Madonna the Tireless
Rebel Heart is a slog, but at least it's trying to be interesting.
Does anyone care about Madonna anymore? Silly question, but it gets asked in headlines and comments sections each time she releases music these days. Maybe Kim Kardashian answered it this week when she said she dyed her hair blonde in tribute to Madonna. Maybe Drake did last month when he released a song titled "Madonna," in which he lures a love interest by promising that with his help she "could be as big as Madonna."
If nothing else, Madonna still matters as a symbol. A fashion symbol for Kim, a fame symbol for Drake, and a musical symbol for everyone. She’s pop's north star—a reminder that the genre can reinvent its sounds and its looks and can age and can court controversy and yet can still remain, at its core, pop. The title of her 13th album, Rebel Heart, is meant to reference how iconoclastic the artist has been, but listen to it and instead you get the sense of her as a unifying force, gobbling up disparate ideas and taming them for a sound anyone can hum along with.
Past acquisitions into Madonna Inc. have included gospel, euro-disco, and country music; this time, she's rounded up a few different, distinctly 2015, sounds. Working with a salon of disparate producers is standard practice for pop singers these days, but Madonna has a slightly edgier-than-par group for Rebel Heart, including Kanye West, Diplo, and some under-the-radar types like Blood Diamonds. Unlike other current stars shopping for the best beats, she’s not so much jumping from one style to another from song to song as she is grabbing elements from various acts and jamming them together in the space of a single track.
The results often seem, on paper, delightfully bizarre. “Bitch I’m Madonna” is all shuddering white noise bursts, vuvuzela-like electronic whines, and chopped up vocals, courtesy of weirdo British artist Sophie. “Iconic” has movie-trailer horns, an intro from Mike Tyson, a robot speaking the song title, and a mumbled verse from up-and-comer Chance the Rapper. "Living for Love" cross-pollinates church and club, and "Holy Water" rides a minimalist bass burble as Madonna hisses filthily. Tracks like these are, at least, a lot more fearless than the factory pop of Madonna's newest heirs like Ariana Grande.
But as heard on the record's 19-song deluxe edition (and the deluxe edition is the only thing that matters in the streaming era), the wannabe attention-grabbing elements mostly blur together, just textures of a mass slog of Madonna-ness. Sometimes her melodies are good—the plaintive "Joan of Arc" stands out—but most strike the ear as sing-songy and too familiar, especially on the album's many interchangeable ballads. The only two true jams are the stunning, trippy “Devil Pray,” whose main hook is a slowed-down demonic voice in a hypnotic loop, and “Unapologetic Bitch,” an electro-reggae kissoff where the polysyllabic title pushes Madonna to try something different in the chorus.
So her songwriting chops aren't what they once were—who can expect otherwise, 13 albums in? It doesn’t help that Madonna takes pains to remind people of far better Madonna songs. “Holy Water” samples “Vogue,” and it’s easily the catchiest moment of the album. “Veni Vidi Vici” mentions most of her hits up through “Music,” and “Joan of Arc” has her confessing the problems that her sustained fame has brought her. The glance backwards through time is on-theme for an album this omnivorous, but also gives ammunition to those who say she's out of ideas.
The same could be said for the fact that she recycles her old Erotica themes with less sophistication than ever. It was 23 years ago that "Where Life Begins" made the case for "eating out"; now, "Holy Water" just switches the oral-sex euphemism from food to worship. On "Veni Vidi Vici," she mentions her provocative past by saying sex in a faux-saucy whisper, sounding like a schoolkid scandalized by the word rather than as the adult who helped make it okay to sing about the subject. Appropriately, then, “Body Shop” features cartoonish sitar strumming and children's yelps as Madonna makes cars carnal, though she forgets the pretense of metaphor halfway though: "You take the wheel / I'll sit on top."
Madonna, though, doesn't have to evolve or become more clever at this point. She doesn't have to do anything. When Mike Tyson rants on "Iconic" that "I'm somebody you'll never forget," it's actually a poignant reminder that Madonna could quit today and still remain a vital part of cultural history. But she hasn't quit. If her attempts to keep pushing boundaries don't quite work out this time, if she hasn't had a bona fide hit in eight years, that's okay. She'll keep working.