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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Rebel With A Cause? Madonna's Rebel Heart

The problem with making a career out of pushing boundaries is that eventually you run out of battles to fight. After thirty years at the top of the ephemeral world of pop music, Madonna has reached a crucial moment in her career. Can she still, at age 56, be relevant and cutting edge in a genre that has always been obsessed with youth? After redefining the potential for a female artist to control and exploit her own body image, what is left for her to say that the young upstarts after her crown cannot better articulate? Put simply, does Madonna still matter?

I am not really interested in engaging with the borderline misogyny and outright ageism that surrounds discussions about what Madonna wears, or how she is photographed. My suspicion is that with hindsight we will see that once again she is a pioneer, extending the limits of the age when women can flaunt their sexuality, celebrate their beauty and their liberation without the automatic disdain of a crumbling patriarchy.

What I am interested in though, is the music. Madonna did not become the best-selling female recording artist of all time because she looks good in a basque; she achieved this by consistently creating thrilling and innovative pop songs. As she prepares to officially unleash her thirteenth studio album, Rebel Heart, I believe the only answer that matters regarding Madonna's continued relevance is this: is the music any good?

Despite the official release date still being a week away, like most of the world I have already heard Rebel Heart. Madonna was devastated when demos of many of the tracks from the album were leaked on to the Internet and this was followed by further leaks of finished tracks. While she implored fans to wait and rush-released part of the album on iTunes, I'm sure I'm not alone in finding the temptation too much to bear. I have bought the album legally as well, so my conscience is clear. I have been living with the album now for a few weeks and feel ready to give a verdict. 

This album has a vision. While on tour promoting her last album, Madonna witnessed first hand how the right to freedom of expression is under threat in many parts of the world. It led her to start the Art For Freedom project, a "global initiative encouraging creative expression that brings awareness to human rights violations", and Rebel Heart is borne out of that concept and her belief that:

"I have no choice. At this point, there’s no turning back. This is my role in the world, 
my work as an artist. I have a voice and I have to use it."

Listening to Rebel Heart it soon becomes clear that this is no legacy artist trying to recapture old glories; this is vibrant, of-the-moment pop music. Something of the light, power and, well, pure sex of Madonna in her prime has been rekindled by her need to express herself and it has similarly rekindled my love for her. After a couple of albums that felt like she was chasing the pack rather than leading it, Rebel Heart is more hook-filled than Taylor, more raunchy than BeyoncĂ© and more creative than Gaga. This is an album that has been toiled over, crafted, loved: no wonder she was heartbroken to have the big reveal stolen.

Each track has something interesting to say, but my highlights are:

Living For Love would crown any Madonna album in any era, a true dance anthem that sounds instantly familiar yet fresh and current. It's not over-complicated or trying to be too clever, it just demands you to get on your feet, throw those hands in the air and boogie (or whatever the kids call it these days).

Madonna's work has often been autobiographical and she loves to sing about herself, but Unapologetic Bitch has to be the ultimate summation of her world view. Although it's superficially a brush off to an ex, anyone who's even remotely aware of the pop culture of the last thirty years can't help but see some truth to the sentiment in the lyrics. But better than all of that, it is so damn catchy! It should be a single, if we can all grow up and get over Madonna's re-appropriation of the b-word.

I've always thought Madonna is underrated as a songwriter and believe she is responsible for some of the most beautiful ballads to grace the charts. There are two such on Rebel Heart that rank among her finest compositions. Ghosttown pairs a pretty melody with an apocalyptic lyric that finds two lovers as the last people standing as the world collapses. The chorus has an immediate hook and a quiet power. It is a message of hope, that love will conquer all.

Joan Of Arc is my standout track, it has a simple beauty that can only come from a truly brilliant and clever piece of songwriting. It takes the symbol of strong womanhood and subverts it, allowing us to glimpse something vulnerable and beautiful and true. This is not about being a victim, it's about the reality that all of us occasionally just need to be held and loved, to know that there is a safe place from where we can rebuild.

Of course there is a song about her vagina and a couple of tracks where the inspiration can't quite match the execution, but overall this is the strongest set of songs Madonna has served up since Ray Of Light. And I haven't even touched on the ten or so bonus tracks that will fill up various deluxe editions, many of which could easily stand proud on the album proper. Except Auto-Tune Baby, which is as terrible as it sounds.

So to answer my own question, does Madonna matter in 2015? On the only criterion that matters, the music, then the answer is a resounding "hell, yes". By finding a purpose to continue to create music, Madonna has rediscovered the creative energy that has always made her a revolutionary force in pop. It's been a while, but I'm once again living for Madonna.

Rebel Heart is (officially) released on 6 March in the US, 9 March in the UK, international release dates may vary. Visit for more information.

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