Let’s just cut to the chase: “God Control” is Madonna’s most controversial music video ever. It’s disturbing. It’s violent. It’s sad.
It’s also extremely relevant and a justified call to action through the power of music and visuals by an artist who continues to rewrite the book on how you can express yourself as a “pop star.”
Directed by Madonna’s frequent music video collaborator Jonas Åkerlund (“Music,” “Ray of Light,” “American Life,” “Ghosttown”), the eight-and-a-half minute video rightfully begins with a warning: “THE STORY YOU ARE ABOUT TO SEE IS VERY DISTURBING. IT SHOWS GRAPHIC SCENES OF GUN VIOLENCE. BUT IT’S HAPPENING EVERYDAY. AND IT HAS TO STOP.”
Working backwards through the night, we start at 3am with “Madame X” sitting at her desk surrounded by wall photos of French writer/activist Simone de Beauvoir, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, American civil rights activist Angela Davis and famed choreographer Martha Graham. In the background we can hear a television news report saying, “…a terror attack on a nightclub…at least 30 dead, maybe more…”
Madame X is sitting stoic; she’s still facing the wall as the newscaster adds, “…he was well prepared.” This is language that’s all too familiar to many of us in the U.S. Suddenly, it’s all intercut with quick, jarring footage of colorfully-dressed club goers being shot. They appear just as fast as they disappear, yet the punches they land hit you square in the chest.
At this point, during my first viewing of the video, I immediately thought of all the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando back in 2016 and the horrors they must have gone through. Then I thought of the 2015 terror attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris. Then the 2017 Las Vegas concert shootings at Mandalay Bay. Then Sandy Hook, Thousand Oaks, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, and the Tree of Life synagogue in my hometown of Pittsburgh. I had to hold back tears because I was at my desk in my office.
Then, around 45 seconds into the video, we get a glimpse of what looks like a short poem on the desk with the title “God Control.” Here we see seven lines that are the genesis of what will eventually become “God Control,” the song:
When they talk reform
It makes me laugh
They pretend to help
It makes me laugh
Blood of Inocents [sic] spread everywhere
They say that we need love
We lost gun control
Finally, some of us get the answer that we’ve been looking for as we’ve tried to figure out what the phrase “God Control” actually meant. When you have a gun in your hand, you can end someone’s life, so you are definitely “playing God.” Madonna’s code word for “gun control” is “God Control.”
From there, it’s a frantic disco-paced shift between deadly shootings at the club, a children’s choir singing in church, a long line of victims’ coffins, vibrantly-shot choreographed dance sequences, a mugging at gunpoint, footage of gun sales, and actual video of anti-gun protests from around the country. Through it all, Madame X is frantically typing the lyrics to the song, trying to make something tangible out of her despair: “It’s a weird kind of energy / A bizarre thing that happens to be / An abnormal fraternity / And I feel more than sympathy / We need to wake up.”
I really don’t want to describe much more about how the video unfolds; you should really experience it for yourself to absorb the message. That’s the point of the video: to reconnect us with our shock, anger and bouts of helplessness every time there’s a new mass shooting so that we don’t forget how they made us feel. And maybe this time, we’ll take more action than in the past.
With “God Control” (the fifth music video from her #1 album Madame X), Madonna has definitely traveled a long way from her gun-toting MDNA “Gang Bang” days of 2012. A lot has happened since then—gun violence and mass shootings have increased tremendously and, like many of us, Madonna has evolved and changed as she’s matured, especially as a parent.
People often forget that she’s more than just “Madonna.” She’s a mother of six kids, four of whom are still young. Like any mother on the planet who loves her children, she worries about their safety, as she told People this week, “I send my children to school with the same fear every mother in this era has…It’s really scary to me that the once-safe spaces where we gather, worship and learn are targets. Nobody’s safe. So of course, as a mother, I acutely feel the worry.”
Written by Madonna and her main Madame X collaborator Mirwais Ahmadzaï, “God Control” is the most sprawling song on the album. Even though it’s the third track, for me it’s the centerpiece around which all the other songs on Madame X revolve. I first listened to the album standing in my kitchen with headphones on so that I could really hear it. As I took in “God Control” for the first time, I got really emotional because, as a lifelong Madonna fan since the beginning, it was proof that she still had a lot to express as an artist, a mother and as a human, while making me dance to her De La Soul-esque rapping in the middle of the song.
It’s one of the most intricately constructed offerings on the album, and definitely the most challenging Madame X-era music video to watch so far. But that’s what the Madame X vibe is pretty much about. Madonna made a sonically adventurous and, at times, quizzically weird album that absolutely requires legwork to fully take it in.
From language barriers (I’m still learning the Spanish lyrics to “Medellín”) to disparate musical genres to lyrics that demand decoding—PLUS that Joan of Arc vocoder monologue in “Dark Ballet”—this album is not for the Madonna fan who skipped past “Isaac” on Confessions on a Dance Floor because it wasn’t “dance-y” or ignored “Shanti / Ashtangi” on Ray of Light because it was too “chant-y.”
The “God Control” video, much like the Madame X album, is definitely polarizing. But that’s what big swing artistic statements do. So often when these mass shootings occur, we move on from them too quickly without really thinking about what we can do. By planting this song in the first third of the album, Madonna’s made its message a constant reminder. Now, with the visuals to match, the “God Control” video will egg us on to take action as well, as she wrote out on her YouTube description accompanying the video: “This is your wake up call. Gun violence disproportionately affects children, teenagers and the marginalized in our communities. Honor the victims and demand GUN CONTROL. NOW. Volunteer, stand up, donate, reach out. Wake up and insist on common-sense gun safety legislation. Innocent lives depend on it. Join me in supporting the following organizations:
It remains to be seen how much of an effect this stunning video statement will have on the organizations above in terms of an increase in donations, memberships or activism. But that’s not on Madonna. She’s done her part. The rest is up to us.