Who The Fuck Would Listen to This: Rebel Heart

No musician producing work within my lifetime has been so vexing to me as Madonna. I was born in 1983, a month and a half or so after her self-titled debut album, and so my entire life has been lived in a world with a Madonna swirling around in it. And, in the 31.5 years since, I have been completely at a loss to feel anything but annoyed by Madonna’s music1.

My rise to “Dude Who is Actively Aware of the Music He Wants to Listen To” is basically coincident with the rise of Madonna as critically-respected. Put another way: the time I was most likely to listen to a critic was also the time that that critic would further be likely to try to convince me, through reviews or whatever, that Madonna was worth my time. I never really agreed, although I devoted more time than I probably would have otherwise2 to trying to understand. Later, when Music came out and a lot of people seemed dead-set on loving it for real, I remained just as unmoved and just as baffled.

But Who The Fuck Listened to This isn’t about me. My relationship with Madonna is one of bafflement, but my relationship with lots of pop stars is about bafflement. Pop stardom3 is a weird thing. The existence of stardom is objective – someone is either extremely famous or is not extremely famous, and while there are probably definitional arguments about where the margins of the term are – is Beck, winner of the most recent Album of the Year Grammy and, therefore, the recipient of pop music’s highest honor, a pop star? Is Selena Gomez, currently moving units of a bafflingly-huge single now a pop star by transferrence? Or she still just an actor with a lucrative sideline? Or are the two even not mutually exclusive in the first place – there can be no real doubt about certain people’s place among the ranks of the pop star.

(Obviously one of those people is Madonna.)

But the reception to pop stardom is entirely subjective and is, in fact, a matter of some contention. The conversation around deservedness is one of the weirdest artifacts of the pop music environment – this person deserves their sales-based success, that person doesn’t deserve theirs. The embedded ideas here are of reward for effort (the ability of people to get famous through hard work and humility) and general meritocracy (that if something sells a bunch of albums, it must be because all of those people are considering their purchase and deeming it worthy or not worthy of their attention). The fact that album-sales can be driven by lots of things that are entirely and unmistakably extramusical never seems to enter the thoughts of the deciders.

The result is a simultaneous embrace and rejection of the swing of public opinion where pop stardom is concerned. If a horse that you’ve backed is rewarded with hits and fame and album sales, it is a just world in which popular opinion is correct. If the same hits and fame are granted to someone that you don’t agree with the disposition, product or general mien of, then the system is flawed and people are irrevocably dumb. Most people have absolutely no problem holding both of these ideas in their head at the same time, which seems really weird to me4. But it seems to stem from holding opinions about popular music that aren’t particularly considered – which most people do, and which seems to be serving the world just fine – and instead tweaking some version of an “accepted” opinion. This is the system of which Madonna was the foremost recipient.

Madonna is – and I mean this not as an attack upon her music necessarily, although her music is awful – great at advertising. She’s often lauded for her long-lived ability to spot trends or get people talking about her or whatever, but what that really is is advertising. The purpose of advertising is not to convince you of some essential quality about a product – after all, the difference between one widget and the other (or one pop song or another) is largely cosmetic – but instead to get the name of the thing into your head, so when it’s time to make the purchase, you know what you’re looking for. We, as thing-buying humans, have a really hard time not conflating “primacy” with “superiority” – it’s scientifically called familiarity bias. Thus, the more familiar you are with something, the more you think of it as good. This eventually takes over other cognitive paths in such a way that the only requirement for a song to be pleasing is your familiarity with it – we’re rewarded, neurochemically, for the feeling of a song that we know and think of as somethign we “like.” Since the familiarity eventually outstrips the critical faculty, “like” becomes “don’t hate.” This is why everyone reading this can probably think of a song they didn’t like when it was in their lives all the time, that eventually became more important as a signifier of that time than as a piece of music in and of itself. Madonna thrust herself into public, largely naked and squirming (or, charitably, writhing, albeit never actually dancing) for long enough that she herself became a familiar commodity5.

Her music itself more-or-less came, invariably, right after major dance music trends. Her first couple of records are generally partying on the corpse of disco, but her monolithic third album True Blue steps away from club music entirely for radio-style dance music (the mid-eighties were a really, really weird musical time, and that distinction probably meant more in 1985 than in any other year in the history of recorded music). After True Blue established the Madonna Brand, she made a trio of “more-personal” records, with Like a Prayer basically representing the end of her reign of chart-topping terror, and then the Erotica/Bedtime Stories6 slump that also roughly coincided with her showing that, in addition to not being able to sing, she also couldn’t act.

But they continued to sell, because by that point – starting specifically right about the time of Like a Prayer, if the historical record is to be believed – people were arguing in favor of Madonna, and her inability to make compelling music was a symptom of a callous, unable-to-understand public, despite the fact that her records were selling like hotcakes. Because the non-musical portions of the Madonna Brand were so imagistic and visually-focused, the idea that the music was “better” than whatever it was they expected came as a pleasant surprise, which enabled Madonna to operate from the status of “underdog” – after all, she was selling a bunch of records and was mostly famous for her lechery-friendly music videos, so if the music wasn’t music to drool into a bucket to it must be ok.

But even the music itself was less written or composed than assembled as part of the selfsame image – she had a way of picking a producer who was capable of making music that sounds very of its minute, which is also part of what made it surprising. She didn’t have any one sound – Madonna’s creaky, low-rent disco necrophilia is not the same as Like a Prayer’s faux-Princeisms, which is itself also different from Bedtime Stories’ trad-pop inoffensiveness – so her real musical talent turned out to be an ability to apply herself to basically any kind of dance-oriented pop music, a quality that makes her success both an organic part of herself and her reach, and also extraordinarily difficult to duplicate. It was also not a permanent way to operate.

Erotica showed that the ability to continue to get mileage out of eighties-style radio dance-pop was basically at an end (it sold half what Like a Prayer had, and that led to the ballad-heavy, torpid record. The gambit worked in the short-term7, with Bedtime Stories making up some of the sales lost before Erotica, but it also placed Madonna in the position of being thought to be a spent force, incapable of producing as she had. She was, in short, an underdog again, and that left her in a position to come up with something that reinvented her sound in a way that captured the market based on surprise once more.

The upshot of all of this is that she developed an elder-statesman quality in the late nineties that resulted in a pair of albums – Ray of Light and Music that were her most breathlessly-received, selling 31 million copies between them, yielding hits and critical acclaim and rewards8. She seemed unstoppable, indomitable. And then she stopped being an underdog, and she started floundering.

Music’s follow-up was, in contrast to the previous records’ slobbering press reception, the wanly-praised (when it was praised at all) American Life9. Moving a bare fraction of the records that Music did (actually, it didn’t even sell as many records as the sales dropoff between Ray of Light and Music, which says more about the astonishing saturation of Ray of Light than it does about American Life), it seemed to have the ability to position Madonna as the underdog again, as Bedtime Stories had previously. But the follow-up, Confessions on a Dance Floor, didn’t really pay out, and then the record-selling industry basically fell apart, and that did not bode well.

A phenomenon like Madonna is a difficult one to create and maintain – the marketing-focus and the drive can start with one person, but it takes a lot of backing to create the repetition necessary to make it happen. By being so focused on the advertising/repetition/image creation end of her own craft, Madonna made an attractive investment for labels, who didn’t have to worry about the music any more than she did, since it was never really the point. She made a lot of money for Warner Bros, which encouraged them to keep promoting her, which meant she made them more money. Eventually, starting ten or so years ago, it became almost completely impossible to sustain the kind of fire that powered a Madonna album – the monocultural unification required for her to assemble the producers and tracks that would make the record sound like a distillation of the current pop music environment no longer existed, and so her records became more fractious, and leaned harder on the personality of Madonna herself. That became difficult because, for all of Madonna’s charisma as a performer and Person Who Says Stuff in the Media, she’s a deeply unpleasant person, prone to saying things to cause outrage above all else and, of course, also can’t sing. Still.

So by the time of Hard Candy, which was more notable for being the last album on her Warner Bros contract than for any particular musical virtues10, the ability to galvanize people around their opinions on Madonna was basically gone. 2008 was something of a low point in music promotion, as the Powers That Sell hadn’t yet switched their whole focus to singles as quickly as the Powers That Buy had (that is to say: people were already buying individual songs, but the record-sellers were still pushing whole albums), which made it even harder to generate a career out of nothing but marketing buzz.

The follow-up to Hard Candy, MDNA, yielded a minor controversy in the form of a dust-up with Deadmau5. It had a Super Bowl appearance behind it, and took a social-media approach that would have been novel if it hadn’t been the same approach used by every fucking band without label support (seriously, you have somebody right now in your Facebook feed that is promoting their band with it. It’s not only ubiquitous, but it barely even counts as a strategy), or if it had worked at all11. If, however, the goal of American Life was indeed to scorch the earth for an entirely new crop, that worked, because it outsold it almost 2:1.

And all of that was to explain how it is that Madonna, formerly a regent of American Pop Music, became the subject of a column devoted exclusively to albums that are so inessential, so meaningless, so actively, aggressively unimportant as to make it difficult to conceptualize someone listening to it.

A twenty-year-old who is becoming aware of Madonna would have been born shortly before the Ray of Light/Music hot streak, and thus has only known post-resurgence Madonna. Since the records are obviously pitched at an audience that is increasingly-far-away from both the age of Madonna and the age of her original fans. If MDNA showed nothing, it’s that whatever audience would exist organically for this kind of thing has basically evaporated, leaving the pursued audience essentially ignorant of what she’s doing, and the loyalists unserved by what she’s doing, which means that Rebel Heart is basically bereft of any kind of inherent audience.

And the music is, of course, not doing the album any favors. This is already a very long piece, so I’ll skip the deep analysis. The music is as beside-the-point as it is on any Madonna album. It’s a reasonably simulacrum of radio EDM, a genre that she just isn’t as well-suited for as she was for radio disco thirty years ago. It also sounds weird: for all that Madonna has never associated herself with a single mode of working, we the people have a pretty good idea of what her delivery is and where her voice goes, and it just doesn’t match up with the sounds she’s paired with now12.

The producers are a pretty predictable set – the fact of Madonna being Madonna means that people won’t turn her down when she knocks. Mostly it’s Diplo, who has apparently completely lost his god-damned mind, as evidenced by the fact that he has produced a good song in quite some time. Avicii does what Avicii does. The most (qualifiedly) interesting song is the Kanye-West-produced “Illuminati”, which also means that Bjork (who wrote “Bedtime Stories,” of all things) is no longer the lone case of “a genius that, for whatever reason, gave material to Madonna to mangle”.

Look, the music has never been the point with Madonna, and it really, really isn’t now. She’s also lost most of her headline-grabbing ability, although not her willingness to try, which means that we’re getting something a lot more human – and a lot more thirsty-seeming – out of Madonna. That’s even kind of interesting, even if only theoretically, but in practice there are about a hundred things that just make it sad.

So we come to the question this piece set out to ask: who the fuck would listen to this? And the answer is: I have no Earthly idea. I started out talking about how Madonna has been a baffling continuing presence for the entire time I’ve been choosing my own music to listen to, and I have to come back to it here. I would imagine that Madonna loyalists would be into it, maybe? But it doesn’t sound much like Madonna, and I can’t understand why someone would be a Madonna loyalist in the first place. It’s probably going to #113, and presumably each of the people that buy it is going to listen to it once. But with no single penetration, and some fairly-disastrous response to some leaked demos, I can’t imagine where it goes beyond that.

Maybe she’ll stop making new records and retire to Vegas, like Cher (who, honestly, probably deserved the career Madonna got) did. That’d be pretty cool.

1 with the following exceptions: there was a period of my late-adolescence where I quite enjoyed the song “LIke a Prayer,” I enjoy the Madonna covers on Ciccone Youth’s The Whitey Album, and I like the end of Alien, where Sigourney Weaver sings “Lucky Star” while she’s preparing to go into hypersleep, even though it manages to imply that “Lucky Star” is as deathless and eternal as the goddamn alien itself seems to be. Luckily, the alien died, and so, too, did “Lucky Star,” which, come to think of it, was also covered pretty compellingly by Ryan Adams’ band The Skylarks. Caveat emptor.
2 admittedly, most of the time spent listening to and considering Madonna was through the medium of her music videos, which at least had other reasons to be compelling.
3 I mean this term in a pretty literal way. It’s used here to mean “stardom conferred upon one primarily due to the performance of popular music”, rather than the somewhat more rigid construction that would include, say, Rihanna, but not for genre-bound reasons, Bono.
4 I don’t mean to imply here that my opinions are all, or even mostly, internally-consistent. They mostly very much are not.
5 This approach, when it happens in other ways, is actually not all bad, although it rarely results in music as aggressively, tremendously terrible as Madonna’s. Billy Joel has a similar effect – he was just always there, until eventually nobody could really hate him because there was always something in his catalog that made you pleasantly disposed toward him.
6 helped, presumably, by the giant non-album hits she had in “This Used to Be My Playground,” which sort of premiered Bedtime Stories’ slowed-down, bored-up approach and in “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”, which was already a part of Evita, but, in the Madonna version at least, also sounds of a piece with the concurrent Madonna records.
7 to tie this into the autobiographical information at the top, Bedtime Stories was the first Madonna album I was aware of at the time of its release. The “Take a Bow” video remains one of the most dreadful expressions of the form, and the song itself is, in all likelihood, the worst song to hit #1 at least in my lifetime, if not possibly longer.
8 this is the aforementioned period in which I came into the picture – I lived far away from record stores, so had to read about a lot more music than I was able to hear, and this was just before the internet entered my life in any real kind of way, so magazines were the way to go, and I consumed them obsessively for the better part of a decade. I read more glowing reviews of Ray of Light than just about any album I can think of, which did nothing to make me think of it as anything other than terrible.
9 if you remember American Life, it’s for its execrable title track, which got the most press at the time for being the song on which Madonna “raps,” a move which, ten years on, looks less like anything musical, and more like a way to control the conversation about the album – if you rap terribly and make the lyrics a self-parody, there’s no way anyone will talk about any other song. It is, in its way, another piece of the advertising track upon which the Madonna train advances.
10 “4 Minutes” was not as objectionable as many Madonna singles, but this had more to do with Timbaland’s production and the presence of Justin Timberlake than anything Madonna was doing.
11 it is weird to describe an album that moved over half a million copies as a non-success. The scale of the record-selling industry is still insane, even when it’s lost most of its legs.
12 perhaps an under-reported aspect of her late-nineties/early-oughts resurgence was that her voice was pretty well-suited to post-big-beat dance music – it’s loud in a limited range, which is basically what they’re looking for. People that have major success as singers for EDM-style pop music tend to have wider ranges and dynamic ranges other than “foghorn” – think Sia on “Titanium” or Ellie Goulding on “I Need Your Love”. It probably would’ve behooved Madonna to go in a more Rihanna-esque direction – her voice has similar problems*, although it must at this point be said that since Madonna can’t actually sing most of the questions about what she should be doing with her voice are somewhat moot.
* insofar as Rihanna’s voice has problems, they’re basically about her range, which isn’t very wide. Interestingly to this argument, Rihanna also has had huge hits written by Sia and, separately, produced by Calvin Harris. This footnote is so long, so I’ll table this for another time.
13 in probably the most 2015 thing ever, its hardest competition seems to be the soundtrack for the television show Empire.

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