying her father’s requests that she “be like the other girls” while also noting that she’s “spent some time as a narcissist” while “trying to be so provocative”. The song turns out to to be a rather rousing little anthem, but the degree to which she overtly acknowledges her past ends up feeling more human than it does cheekily self-referential. Some folks may want to make an argument that this is in fact Madonna’s most personal album to date, and even with a Deluxe Edition that clocks in at a full 19 tracks (and a bloated Super Deluxe Edition that features a full 25), they’d actually be 100% correct.
Although “Body Shop” plays like an Ani DiFranco sex jam and “Unapologetic Bitch” strikes more than a few poses copied from the Gwen Stefani playbook, make no mistake: there are still more than a few forgettable jams on here, ranging from the generic thump of “Hold Tight” to the yawn-inducing ballad “HeartBreakCity”. Yet those who stick it out will find that even though its pleasures are more modest than iconic, Rebel Heart has a profoundly human element to it, one that paints Madonna more as a person than a product, which is in and of itself a minor miracle.
Back in 2003, she barked the phrase “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” at downloaders despite not knowing herself what she wanted to do with her career at that point. Now, with Rebel Heart she’s dropped the overt hit-chasing to instead take on her most radical incarnation yet: that of an actual, relatable human being, flaws and all.