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What happens when a former pop idol sinks into irrelevance.
I wish Madonna had never discovered Instagram. I wished this long before she used the app last weekend to post photos of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., a rubber cord wrapped tightly around each of their faces in the style of the cover of her newest album, Rebel Heart. I wished this before she used it to refer to her (white) son Rocco as a “dis nigga” in a caption last year. I even wished this before the two- and three- and four-selfies-a-day from her bathtub or the grams flaunting her burgeoning bff-dom with nursling DJs Disclosure.
Mostly, I’ve wished this as an adoring Madonna fan who became transfixed by her power when I stumbled onto a Truth or Dare rerun late one night as a closeted 13-year-old. The 1991 documentary captured Madonna at the summit of her fame, having just released her most lauded and successful album, Like a Prayer, and music video, “Vogue.” The film had her captivating audiences on stage during the Blonde Ambition Tour—the gold standard of all major pop arena extravaganzas since—and toying with Warren Beatty and Antonio Banderas. She was brash, cocksure and utterly in control.
No artist deserves to have their work assessed before they’re ready for a referendum. But listening to Madonna’s new tracks—including six that she shrewdly pushed to iTunes following the leak—felt disheartening. Like much of 2012’s MDNA and its predecessor Hard Candy, this music felt lifeless and pandering, lacking the spark that saw her releasing relevant and poignant music into her third decade in the industry. The new tunes, along with her recent myriad Instagram faux pas, demanded a step back and critical reconsideration of Madonna’s current place in the pop music lexicon.
In retrospect, Madonna hit her artistic peak later than she did her commercial one. While Like a Prayer, “Vogue” and Truth or Dare were decidedly her market apex, her greatest aesthetic feat came seven years later with Ray of Light. Here, her audacious experiments with electronica—trip-hop, drum and bass, ambient music, among others—served as the backdrop for her most raw, dynamic and seamlessly rendered lyrics and themes.
She tackled her discovery of yoga and Hinduism and candidly addressed motherhood and aging. Her vocals felt unprocessed, textured and restrained. More than ever before, her gaze focused squarely inward rather than seeking approval from the public or top-40 radio, then dominated by the bubblegum pop of the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys.
The beginning of the end
Indeed, through 2005’s disco-house revival Confessions on a Dance Floor, Madonna maintained a level of hit-making, discernment, and integrity that was fumbled far earlier by most of her 80s and 90s pop peers. “Hung Up,” the lead single from Confessions, is undoubtedly one of her quintessential singles, quite a feat when your oeuvre stretches back a quarter century and includes “Like a Prayer,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Material Girl,” and “Like a Virgin.”
Confessions, though, spelled the end of the two most important components in Madonna’s success, things which had crested with Ray of Light and had roots even in her earliest work. For one thing, from Confessions backward Madonna achieved the crucial trick of planting her feet firmly ahead of the curve. The warm house throbs on Confessions, crafted by then little-known collaborator Stuart Price, jump-started the next decade of pop music where dance and house music offspring—what we came to call EDM—would wholly dominate the mainstream landscape. Like all of Madonna’s most successful work, it saw her cannily culling from the obscure and repacking it for the mainstream.
Secondly, Confessions felt like the last time when Madonna’s music and lyrics felt united and inspired by one another. “Jump” illustrated how she used dance to escape her fear of passing time. “Isaac” explored her study of Kabbalah, and “Sorry” alluded to the problems in her long-term marriage to Guy Ritchie. These actually felt like, well, confessions on a dancefloor, an album’s worth of songs that utilized dance music as catharsis.
Confessions existed not just as a capsule for pop music in 2005 but, like many great albums, as an artist’s personal statement of truth. It was the last time we’ve gotten such a clear declaration from Madonna.
By contrast, Madonna’s latest leaked material reveals how little she appears to be singing about anything terribly specific to her current life as a 56-year-old, recently divorced mother of four. Nowadays her music, with a few notable exceptions, is as it was when she first appeared with her eponymous debut album at the age of 24. It’s centered mostly around partying, sex and the sheer awesomeness of being Madonna.
This vapid frivolity has been a theme since 2008’s Hard Candy, but it’s one that came to full fruition on MDNA’s second single, “Girl Gone Wild,” a slice of sub-Britneyan EDM. “Girls they just wanna have some fun / Get fired up like a smoking gun / On the floor ‘til the daylight comes / Girls they just wanna have some fun / I’m like a girl gone wild,” droned the chorus.
Perhaps more troubling than her broad content or “hip slang” lyrical choices, though, are the sounds and collaborators Madonna has chosen to employ since Confessions. Madonna has never been a boldly talented musician in a traditional sense—she’s not an exceptional singer, dancer or lyricist. When she succeeds, it is as a supreme cultural curator and astute artistic director.
Her music from the past decade, however, is oddly rehashed, featuring sounds and tropes that play catch-up with pop artists 30 years her junior. Hard Candy’s Timbaland cuts like “4 Minutes” and “Dance 2Night,” felt like Nelly Furtado’s sloppy seconds. MDNA found her aping a novelty Martin Solveig club hit as well as her own Ray of Light-era work with far less revelatory results.
Madonna should be above all that
Most pressingly, working with Diplo in 2015 puts Madonna precisely where she doesn’t thrive—going hit-for-hit with every Jo-Shmo contemporary pop star, all of whom exist in her shadow and many of whom have a Diplo confection somewhere in their catalogue already. The pairing highlights how starkly Madonna’s work unthreads when she loses her singularity and, perhaps more critically, her savvy.
All of the above could just as easily describe Madonna’s misguided posting on Instagram as it does her musical efforts. She has, of course, always used her image to court controversy. But at her best she did so masterfully and under the guise of worthy causes, even when noble poses masked expert attention-getting.
Rallying against sexism in the Catholic Church or the right of a woman to have agency over her body were radical and relevant agendas. Comparing the rebellious nature of your pop career to the work of Martin Luther King Jr. by wrapping his face in a rubber cord, however, is certainly not. Madonna’s recent grabs for attention through Instagram only illustrate how out of step she is with contemporary culture.
And while it’s true that Instagram has become intertwined with pop stardom in 2015—I’m as fascinated watching Rihanna get naked on Instagram as much as the next Stan—Madonna is much greater than 2015, or should be anyway. Madonna attempting to mimic Rihanna’s digital persona has the vibe of a mother competing for her daughter’s boyfriend. It feels lurid and beneath her.
Lastly it’s not at all that a middle-aged mother can’t sing about or include raging, sex, and frivolity as part of her image—Confessions proved handily that one can. But when she was riding her initial tsunami of success, Madge appeared to exist above the fray as opposed to in direct competition with her peers. There’s certain hollowness, then, to Madonna’s recent output. It’s as if she’s merely desperate keep the dream alive by any means necessary. A controversial meme? Sure thing! A broad club anthem about “going hard”? Coming right up! Diplo drops are all the rage? Well D’s on speed-dial!
There’s a moment toward the end of Truth or Dare where one of Madonna’s dancers lays in bed with her and cries about how much he’ll miss being around her, the opportunity to bask in her supernova aura. When I first watched the film I was right there with him, sharing in his awe.
These days though, I’m not quite sure what to make of her. She’ll always be a legend—perhaps the most important female pop artist of all time. But I’ll never stop wishing she’d quit her bout with trend-hopping and go back to doing what made her great: Following her own muse, genuinely pushing music forward and digging toward some form of truth. Posting semi-nude selfies or memes of revolutionary civil rights leaders in the style of your album cover is not radical. But a woman making relevant pop music that rings true to herself at age 60 and continuing to set the pop music agenda while doing so certainly would be.
And I’ll never stop wishing Madonna had never discovered Instagram. Because the truth is Rihanna will always, always do Instagram best.
This post originally appeared on Medium and has been reprinted with permission.