Madonna is back with her hotly anticipated thirteenth studio album, ‘Rebel Heart’. Despite being a musical icon who has created an undeniably unique legacy with her songwriting, imagery and activism and no-nonsense attitude, it would be easy to assume that Madonna has nothing left to prove.
However, if poor chart positions and low sales are anything to go by, and her most recent single release ‘Living for Love’ and last album, ‘MDNA’, then it would seem that the 56-year-old singer actually still has something to prove; that she is just as relevant, if not more so, than the singers and performers thirty to forty years younger than her who don’t have the legacy that she has.
In the last ten years, we have seen Madonna move through a multitude of genres on her albums, which is reflective of her ever-changing image as an artist and as a person. 2005’s ‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’ was straight up dance and pop music, which was largely co-written and produced with electronic musician Stuart Price, while 2008’s ‘Hard Candy’ veered more towards an overall R&B sound with most of the production handled by Justin Timberlake, Timbaland and Pharrell. ‘MDNA’ in 2012 saw Madonna return to the dance side of the spectrum, this time with a more EDM feel, with long time collaborator William Orbit at Madonna’s side.
Madonna has never had to try hard at what she does, it comes naturally. She has never followed trends, she makes them. Primarily known for her up-tempo dance tracks, she has never enlisted the latest producers to work with her, instead choosing to work with who knows her the best after so many years, and to make dance music that doesn’t sound like a carbon copy of everything else in the charts. This time round though, some very familiar and popular names appear in the credits, such as Diplo, Avicii, Billboard, Nicki Minaj and Kanye West.
The album appears to be split into two halves. Some songs sounds obnoxious, gritty and full of schisms, pertaining to the “rebel” part of the title, while the others seem more fragile, honest and introverted, relating to the “heart” side. At this stage in her career, it is actually the down and mid-tempo, confessional style songs that seem to be the real Madonna, while the more up-tempo songs are her trying to fit in with the charts and radio. It sounds like her USP as an artist seems to have gone full circle, in order to feel accepted. After all, there’s never been a successful pop star who is nearly 60 years old. In many ways, she is starting her career again, trying to capture the audiences imagination once more, and the intimate lyrics seem like what will make her connect.
Many of the lyrics on the album seem to be a plea to listeners to pay attention to her music and not her age, as age is only a number. Madonna clearly feels just as young and liberated as she first did in the early 1980s when she debuted. The up-tempo dance song ‘Living for Love’, the most mainstream sounding of the dance songs on the album, talks about how she will get up and carry on with the show, no matter how many times she is kicked down. ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ needs no explanation, while ‘Wash All Over Me’ sounds like a confessional, talking about how she is stuck in a strange land, perhaps a metaphor for the fact that she is neither young and sexy, nor old and pensionable, but somewhere in between with regard to her image and music, hinting that it’s time to stop: “In a world that’s changing, I’m a stranger in a strange land, There’s a contradiction, And I’m stuck here in between” and “Who am I, To decide what should be done, If this is the end then let it come, Let it come, Let it rain, Rain all over me, Like a tide, let it flow, Let it wash all over me” says it all.
It also appears as though Madonna is trying to remind audiences and fans of who she is and what she has achieved. ‘Illuminati’ serves as a throwback to ‘Vogue’, with the modernised spoken lyrics: “It’s not Jay Z and Beyonce, It’s not Nicki or Lil Wayne, It’s not Oprah and Obama, The Pope or Rihanna, Queen Elizabeth or Kanye, It’s not pentagrams or witchcraft, It’s not triangles or stacks of cash, Black magic or Gaga, Gucci or Prada.” One of the bonus tracks, ‘Veni Vidi Vici’, also references numerous previous singles including ‘Like A Virgin’, ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Into the Groove’, ‘Music’, ‘Ray Of Light’, ‘Vouge’, ‘Holiday’, and ‘Erotica’.
So is Madonna trying too hard with Rebel Heart? No. Despite the familiar producers and references to past singles, none of the songs sound typical of Diplo, West or Avicii’s own material, and the nods to her older material don’t sound misplaced. In fact, it shows the true measure of her genius ability to create music. A lot of the true great artists in history, whether it be singers, painters or filmmakers, are very self-referential in their work, and it’s not an easy thing to pull off. Is Rebel Heart her best album? Probably not. Is it one of the best albums to be released in the past few years? Probably. But in a time where ageism is rife and Madonna is once again having to prove herself, it’s unlikely that it will get the recognition that she not only wants, but also deserves.