Who the Fuck Listens to This: Madonna, Madame X

You know, ordinarily, I don’t like to go back to this particular well too often. The criteria for Who the Fuck Listens to This posts are fairly strict. I have to learn about the existence of something that makes me question why the person even bothered, and that doesn’t happen all that often 1. Morrissey was one, and that wasn’t that long ago, but if there’s anyone that can be said to live in Who the Fuck Listens to This territory, it’s present-day Madonna.

Madonna’s last album was completely inexplicable, for the reasons that I outlined previously in the link there. For those that don’t click through: Madonna used to be considered a vital, interesting, listened-to proposition, who made records that got acclaim and sales and made people happy. Over time, that diminished, and her antics became less and less obviously defensible as “artistic provocation” and more easily seen as what they had always been, which was attention-getting measures from a narcissistic performance artist under the guise of being a pop star 2. As time went by and she was less able to be push-marketed by the record-selling industry that had given her her platform in the first place, she became less able to garner attention for what she was doing, and it became increasingly apparent that her music was not enough to carry on paying attention to her 3.

That album was four years ago, and here we sit, in the future, and there’s another one. Rebel Heart was attended by a giant tour that lasted forever and generated its own documentary. In the interim, Madonna moved to Portugal and was “inspired” by the fado music she found there. She gave a speech honoring herself that was disguised as a memorial for Aretha Franklin. She generally considered existing in a way that made it clear that she was still going to be the very same Madonna she had always been, and now, inevitably, as though following through on a thread, she has delivered an album.

So what, then, has happened in the four years since her last record that would impel someone to listen to it? This is where I have to be careful to point out that there is no question as to why she would make it 4, but rather, why would anyone listen to it? There’s certainly an audience for just about anything, and I subscribe to the John Peel philosophy that if I don’t like a record, I’m probably to blame, and not the people that made the record. I don’t want to re-litigate the entire set of reasons that I’m not ever going to be in the audience for Madonna’s music (there are links previously in the piece that will do that for me), so I’ll move forward with my current objections. That’ll also keep this short, which is nice.

So the reasons to think that maybe this is the Madonna album where she turns it around might exist. She’s working with Mirwais again, who produced her sort of late-period zenith in the twenty-year-old Music and also uh…American Life, an album which someone, somewhere might like. I can’t imagine who, but that’s all dealt with previously and I am forging ahead.

Mirwais (presumably) enabled (or at least abetted) her to get her influence from a bunch of “world” sources – the previously-mentioned fado, certainly, but also baile, and trap music, and probably some other things I don’t know enough to know about 5 to speak about with any real authority. Since a bunch of Madonna records are made by Madonna finding a subculture that she can try to work in and wrapping it around herself, I suppose that makes this something of a return to form, provided that it can be proven that she ever left that form.

It’s the trap beats (and the presence of a couple of the more successful and/or brilliant trap dudes on features) that make me think, however, that the whole thing is the same kind of empty-gesture, look-at-me nonsense that populates all of her records to this point, and in this case the fact is that she isn’t taking it on honestly enough for it to get over. For whatever my feelings are about her previous records, at least when she dabbled in post-disco or club music or pop balladry she came to it from a place where she was engaged and interested enough in it for it to feel like something she had genuinely uh…stolen and taken credit for. This all just seems cursory.

Song-for-song, this is tremendously boring. This Maluma dude that sings on a couple of songs has a good voice, and clearly they’re doing some flirty Walk Hard-style business in their songs, which brings us back into the land of “thinking about Madonna having sex”, which is a primary subgrouping of Madonna song. His second appearance is in the song “Bitch I’m Loca” which makes me want to set my own beard on fire. Quavo’s appearance is regrettable, but he’s made it pretty clear that whatever else is going on in his life, he doesn’t say no when people ask him to feature, so while it’s still annoying, it’s not necessarily disappointing, if only because it’s no longer surprising. I’m not sure how she got Swae Lee in there, but I’d imagine it’s a similar impulse, and his appearance isn’t quite as bad.

The solo songs are generally not as puzzling, and are also generally not as memorable – at least when there’s a feature there’s someone else to mark the damn thing, after all. A couple of them have lyrical clunkers bad enough for me to want to write about Madonna’s lyrics, and here’s why I’m not going to do that: I don’t remember them, I didn’t hear them very well in the first place, and i’m damn sure not looking them up just so that I can not like them definitively. Some of the individual turns of phrase are terrible, which means that her singing in languages I don’t understand (which happens at several points on the album) is basically the #1 thing she’s ever done to make me hate her music less.

Speaking of which, there is a song on this album called “Batuka” which has a nifty trance-y bit of business with some Central African type drums. It totally enters the (extremely short) list of Madonna songs I don’t actively hate enough to pray that I never hear them again. So that’s something, anyway, and maybe that means she’s got more going on than I think. I mean, the rest of the album belies the idea, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

The bits of the album where she’s not pulling on some string of legitimate musical form from somewhere else are at least not quite as galling, but they are also the least-memorable songs. Or, rather, some of them are quite memorable, but they’re memorable because they’re terrible. You get the idea. The music is bad, and it’s bad in the way that Madonna’s music is bad, only it’s worse than most other Madonna music, because it feels forced and tired in a way that other Madonna songs don’t, really.

Sometimes with big-promotional-push pop records, there’s a sort of inertia, which is why more pop records don’t get written up here – casual listeners (who provide the majority of the audience for this sort of music) listen to whatever they’re exposed to, and that tends to be the result of marketing and whatnot, rather than personal taste, which in the case of a casual listener, is generally (whatever else it may be) served well enough by the things that are available casually to not cause the person doing the listening to seek out anything else. It seems to border on tautological, I admit, but in this case it’s obviated anyway, because there have been a handful of singles here, and none of them appears to be gaining any real traction. And so the built-in audience is also not well-served by the thing being pushed to them.

So why the fuck would people listen to this? And who the fuck are they? It’s certainly not the people who want to like it on its own merits, since, as mentioned, it only has the regular old Madonna merits, only this time stale and unfelt (i.e. it’s terrible, full of years-old ideas and badly-sung. Some of those aren’t unique to this album). I guess the remaining Madonna trufans and/or apologists, and probably some contrarian types who want to treat a massively successful and long-running pop star like some sort of underdog charity case.

Actually, I’m going to go with mostly the contrariasts – Madonna has gone long enough without making a record a lot of people can get behind that I’m sure there’s a bunch of people preparing their “no actually this is awesome because ________” takes. If not for this one, then the next one, in which case they’ll also listen to this one to get the feelf or it.

So it goes.

  1.  there’s generally a couple-three of them a year, and maybe that many again thatI consider and then don’t do anything about due to timing or something like it. 
  2. albeit a very smart one, and one that occasionally has her heart in the right place in non-musical concerns. 
  3. it is the official editorial position of this publication that her music is among some of the worst music ever made, and was never, in fact, any good. 
  4. there never is, in fact. It’s the easiest question in the world to answer. 
  5. there are definitely stylistic choices that sound idiomatic of something, and instrumentation choices that seem to convey styles that I just don’t know much about. I feel comfortable saying that I don’t know much about dance musics of whichever country is in question. Sorry. If there’s anything I should know, feel free to tell me about it, I’ll listen to it. 

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