There’s no such thing as aging gracefully. Humans are yanked kicking and screaming from the womb and they lurch fitfully from one stage of life to the next. No sooner have you mastered being a child than you stumble into the haunted house of puberty. You might even get really good at being one age (say, 22), only to become shocked as you and the people around you continue to morph. Each decade of life brings new challenges to the balance between staying the same at your core and constantly evolving. The balance becomes harder as you grow older, because the world starts to seem like it’s evolving faster than you. What if evolving is your whole shtick? What if your whole identity is predicated on being “with it”? To quote Grampa Simpson: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you … ” It happens to us all. Even to Madonna.
Most powers peak and fade, particularly physical ones. Madonna has always been a dancer first. At age 56 her body is a marvel of strength, and her dancing is still better than pretty much anyone (except Janet Jackson and Ciara) in the game. I’d love to see Madonna dance, Martha Graham–like, until the end of a long and healthy life. But singing and dancing are not all she does. Her whole life is a performance. Madonna’s endless costuming of herself in new sexual personae serves a performative purpose; if men crave sexual variety, she’ll give ’em sexual variety. Now, the Internet has given her an even bigger stage for putting herself in front of people’s eyes. But it is a stage she can’t dominate. Madonna anticipated selfie culture, but she can’t quite master selfie culture. Rihanna she is not. She posts a lot of pictures of her kids, but she takes pains to show that she’s not a regular mom, she’s a cool mom! Recently, she posted pictures of herself giving the finger while doing a snow angel in a full snowsuit on the slopes of Switzerland and, last week, captioned a picture with “Farmers on Fleek!” Her Instagram account is not any more embarrassing than Miley Cyrus’s account, which employs a similar mix of sentimental pix, fan- (and Miley-) made edits, and naked selfies. It’s just that people assume that, at 56, Madonna should know better than 22-year-old Miley. Old age should burn and rave at close of day, but it is so hard sometimes to watch Madonna rave.
Ageism springs from the fear of decline and death. Madonna now fights stereotypes about aging by doing splits at the Super Bowl and fulfills other stereotypes about aging by being bad at Instagram. If she didn’t do the whole Instagram thing, she’d be criticized for being clueless in a changed world. But when she does do Instagram, which seems like a natural fit for the woman who put out the Sex book, she does embarrassing, unintentionally hilarious things like post janky memes in which fans Photoshop photographs to resemble her new Rebel Heart album cover and hashtag a video of her son Rocco snowboarding with “#unapologeticson.” It would be more endearing if it weren’t also sometimes super-ignorant. A year ago she Instagrammed a picture of her son boxing with the caption “No one messes with Dirty Soap! Mama said knock you out! #disn----.” After getting blasted, she put up a new caption: “Ok let me start this again. #get off of my dick haters!”— taking a Miley-like stance that people upset with her use of the racist slur were just “haters.” Madonna quickly pseudo-apologized by saying she was using it as a “term of endearment toward my son who is white.” For all of Madonna’s messaging about freedom of expression, equality, and living for love, she is sometimes especially unapologetic to the exact people to whom she should be apologizing profusely.
Last week, Madonna was criticized for posting Photoshopped images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela with the theme of her forthcoming album, Rebel Heart, hashtagging MLK with “This #rebelheart had a dream!” It shouldn’t have been surprising. Throughout her career, Madonna has used cultural appropriation as part of her constantly changing sexual personae, part of her way of saying, I’m every woman! It’s all in me!!! She has been rightfully accused, most famously, of taking from the New York queer dance music scene that created vogueing, and then depoliticizing it to be palatable for white mainstream Americans, cutting out the inventors. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote a comprehensive piece on the history of the vogue scene and Madonna’s usurpation of it, quoting authority DJ Sprinkles, who aired Madonna out for taking “a very specifically queer, transgendered, Latino and African-American phenomenon and totally eras[ing] that context with her lyrics, ‘It makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl.’” Madonna isn’t the only artist to do this, of course, and her clumsy appropriations and real offenses bring to mind the recent example of artists like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry repurposing the whitewashed version of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, #AllLivesMatter. But Madonna sure does always seem to shake it off without evolving. It was 19 years ago, in 1995, that she spouted awful and condescending quotes about dating black men to Spin.
Boy Toy is the name of Madonna’s imprint,1 but it also describes her latest spate of producers. For Rebel Heart, she’s worked with a couple of other blond dance pop pinups, Diplo and Avicii. Madonna and Diplo are a perfect match — two of music’s biggest cultural cannibals consuming each other. Diplo understands that the core of Madonna’s sound is dance music. Dance music has been back in the spotlight for years now, and Valerie Cherish that she is, Madonna wants in on that spotlight. M.I.A., who committed the mortal sin of upstaging Madonna at the Super Bowl in 2012, is all over the Diplo-and-Madonna songs, despite not being on the album. “Unapologetic Bitch” sounds like what Diplo would make for M.I.A. if they still collaborated, although you could also make a case that his work with M.I.A. was a long audition to produce for Madonna. As far as Jamaican-dancehall-influenced pop made by white people goes, “Unapologetic Bitch” is pretty good, although it’s not quite Robyn’s “None of Dem.” “Devil Pray,” produced by Avicii, Blood Diamonds, DJ Dahi, and Swede Carl Falk (One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” Nicki Minaj’s “Starships”), bears the imprint of Avicii’s huge folktronica hit “Wake Me Up,” for better and worse. The song shifts into a groove for the last minute or so that you wish would go on much longer, but that’s what remixes are for. The album’s lead single, “Living for Love,” produced by Diplo and Madonna, was cowritten with German songwriter Toby Gad (Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” John Legend’s “All of Me”), Ariel Rechtshaid (producer of Sky Ferreira, Haim, Vampire Weekend, Usher, and uh, the Plain White T’s), Maureen “MoZella” McDonald (cowriter on Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball), Alicia Keys, and Nick Rowe, whose name I misread hopefully at first as “Nick Lowe.” For a song assembled by a wrecking crew of big-budget radio faves and indie up-and-comers, the song does not sound disjointed or crowd-sourced. It is a piano-house song with modern accents. While the demo version that leaked was compressed to hell, the official version sounds clean and sleek — the bass and percussive elements emphasized as the song’s heart. “Living for Love” is so great that you wish Madonna would let it stand alone. The social media embroidery and press campaigning she’s been doing undercut it. It should be allowed just to be what it is: a great single for her 13th album.
The album is being co-released by Boy Toy, Interscope, and Live Nation.
It’s very strange to see Madonna appearing derivative of pop stars who have built their careers on the back of … Madonna. Even “Bitch I’m Madonna,” the title of one of the leaked songs from the new album, would sound fresher as a catchphrase if it hadn’t been so recently predated by “It’s Britney, bitch” (although Madge paying tribute to Britney’s dance-centric classic Blackout is not a bad idea at all). It must be weird to be Madonna, because I’m sure she does feel competitive with Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry and Lady Gaga (and Charli XCX, whenever Madonna finds out about her) and all the other younger pop stars who wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Madonna herself. For Madonna, being current comes off as being nostalgic for the early and prime phases of her career in the ’80s and ’90s, eras that pop music lately has been strip-mining again. But at least it sounds like her. Her previous album, MDNA, didn’t work because Madonna was too stiff to be believable as a molly-popping party girl; it was her worst acting in years. And it didn’t help that the songs sounded anonymous even when they had Madonna’s name being chanted in them. Her MDNA producers may generate hits, but they are generic and ephemeral. MDNA’s stadium EDM already sounded dated by the time it came out. What sets the new Rebel Heart songs apart is that they sound distinctly crafted for Madonna by people who understand and respect Madonna’s legacy as a dance music icon. These songs are all highly remixable, delivering on the promise of MDNA that Madonna indeed wanted credit for her place as a royal in the world of dance pop.
There are bad complaints (“She’s too old!” “She’s a mother!” “She’s not sexy!”) and legitimate ones (“Maybe you shouldn’t compare the leaking of your music to rape, call your son the n-word as a nickname in an Instagram photo, or implicitly compare yourself to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela”). It’s so easy to prescribe solutions for Madonna: Embrace your Detroit techno roots! Stay off social media to cultivate mystique!2 Just hang back and put all your efforts into making a fantastic video for “Living for Love”! But Madonna doesn’t know how to hang back. She certainly doesn’t care about overexposure. She invented overexposure! (Or at least jacked it from Jayne Mansfield.) She’s used to being criticized for showing off too much, for being too vain and self-interested; why should she start listening to her critics now after all these years? She can die onstage in a Gaultier corset at 105 if she so desires.
Which is good advice for anyone, really
But it’s always harder to negotiate growing older than it looks from the outside. As much as I wish Madonna were more like Kim Gordon or Kate Bush or Björk, that’s never been her bit. The truth is that Madonna has always been serrated, rather than cutting, edge. By the time producers and trends get to her, they have been bubbling up in the underground for months, even years. On her new album, in addition to Avicii and Diplo, she also worked with hot cutiecore producer Sophie of PC Music (who is a dude), Grimes collaborator Blood Diamonds, and L.A.’s DJ Dahi, who’s produced for rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Freddie Gibbs, and Drake. There’s also the spooky underwater Masonic Lodge vibe of “Illuminati,” produced by one Mr. Kanye West with assistance from Mike Dean and Charlie Heat. (Madonna is listed as a producer on the six tracks that have been revealed; she is the only female producer on the album thus far.) She doesn’t need to be the underground trendsetter, or high art, or the hottest hashtag on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean she won’t overextend trying to be all three. And that is both her constitutional right and the most common reason for her failures — and the double edge of being an unapologetic bitch.