Like a new Star Wars film, a new album from Madonna used to be an event. Fans and haters alike would be curious to see what new direction she was taking with her sound and image. Even when the hullabaloo around her had quietened a little after the Sex Book era and people said she was finished, she came storming back with, arguably, her best album Ray of Light. Seemingly having learnt that over exposure can be a bad thing, she relied instead on great pop songs and her natural beauty which, in retrospect, was considerable. Just take a look at the video for the Power of goodbye.
The Queen of pop is currently working overtime to turn her upcoming album Madame X (out in June) into that kind of event from the glory days. For over two months now she has been putting out teaser photos, snippets of music and short videos to drum up interest. Madame X revolves around a concept which, Madonna says, came from her old dance teacher who, when Madonna was 19, advised her to create a new character each day she came to class. So, Madonna tells us that Madame X is a spy, a saint, a teacher, a rebel fighter, a prostitute, a secret agent, a head of state, a nun, a cabaret singer. She travels around the world changing identity, fighting for freedom, bringing light into darkness.
It all sounds quaintly old fashioned. The woman often accused of trying to remain relevant, as if that were a bad thing, seems to have gone back in time to old style Hollywood, books and art with this new concept. She has even taken a rather ‘90s approach to the promotion of it. Instead of dropping the new album the way most artists currently do, relying on the element of surprise to inspire their fans to buy it, she has chosen a prolonged campaign of building up the interest. She showcased the video for the first single from the album, Medellin, with young Colombian star Maluma, on MTV.
It all seemed a nice throwback to when pop music, although ephemeral, was not as disposable as it currently is. Unfortunately, the problem for Madonna, so far, has been that the music itself from Madame X has been underwhelming.
Her attempts to make the cha-cha-cha from Medellin a thing didn’t work. And the three singles since, I rise, Crave, and Future are pleasant enough but forgettable. This weekend she appeared on Eurovision 2019 the cheesy song contest still best known for only producing one good act, ABBA.
She sang Like a prayer and Future. The performance has drawn, to put it mildly, mixed reviews. Putting aside the ageist taunts which have been thrown at her for the past two decades and the criticisms for using autotune, her biggest problem must be the muted reaction to her new song.
Moreover, in the social media posts about her and the performance, the most striking thing is how few people are aware she has a new album coming out. The annoying and unattractive eyepatch she has been sporting for weeks as part of her Madame X persona is the butt of jokes about her having cataract surgery or conjunctivitis rather than an acceptance that it is part of a new Madonna image and era. Similarly, the young rappers and Reggaeton artists she has collaborated with may well have sold many records but the public at large doesn’t know or care about them. They are not stars. Madonna once wrote and recorded with the likes of Prince. That’s the Madonna her long time fans want to see again. It’s no good pretending that she is moving on and those fans are living in the past. If the songs were better the fans would happily move along with her as they have done for the past four decades.
Madonna was and is a glorious pop superstar. She is the last woman standing of the global megastars from the 80s and 90s. We are unlikely to see their like again. And there will certainly not be another female pop star like her again. But at present it’s no longer clear who Madonna currently sings for. She is trying to catch a market rather than create it, as she once so brilliantly did. ‘Cool’ isn’t an outfit or youth.
There is nothing cooler than success and when Madonna rediscovers that basic principle of the entertainment world she will reign once again.
The album is now out and has gone to number one in over 50 countries. it remains to be seen, however, if it sells beyond the hardcore fan base. A number one song or album these days means little because the sales bar is so low. The reviews are mixed. From ‘intriguing’ to a ‘a mess’ they cross the spectrum. The video for Dark Ballet was much heralded by the fans but received a shrug generally – the ‘woke’ themes and Catholic symbols seemed tired and done umpteen times before by her. The eyepatch is universally disliked and even ardent fans can’t describe it as anything other than ridiculous and her least attractive look ever. The plumped up lips, silver teeth and obvious cosmetic ‘help’ add to the unappealing image. The tv appearances aren’t as awful as social media paint them but they aren’t encouraging the masses to rush out and buy the album, so they are a bit of a misfire.
The music world doesn’t need a Madonna trying to sound like and compete with the forgettable young girls currently hogging the scene, it wants the icon Madonna back.