There’s been praise for “God Control” from gun-control advocates as well—March for Our Lives thanked Madonna for “using your platform”—but the generally mixed response is typical of the strange spot that the Queen of Pop finds herself in 14 albums into her career. Though patchy throughout, Madame X has a claim as the most adventuresome, politically bold work in her catalog. But unforced errors and clumsy attempts at creating conversation have complicated what could be a triumphant chapter for her. Her insistence on communicating often in the crudest, most blunt terms have proved a distraction, yet again.
“God Control,” the third track on Madame X, runs more than six minutes long and feels like a few songs in one. To open, Madonna sing-mumbles sadly about the state of the nation: “I think we understand why people get a gun / I think I understand why we all give up.” A children’s choir cuts in, magisterially delivering the not-so-subtle pun of the title: “We lost God control.” Then the track transmutes into a schmaltzy, irresistible take on Philadelphia soul, evoking polyester pants and cocaine spoons. “It’s a hustle,” Madonna pants amid generally zany verses about “a new democracy.” It’s hard to say what exactly is going on, but it’s likely a camp commentary on the way people can dance in the face of crisis. Moreover, the song is catchy and amusing. It works.
The video takes any of the song’s ambiguity and subtext, and lights it up in dynamite. The director Jonas Åkerlund cuts between scenes of Madonna typing the lyrics on a typewriter and scenes of a flamboyant disco party being shot up by someone with an assault weapon. The video moves backwards in time, from the height of the massacre to the portion earlier in the night when Madonna’s character was at the club dancing. The pop-pop-pop of the gun is horrifyingly loud and mixed over the music. At her typewriter, as she hears the news of the shooting, Madame X cries. Text at the end of the video delivers stats on gun violence and calls for firearms control.
Madonna argues that the video is disturbing on purpose, as it’s a “wake-up call,” per her lyrical refrain. “This is really happening,” she told People. “This is what it looks like. Does it make you feel bad? Good, ’cause then maybe you will do something about it.” But it’s clear by now that the people whom the video made “feel bad” have been doing things about it. Survivors of shootings who have, in fact, rallied for gun control say they feel used as props. Their critique is sensible enough. It’s not as though gun violence has gone undepicted in our mayhem-packed pop culture. It’s not like tragedies such as Pulse and Parkland haven’t been galvanizing shocks in their own right. The “God Control” clip stylizes trauma and amplifies it, but it doesn’t push the conversation anywhere new. People unsympathetic to Madonna’s cause are not likely to be moved; people sympathetic to her cause are left feeling drained.