With the Queen of Pop now celebrating her 60th birthday, it’s inevitable that we’re going to hear a lot about Madonna’s impact both in popular culture and beyond, as fans and voices in the media reflect on her career.
There’ll be memories shared about her early days on the music scene, the initial controversies she stirred up in the 1980s and the way she handled the global fame she was met with as soon as she debuted on MTV.
Similarly, there’ll be discussions about the ways she provocatively mixed themes of sexuality and religion, her boundary-pushing imagery in the early 1990s and how she opened the door for the current crop of female musicians to be more open and candid about their own sexualities.
Then, the more “serious” chat will come, as Madonna’s more critically-acclaimed works like ‘Ray Of Light’ and ‘American Life’ are picked apart, with modern critics keen to highlight how “slept on” and “underrated” the albums are, despite both of them getting a near-unanimous positive response upon their releases.
And that’s where the retrospectives will stop. Because to a disappointingly large percentage of people, Madonna’s legacy stops shortly after the turn of the millennium, even though the woman herself has never stopped writing, recording or producing music, making cultural impact and moulding the global conversation in the process.
But don’t let this disappointing ageism - the type of which Madonna has borne the brunt of for around 15 years now - stand in the way of the truth, which is that Madonna’s latter-day offerings are every bit as important in revealing who she is as an artist, and a woman, than anything else she’s done in her career.
Take, for example, 2008’s ‘Hard Candy’, which celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this year. This is the album that’s often seen as the moment Madonna stopped setting trends and began chasing them, and there’s certainly no denying that the stamp of producers Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams and Timbaland is all over this release. But there’s also a lot there that’s quintessentially Madonna (and we don’t just mean the rhyming of “waiting” and “hesitating” on ‘4 Minutes’).
Before you’ve even heard a note of ‘Hard Candy’, you’re greeted with the image of the album artwork, showing Madonna in a leather-look leotard, legs spread, tongue exposed as she poses in a boxing championship belt in front of a candy-print backdrop.
The woman herself would tell you that this photo is about the “juxtaposition of hardness and sweetness” but, of course, the true message was clear - the Madonna of ‘Erotica’ and ‘Justify My Love’ and ‘Human Nature’ is still very much alive and well, and that won’t be changing just because she’s on the cusp of a new decade.
This is even more obvious when opening track ‘Candy Shop’ starts up, kicking off with the lines, “say which flavour you like and I’ll have it for you, come on into my store I’ve got candy galore”, and trust us, there’s plenty more where that came from.
“Don’t pretend you’re not hungry there’s plenty to eat”, she sings in the second verse, alongside lyrics like “you’ll be begging for more”, “my sugar is raw, sticky and sweet” and “I’ve got Turkish delight, baby, and so much more” (yeah, we’re still a bit confused by that last one a decade later, to be honest).
While she never mentions her age directly, Madonna has always been the master of showing and not telling, and her defiant message remains clear.
This is made more explicit (though, admittedly, with regards to her dancing abilities than her sexuality) on tracks like ‘Give It 2 Me’ and ‘Heartbeat’. Both songs are chock-full of references to her endurance and persistence, and while she’s using the thinly-veiled metaphor of the club to get her point across, it’s not hard to imagine what she really means when she sings: “Don’t stop me now, don’t need to catch my breath, I can go on and on and on. When the lights go down and there’s no one left I can go on and on and on.”
Four years later, Madonna was in a rather different position when she released follow-up album ‘MDNA’. Having split from ex-husband Guy Ritchie, her relevancy was being called into question thanks to the meteoric rise of Lady Gaga, while fans were growing concerned when reports suggested she’d been focussing more heavily on her critically-panned film, ‘W.E.’ than her new studio album.
Despite this, the ‘MDNA’ album campaign got off to a flying start, thanks in no small part to Madonna’s Super Bowl Halftime show, which at that time was the most-watched in history (pulling in more viewers than the game itself, not bad for a singer people had been saying was “past her best” for around a decade at that point) and serving to many as a reminder of what an incredible performance she is capable of delivering.
As for the album itself, ‘MDNA’ is Madonna’s most candid and confessional album since ‘Like A Prayer’ and ‘Ray Of Light’. She both lampoons her ex-husband on the furious ‘I Don’t Give A’ (which features a line from then-rapper-du-jour Nicki Minaj assuring listeners that “there’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna, bitch”), but also takes her share of the blame for their break-up on the more pensive and reflective ‘I Fucked Up’ and ‘Best Friend’.
‘MDNA’ also features some of the more experimental tracks from Madonna’s recent back catalogue, from the swirling beats of ‘I’m Addicted’ and the deeply intense ‘Gang Bang’ to the melancholic ballads ‘Falling Free’ and ‘Masterpiece’, the latter of which bagged her a Golden Globe.
And even though single ‘Girl Gone Wild’ isn’t exactly her most innovative track musically, its accompanying sexually-charged music video sparked the same type of conversation that Madonna has always been at the centre of.
While her detractors passed judgement on her choice to still use imagery so unapologetically sexual in her music videos (despite this having been the case for almost her entire career), and her supporters pointing out that she was being deliberately subversive and making interesting points about gender and sexuality.
However, of the material released in the last 10 years, it’s 2015’s ‘Rebel Heart’ that best represents Madonna as an artist. At 19 tracks, it’s undeniably a little on the lengthy side, but this also allows us to see more sides than ever of a woman that has been in the spotlight for more than 30 years, but has always kept herself at arms’ length from her listeners.
It’s business as usual on opening track ‘Living For Love’, in which a hopeful Madonna insists she won’t let a break-up get her down over the top of a joyous dance beat, including a full gospel choir. Of course, the song took on a new meaning altogether at the 2015 Brit Awards, when the singer fell down a staircase during her show-closing performance, a moment the critics had their fun with, but ultimately proved what a professional Madonna is and always has been, “carrying on” as the song’s hook suggests and making it to the end of the performance triumphantly.
There’s more empowering self-assertion on tracks like ‘Iconic’, which opens with a bravado-heavy monologue from Mike Tyson, and the single ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’, featuring yet another guest rap from Nicki Minaj, who bigs up the Queen of Pop by using her name as an adjective to describe anything becoming of a boss.
But while half the strength of ‘Rebel Heart’ is its reliance on the tropes that have made, and kept, Madonna a star all these years (the mix of sexuality and religion on ‘Holy Water’, the double meanings in ‘Body Shop’, the outright shamelessness of ‘S.E.X.’), the album shines most when Madonna is at her most vulnerable.
The star’s most celebrated works, ‘Ray Of Light’, ‘Like A Prayer’ and even ‘American Life’ have all been so popular because they allow us to hear Madonna singing about what really matters to her, the death of her mother, the end of her personal relationships and her fears for the world around her.
In between the aforementioned ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ and ‘Iconic’, ‘Rebel Heart’ allows us a glimpse of Madonna’s approach to her public persona and celebrity status on ‘Joan Of Arc’, where the singer admits she’s not always as tough as she appears.
“Each time they write a hateful word, dragging my soul into the dirt,” she sings, “I wanna die, I never admit it, but it hurts.”
Similarly, title track ‘Rebel Heart’ sees Madonna taking stock of her career in a way we’ve never heard before, looking back on the decisions that led her to where she is and admitting she “barely made out alive”.
It’s very easy, as Madonna reaches yet another age milestone, to write her off because she’s no longer setting the agenda musically, but to do so is doing one of the most exciting and significant stars of our time a disservice.
If people would be more open-minded, they’d see that in the last 10 years Madonna has continued to do what she’s always done: pushing the boundaries, breaking taboos and generally causing a commotion in the way that only she can.
And with a new album currently slated for later this year, which she recently revealed had been heavily inspired by her life in Lisbon, it doesn’t sound like she has plans to keep her head down as she enters her sixth decade.
Long may she reign.