Madonna's new album, 'Madame X,' makes me wish she'd just focus on being her iconic self

The inimitable singer has never needed an alter ego before and now she's got several. It mostly works, but makes you ask: Why?
Madonna performs during the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas
Madonna performs during the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas on May 1, 2019.Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for dcp
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By Michael Arceneaux

When I asked my best friend and fellow Madonna fan if he had listened to "Madame X," the 14th studio release from the best-selling female artist — and one of the most influential artists ever — he offered a less than eager response.

“Oh, God. It’s out today?”

I can already hear the hisses of elder queens disgusted with such a sentiment (Happy Pride, though, sis!) but, in his defense, it’s more so a sign of fear than a lack of rightful reverence for pop music royalty. Even the biggest Madonna fan should be able to acknowledge there is some reason to worry: While Madge remains very much a capable if not thrilling entertainer, sonically, the 2010s haven’t been the best for her catalog.

"Confessions on a Dance Floor," released in 2005, is arguably her last great, impactful album; it’s the last time she still felt truly forward-thinking, even if it looked back sonically. The next album, , 2008’s "Hard Candy," remains her last great cohesive effort, though she may have started to sound slightly behind the times. I didn’t mind it not coming across as inventive as previous offerings because it featured more or less everything I appreciate about Madonna: pop, dance pop and R&B-ish tracks that tackled love, sex and dancing with nods to what she’s seemingly learned from practicing Kabbalah.

Sometimes, you want nothing more than what you’re used to from your favorites. For an artist like Madonna, there is so much variety that it’s not about sticking to format as it is simply knowing what works best for you — that, and never coming across as trying too hard. Neither "Confessions on a Dance Floor" nor "Hard Candy" come across as trying too hard.

The same cannot be said of what came after, "MDNA," which dropped in 2012; that is basically where it all went downhill. (I am not including the single “Girl Gone Wild,” which should have been a bigger deal than it was at the time.)

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On that album — and the one after that, "Rebel Heart" — she seemed to shift away from being a necessary provocateur to someone seemingly trying too hard to sustain her place in an expanding pop culture firmament and to make some sort of point. I imagine some of that is related to growing older and dealing with the one-two punch of sexism and ageism: On one end, many may be trying to tell her what she can and cannot do to stay relevant, while simultaneously trying to push her out of the spotlight as they try to cater to newer artists. (Of course, most of those younger artists can attribute their entire existence to Madonna’s success and the countless contributions it begot.)

That is an issue writer Vanessa Grigoriadis — I guess — tried to touch on in her New York Times magazine feature “Madonna at Sixty,” but instead ended up (perhaps inadvertently) reinforcing.

As we learned quite promptly, Madonna hated that profile, taking to Instagram to condemn it. “The journalist who wrote this article spent days and hours and months with me and was invited into a world which many people dont get to see, but chose to focus on trivial and superficial matters such as the ethnicity of my stand in or the fabric of my curtains and never ending comments about my age which would never have been mentioned had I been a MAN!” Madonna wrote.

There was also a proclamation: “DEATH TO THE PATRIARCHY.” And a pledge to “never stop fighting to eradicate it.”

I wish the crux of the piece had been better explored. I don’t so much care that Madonna still twerks because I plan on doing the same in my 60s. What I am curious to know, however, is what she is doing on stage with Ariana Grande? I wish she had flat-out asked her if she is trying to prove something. And if so, what?

It sort of feels like Madonna has morphed into Val from Daria — the older woman who ran a teenage magazine (a thinly-disguised version of Jane Pratt from then-"Jane" magazine and later the hyperconfessional website xoJane) and, for some reason, felt she had to behave like a teenager to speak to them? And what I'm not convinced is that she had to morph into anything at all: Not all music has to speak to Gen Z, and Madonna has legions of fans of all ages.

So, Madonna, I say this with all the love and reverence in the world: Girl, drop the young act, please. Be a graceful thot. It would be a fine template for those of us with similar goals.

If you, reader, have no idea what Daria is — for shame — think of Blanche Devereaux in "Golden Girls." Remember when Blanche was dating the fitness instructor old enough to be her daughter Rebecca’s younger side piece? It’s no big deal (men do it all the time) but she was wearing herself thin trying to keep up with Young Bae to her peril. At the end of the episode, Blanche accepted that her newly-installed pacemaker didn’t mean she could no longer be a good lover, and went on to prove it off-camera.

In the last several years, Madonna’s music has been more like the episode with the dating instructor. And I’m tired. So are many of you — hence the weariness to listen to her new music.

So with respect to "Madame X," be not afraid, but prepare yourself to potentially be weirded out. There is a lot happening, and I’m not entirely sure any explanation will suffice. As all things Madonna, that is by design.

In an interview with NPR, Madonna explained that Madame X was based on her eponymous alter ego — like Beyoncé's Sasha Fierce or Janet Jackson's Damita Jo or any of Nicky Minaj's various characters — who has multiple identities: a dancer, a professor, a head of state, a housekeeper, and so on. (Somehow that explains why she’s wearing an eye patch.) The identities are explored throughout the album with some surprising collaborators, like Quavo from Migos (on "Future") and Swae Lee from Rae Sremmurd (on "Crave"), along the way.

But those oddball pairings are actually the least of the oddities. As noted elsewhere, she’s singing "The Nutcracker"with a vocoder in “Dark Ballet.” Oh and she’s chanting this on “God Control”: “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.”

There is also the reggaeton track “Bitch I’m Loca” featuring Maluma, another track I’m bewildered by, because she sounds like a friskier version of Rosie from "The Jetsons" at a select moment on the track. Much of the album is peppered with nods to Latinx culture, which some have already cited to hail "Madame X" as “a blueprint for multigenerational, multicultural artistry that keeps her music and visual expression fresh and relevant.”

That’s exceedingly generous but, even in all its oddities, "Madame X" is undoubtedly Madonna’s most interesting album in a very long time. The songs will probably not reach the heights of past hits (not even like “La Isla Bonita,” arguably her most famous Latin-themed song, though "I'm Going Bananas" off "I'm Breathless" is hardly competition). But, even so, it’s a pity that pop radio doesn’t know what to do with women over a certain age because songs like “Come Alive,” “I Rise” or “I Don’t Search I Find” do deserve airplay. Note that each of those potential singles are solo works because, on the album, her collaborations with the younger artists get in the way of her genius rather than making it more relevant.

"Madame X" requires a degree of processing but, overall, the album’s peculiarities are a plus. I just wish more than anything, Madonna would remember she is Madonna — and that, after a certain point, it’s fine to sit on high and look low rather than chase the trends. Someone should tell her to be not afraid.