You’d have to say, if nothing else then Madonna has plugged into the modern world’s realities in two very big ways: nothing is safe online; and if you get rolled (by leakers, trolls and North Korean hackers with bad haircuts), roll with it as hard as you can.
If we accept her claim that this premature release of six tracks from Rebel Heart, ahead of a full album in March, was forced on her – last week’s leak of what may have been unfinished versions of songs being not just unofficial but unwanted – then she’s making the most of a bad situation.
A year ago Beyonce dropped a full album, and videos, without notice and blew everything up for a while. Now Rebel Heart has commandeered the cultural conversation for a few days and put Madonna where she hasn’t been for a decade or so, at No. 1. In this case, on the iTunes charts in 36 countries we are told.
Not everything about the six new songs is a surprise, given Madonna’s “people” this year have been strategically peppering the interwebs with song titles and collaborators, including here the modestly confident Kanye West on one song, and on another track the modestly dressed Nicki Minaj. The main surprise, I guess, is whether the six tracks reflect Madonna’s past, present or future, and the answer to that seems to be, all three.
On Ghosttown, a deeper-voiced Madonnarelives her better ballads (think Live to Tell) over a resonant electronic bed that serves her effective singing with warm electric piano chords. Then there are the ’80s/’90s house sounds (piano, hints of gospel in the backing vocals and reach for euphoria escalation) of Living for Love and the acoustic guitar-with-electro-cowboy of Devil Pray (that will remind you of Don’t Tell Me from her album at the turn of this century, Music) that is matched with a melody that doesn’t attempt to hide its familiarity with House of the Rising Sun.
Not as convincing are the here-ish and now-ish moments. Unapologetic Bitch is a dancehall track with the voice tweaked at times to sound cartoonish amid Jamaican off-beat guitars and squawky synthesiser noise. here’s no real connection with Madonna, almost as if she’s been dropped in from another track.
The Kanye-produced Illluminati (with Madonna reciting a list of all the ways most candidates are not really part of the classically defined Illuminati, though they may be part of the paranoids’ new world order) is colder and harder sounding, in the way of West’s own recent work. There’s some edge to it but not much menace that would really thrust it into compelling.
It’s still more accommodating for a casual listener than Bitch I’m Madonna where, with the vocal assistance of Minaj, Madonna and producers Diplo and Sophie work very, very hard to irritate to penetrate. Noises poke and grate, repeating on you like fingernail scrapings, her voice gets tweaked more and more, and the stop-start rhythm swings from electro dance to lurching strides.
It’s contemporary – even if it sounds like it might actually be Britney Spears and friends doing another homage to their inspiration, Madonna – but is it believable? And that is the issue that may not be fully answered until March because the issue with Madonna in the past decade and a half hasn’t turned on the fact that she has been trying to be on-trend, even if that has been a constant criticism.
For a start, that was always her calling card, her ability to be on or just ahead of a musical or fashion style that might have been breaking in the clubs or alternative/underground scenes but had yet to transfer to the mainstream. That and a great ear for the right producers and co-writers to help her transfer the trend into marketable music.
Secondly, it is the point of pop music to be of the moment (and Madonna has always been a pop artist, not a vocalist of note, nor a lyricist of depth – that wasn’t in her remit).
Madonna’s difficulties, at first intermittently but then consistently, have been in the area of matching her understandable quest for relevance – or rebellion – with our perception of her topicality, in personality as much as music.