opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
In the opening track to the criminally under-loved Bedtime Stories, Madonna sings, “Does your criticism have you caught up in what you cannot see?” The song is the graceful and sexy “Survival,” and the question seems directed at the pop star’s many critics, a defiant challenge posed as a tease. It was 1994, Madonna had her champions at that point, but it was only eleven years since her debut, and the rockist critical establishment still had plenty of scorn for the Material Girl. Cultural dominance was hardly a certainty. In “Survival,” Madonna offers a promise: “Well, if you give me respect, then you’ll know what to expect, a little up and down and all around.” Twenty years later, Madonna has earned plenty of respect and squandered her fair share as well. More than a few ups and downs, all around. We were forewarned.
Madonna has contemporaries but no equal. A string of mononymous divas – Whitney, Janet, Mariah, Britney — rose in her wake, and innumerable lesser talents, now forgotten, had their moments. Madge’s most obvious progeny, Lady Gaga, is charting a much more catholic course: those duets with Tony Bennett, that Rodgers and Hammerstein medley at the Oscars, the comfort with earnestness as provocation. Only Beyonce and Taylor Swift seem the least bit likely to match, someday, Madonna’s decades of cultural domination.
Impressive, right? Madonna certainly thinks so. Rebel Heart, her thirteenth studio album, pounds out the case for her legacy. Madonna used to have the hauteur of a sceptered monarch, queen for life. But her taunts have become strident, and her cultural currency is no longer backed by gold. Too many of the songs on Rebel Heart quote, sample, or invoke a career that can stand on its merits. The album’s “Bitch, I’m Madonna” sounds like a reminder: maybe she thinks we’d forgotten. In the mid-90s, no one needed to be told. Not so today. A disappointing string of releases — starting with American Life, and bottoming out with the disastrous duo Hard Candy and MDNA — have revealed Madonna as a luminary on the defensive. And her discomfort shows.
At its best, Rebel Heart has an ease, and a long absent softness, qualities sorely missed since her last masterwork Music. For every godawful moment, which come and go with a sad frequency on Rebel Heart, there are glimmers of virtuosity buried within the overworked mess. Or, to be more accurate, when taken in full (i.e., the 25 tracks found on the bloated “SuperDeluxe” edition) a solid comeback album is left behind after Madonna has chucked her disparate ideas and collaborations, willy nilly, at the wall. If she can no longer perform the role of a canny and thoughtful curator — once her greatest talent, now absent — the listener can, at least, excavate something to remember.
The album needs a scalpel’s touch. I’ll take the first stab.
My edit of Rebel Heart would open with the tender piano chords of “Wash All Over Me.” It’s a song filled with rolling drums, ethereal vocal overdubs, and some much needed self-doubt, and on the standard edition, it’s the album closer. Then I’d bring in “Rebel Heart,” the excellent title track that somehow isn’t even included in the standard edition, with its powerful declaration, “Hell yeah, this is me/ right where I’m supposed to be.” Next I’d place two real highlights: first, “Ghosttown,” a phenomenal post-apocalyptic love song, followed immediately by “Living for Love,” Madonna’s best single since “Hung Up.” The mid-tempo “Inside Out,” with its string-and-beat cool, would come next, a transition to Madonna in full ballad glory. The acoustic beauty of “Joan of Arc” and the naked honesty of “HeartBreakCity” give way to the equally soft, if goofy, “Body Shop.” No Madonna record would be complete without religious imagery. “Messiah” (also missing from the standard edition) and “Devil Pray” both capably check that box. And finally, we conclude with two worthy “SuperDeluxe” cuts: “Beautiful Scars,” a disco-lite throwback, and “Graffiti Heart,” a galloping love letter to creativity. And there it is: twelve tracks, 47 minutes. This would stand as a solid B+ Madonna LP, fitting snugly alongside her finest works.
But this album doesn’t exist.
If only someone had been there to say, “No, Madonna, bad idea,” to excise the dreck. Why, for example, are “Unapologetic Bitch,” “Illuminati,” and “Bitch, I’m Madonna” included on any iteration of Rebel Heart? Alas, they’re on the standard edition, and are, thus, canonical. That vile trio should promptly be marched into Mordor and tossed into the mouth of Mount Doom. Some not-so-terrific cuts have their own appeal, even if it isn’t musical: from a psychological standpoint, at least, “Iconic” and “Veni Vidi Vici” are fun, if desperate, clouds of narcissistic puffery. “Holy Water” and “S.E.X.” provide gasoline for Madonna’s ageist haters, but there’s something for everyone, or no one, here. On “Holy Water” we have to hear her sing, “Yeezus loves my pussy best” – like hearing your parents having sex, it’s embarrassing, gross, and all too hard to forget.
I uncovered an intensely personal, hugely enjoyable, and lovingly executed album from the wreckage of Rebel Heart’s too many versions and too many tracks. But that’s not my job. On the album’s title track, Madonna sings “Oh no, I want more/ That’s not what I’m looking for.” If only she’d given us less. That’s what I’m looking for. C+