from Rebel Heart (Interscope; 2015)
By Maura McAndrew | 17 March 2015
Over the past decade or more, it’s been easy to forget about Madonna. I don’t mean to forget that she exists—she’s one of the most famous pop stars of all time, and despite diminishing popularity, she’s still putting herself out there as much as ever, and she’s still always a story. But it’s been easy for many of us—aside from the die-hards, of course—to forget what makes Madonna Madonna. Throughout the post Ray of Light (1997) era, the era from “Music” through slackwire superbowl hijinks and Swept Away and W.E., what makes her more interesting than basically everybody. We love Beyoncé, worship at her altar, but is she interesting? Katy Perry is a black hole of bland. Taylor Swift is cute, earnest, well-dressed. Rihanna comes close. But it’s easy to forget that Madonna’s whole career is about actually being different. Being ahead. Even, at times, being weird.
Madonna’s latest, Rebel Heart, has been damned with faint praise like “her best in years,” “closer to her ‘90s material,” “better than MDNA, which sucked” (I’m paraphrasing). And please allow me to jump on the bandwagon: I like “Ghosttown” and it’s a very catchy pop song (the record’s best), but it’s not “Like a Prayer” or even “Bad Girl” or “Ray of Light.” What really draws me to it, and I think what compels others to fumble around trying to praise Rebel Heart, is that you can hear Madonna in there. The Madonna that makes Madonna Madonna. You dig?
It’s not just the song, in which she, refreshingly, uses her down-to-earth early-‘90s ballad voice, not her trying-to-be-cool ‘00s-‘10s voice or her British Evita voice. Instead, in typical Madonna form, it’s the promotion surrounding the record that’s most important to our reception of it. Exhibit A: Madonna gets pulled down a flight of stage stairs by a dancer, gets back up and moves on, reminding us that 1) she’s not actually the decrepit rapping granny that Internet trolls keep saying she is; 2) she does not get embarrassed (publicly); and 3) she does not use incidents like these to demonstrate that she’s a charming klutz who is Just Like Us. She’s not like us, because she’s a fucking professional, and when was the last time you fell down because your designer cape was tied too tight and a half-naked man-dancer grabbed it? That’s what I thought.
The fall was unintentional, sure—but the recovery was very intentional. Because Madonna is an unapologetic control freak. Exhibit B: Madonna’s in-depth interview with Howard Stern, who basically kisses her ass for an hour but who allows Madonna to remind us why she’s “that girl.” That she has had a very interesting life, made more interesting by the fact that she doesn’t talk about it all the time. And she speaks with that same candor, intelligence, wit and confidence that made people want to put her in movies, even though she can’t act. She can only play Madonna, the role she was born to play, and the role that, for whatever reason, she hasn’t fully inhabited in a while.
She plays it on “Ghosttown.” And that’s what I think we all mean when we say that Rebel Heart is not all that great, but we like it. There’s a certain something, once missing, that has returned. And while I wouldn’t have told you a few months ago that I missed Madonna, she’s shown me that I did. So no matter the quality of the songs on Rebel Heart, she’s already won the most important battle.