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Immaterial Girl: What’s Madonna Without Hits—or Controversy?

‘Madame X,’ the pop star’s 14th studio album, lacks the bite or the hooks of her classics, but lets her get flat-out weird

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Quote: “And there’s 100 people in the room, and 99 say they liked it, I only remember the one person who didn’t.” Source: vintage Madonna. Lady Gaga: on notice once again. You will recall that Gaga, in the midst of her grueling Oscar campaign for A Star Is Born, hammered her own version of that aphorism into the ground at each and every press stop: “There can be 100 people in the room, and 99 don’t believe in you, and you just need one to believe in you.” Here, then, is the essence of the Gaga vs. Madonna divide, not to mention the Modern Pop Star vs. Classic Pop Star divide. You can either have one adoring Bradley Cooper or, like, 99 of him. It’s the difference between acting like (almost) no one loves you yet versus acting like (almost) everyone already does.

Even now, Madonna takes your adulation—and just as crucially, her infinite capacity to offend you—as a given. On Friday, she released her 14th studio album, the downbeat and profoundly odd Madame X, whose ultimate success or failure will hinge, as usual, on whether it can raise some sort of ill-advised and life-affirming ruckus. The leadoff track and first single is called “Medellín,” features the lascivious (and modern) Colombian pop star Maluma, and is way too muted to get the job done. But give her time to find some appalling new way to offend you—she perfected that particular art long before you were born.

The fact remains that Madonna was one of the three most famous pop stars of the MTV-saturated ’80s, and the other two were Prince and Michael Jackson. Her continued survival is its own incomparable triumph, and the list of 21st-century pop ballads better than “Crazy for You” ain’t got its first entry yet. (Nowadays, her closest analogue as an active-yet-historical figure is Bruce Springsteen, who also put out a nervy new album on Friday and has a far less complicated relationship with mass adulation.)

She also turned 60 in August 2018, though she’ll thank you not to fixate on that. “I think you think about growing old too much,” she chided New York Times Magazine reporter Vanessa Grigoriadis in an expansive early June cover story headlined, uh, “Madonna at Sixty.” Madonna, on life as a twice-divorced single mother of six living in Lisbon, Portugal, on an estate that does not qualify, in her opinion, as a castle: “I really wanted to make friends.” Madonna, on pop-star life in the social media age: “I preferred life before phone.” (More recently, she told The Sun that “I think Instagram is made to make you feel bad.”)

The Times Magazine piece has its moments of fraught insight: Madonna, who has somewhat controversially adopted four of her children from Malawi, draws a direct line from her long-publicized charity work in that country (where reportedly more than 771,000 orphaned children are living with HIV) to her helpless grief at losing so many famous friends to AIDS in 1980s New York City and her fury at the public stigma the disease then carried. “It made me sad,” she explains. “It made me feel sick. It made me want to kick everybody’s ass.” But the cover story’s legacy is likely to be that Madonna herself hated it. “I’m sorry I spent five minutes with her,” she wrote of Grigoriadis afterward. “It makes me feel raped.” Naturally, she made this known in an Instagram post.

That’s more like it, in terms of capturing that timeless, queasy, controversy-driven Madonna spirit. Her hit-maker days might be over—her last top-five single was 2008’s wan Timberland/Timberlake hookup “4 Minutes”—but she’s still capable of a singular sort of provocative exuberance. Her last album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, had some half-decent EDM jams courtesy of collaborators like Avicii and Diplo; it also featured nearly consecutive songs called “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Bitch I’m Madonna.” (The latter featured Nicki Minaj, who likewise is more adept at raising ruckuses than generating hits nowadays.) It’s a pretty fun and bracingly mean record (“I’m popping bottles that you can’t even afford,” Madonna crows on “Unapologetic Bitch”), and Madame X does not benefit from even that comparison, let alone a comparison to the span from 1983’s spunky Madonna to 1998’s sublime Ray of Light. (Hell, I loved 2005’s sad-hedonist romp Confessions on a Dance Floor, too.)

What Madame X does, if nothing else, is let Madonna get weird. “Dark Ballet” is a mid-tempo mope hijacked by a lengthy and Vocoder-adorned quote from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite; “Can’t you hear, outside of your Supreme hoodie / The wind that’s beginning to howl?” she vamps, blowing theatrically into her microphone. “God Control” is a house-music jam with swirling strings and, as has long been Madonna’s wont, some truly unfortunate rapping: “People think that I’m insane / The only gun is in my brain / Each new birth, it gives me hope / That’s why I don’t smoke that dope.” From the perspective of your average millennial (or much younger!) willing to take the plunge with a new Madonna album on Spotify in 2019, it’s hard to interpret that early double shot of uncut wackiness as anything other than an attempt to clear the room of all 100 people at once.

It’s not that Madonna has abandoned her pop instincts entirely, or that they’ve abandoned her. “Future,” her reggae-lite collaboration with Quavo, is a bust—I would’ve vastly preferred a raucous (and ill-advised!) SoundCloud-rap ripoff called “Quavo,” in collaboration with Future. But “Crave,” a mellow and bittersweet semi-ballad with Swae Lee, radiates a gentle and convincing menace that sticks with you: “You’re the one I crave / And my cravings get dangerous.” (If you’re apprehensive when approaching any new pop album by anybody, just jump to the inevitable song featuring Swae Lee.)

Madame X’s most effective combination of Pretty Good and Very Odd is another house jam called “I Don’t Search I Find”—the “Vogue” parallels splendidly explicit, the repeated phrase “Finally, enough love” hooky and effectively unconvincing. But the record as a whole is uncommonly low energy, its lighter moments (including nonconsecutive tracks called “Crazy” and “Bitch I’m Loca”) falling flat. Even worse, closing ballad “I Rise” has the lifeless, fake uplift of an Oscar-nominated song nobody likes from a documentary nobody saw. She’s better than most of this; more to the point, she’s more than this.

One is drawn, then, to more downcast anti-jams like the bizarrely titled “Killers Who Are Partying,” a lightly electro-dusted take on Portuguese fado (Madonna did eventually make some friends in Lisbon) with lyrics comprising a sort of cultural appropriation manifesto: “I’ll be Islam / If Islam is hated / I’ll be Israel / If they’re incarcerated.” Ill-advised! Classic Madonna! It’s not quite enough, but at least it’s indelibly her.

At the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards in August, Madonna managed to do something most assume she’s not capable of doing anymore: genuinely upset people. She was tasked, ostensibly, with delivering the VMAs’ official tribute to Aretha Franklin, who had died just a few days earlier; Madonna attempted to do this by uncorking an interminable, rambling, solipsistic speech she later felt compelled to defend on, of course, Instagram. With the caveat that the VMAs are a lowest-possible-stakes enterprise by design, it was nonetheless an impressively awful moment, a botched eulogy for a towering figure that crystallized the way pop stardom has atrophied in the past 60-odd years, Madonna’s many, many contributions to that canon notwithstanding.

But as I cringed and seethed and whatnot as Madonna prattled on, another, just as powerful feeling took over: She got me. She’s still got it. You get only the faintest flashes of that raw power on Madame X. Turn your back on this record, if you like. But don’t ever turn your back on her.