Buy Here | Listen Below
Nineteen-ninety-nine was a great year for Madonna.
On February 25th—at the 41st Annual GRAMMY Awards—her seventh album Ray of Light (1998) secured the legendary pop vocalist three wins. The following month, she concluded that venerated project’s lengthy promotional cycle on a high note with the release of “Nothing Really Matters,” a svelte synth-funk number.
Madonna’s next move saw her position herself as one of several top-drawer recording artists—not least among them Lenny Kravitz and Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown—for the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack. All three artists’ entries on the LP were elected as the set’s official run of singles, with Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” leading the pack as the indomitable force behind the soundtrack’s eventual platinum certification.
Released as a single in May 1999, “Beautiful Stranger” was a rubicund burst of pop psychedelia. The song, a willfully retro-modern confection, stood in elegant opposition to the uninspired teen-pop and rap-rock rabble that had seized the American charts at that time. A few months shy of her 41st birthday, Madonna had landed yet another career defining smash that beat back a bit of the ageist snark unnecessarily directed at her despite the consistent quality of her output at this juncture.
In fact, “Beautiful Stranger” was only one of many accomplished compositions within a larger stratum of singles and albums—beginning with Bedtime Stories (1994)—where Madonna utilized her age as a tool to hone her creative exuberance to an exacting edge. Provocation? It was a passé option for the Queen of Pop who had finally come into her power. This awareness of self informed Madonna’s abilities as a singer, songwriter and producer; the resulting material from this near decade stretch situated Madonna as a legitimate musical maven.
Today, that woman no longer exists.
In her place is an individual caught in a self-conscious stranglehold trying to disguise this internal conflict behind a façade of bravura. Unfortunately, her battle has become public as it has spilled over into the works of Hard Candy (2008), MDNA (2012) and Rebel Heart (2015)—each of these collections grossly uneven. Subsequently, Madonna’s fourteenth studio affair Madame X is left with the thankless task to either course correct or continue onward in her current iconoclastic manner.
The “Madame X” designation comes from an offhanded comment, from the late dance instructor Martha Graham, tossed at Madonna during her pre-MTV days as a dance hopeful. Any connection to the French playwright Alexandre Bisson’s 1908 work of the same name is incidental. The title houses a swarm of multiple personalities, which have—as Madonna has explained in the press for Madame X—supposedly shaped the LP. It’s a thin concept not realized on the wax and ultimately it doesn’t matter, as Madame X is as its three previous forerunners were: a troubled Madonna record.
In a recent and now unnecessarily infamous New York Times interview, Madonna spoke about how her relocation to Lisbon, Portugal led to a chance encounter with a clutch of busk musicians vending in fado, samba and other sonics of a similar ilk. Madonna was so moved by these sounds that she sought to center them on her next album. And so, the pre-release buzz on various social media platforms among Madonna fans—both discerning and devoted—percolated: her move to Lisbon was going to yield a long player possibly steeped in vivid worldbeat colors and reflective musings. Even better, it would be an about-face to the truculent, haphazard content of Rebel Heart, the nadir of Madonna’s typically impeccable canon.
One of the few bright spots of Madame X is the massive reduction in the songwriting camp staffing that figured prominently on Rebel Heart. In place of them is a broad, but still intimate collaborative roster that writes and produces alongside Madonna. Notables include Mike Dean, Pharrell, Diplo and Mirwais Ahmadzaï. Ahmadzaï—Madonna’s primary partner on the art-pop platters Music (2000) and American Life (2003)—points to an electronic undercurrent for Madame X which wouldn’t be a bad thing in proper circumstances. However, their usual skill of blending organic and inorganic music matter is absent here.
The use of de rigueur EDM, R&B-pop and hip-hop aesthetics emblematic of Rebel Heart unceremoniously encroach upon the Brazilian funk (“Faz Gostoso”), reggaeton (“Future”), Eastern rhythms (“Extreme Occident”), Latin pop (“Medellín”) and other world music touches Madonna tries to tap. These aural elements are certainly capable of cooperating, but they’re not aligned as they should be and the electro-urban-pop lacquer smothers these global tones.
Surprisingly, only “Medellín” manages to approximate any sort of the natural warmth to combat the chill of the miscast production. In what could have been a massive opportunity for Madonna to emphasize a consistent, if not always emphatic thread previously woven throughout her aural loom in years past—on record and in live environments—she misses the mark.
Excusing some of the clunkier lyrical errors of “God Control” and “Killers Who Are Partying,” the emotive and socially conscious Madonna does emerge on “Crave” and “I Rise” only to be felled by that heavy-handed production and her own odd vocalizing or lack thereof. From “Dark Ballet,” to “Future” and around to “I Don’t Search I Find,” Madonna’s voice is needlessly altered beyond recognition or strangely passionless. Not even her guests—Quavo, Maluma, Anitta or Swae Lee—are able to break Madonna out of this listless singing spell.
By its end, Madame X comes across as an unintentionally scattered song cycle that mistakes its aimlessness for artfulness. Granted, even in its fragmented state Madame X spins as a more enduring album than Rebel Heart and maybe that’s the point. For Madonna in 2019, Madame X is an intimidation tactic for the detractors and new kids on the block, a boastful display of modern pop might at the expense of anything else. In this way, the project is successful.
It is a pyrrhic victory.
In the past, Madonna always balanced her toughness and vulnerability in equal measure. By leaning too far into one facet of herself out of fear that she isn’t worthy of her station (she is), Madame X reads as insecure underneath the cocksure posture of its assurance. It’s a tragically existentialist mixed message from Madonna, a woman who only two decades prior possessed the clearest vision of herself and her place in popular music.
Nothing lasts forever.
Notable Tracks: “Crave” | “Extreme Occident” | “I Rise” | “Medellín”
Editor’s Note: Read more about Harrison’s perspective on Madonna in his book, ‘Record Redux: Madonna,’ available physically and digitally now. Other entries currently available in his ‘Record Redux Series’ include the Spice Girls, Carly Simon and Donna Summer. His forthcoming book ‘Record Redux: Kylie Minogue’ is available November 2019.