A new Madonna album, a fresh reminder that we’re all going to die.
That probably isn’t the takeaway the pop matriarch was aiming for with her 13th – and 13th-best – studio album, “Rebel Heart.” But as time continues to march us all toward our respective expiration dates, we’ll continue to crave art that distracts us from our terminal destiny by making us feel young. And while the line between the bliss of escapism and the unseemliness of denial can be a blurry one, which side this album falls on is not.
And it hurts! Back in 1989, this conquering pop queen was rallying for confidence, freedom and excellence with such ease: “Don’t go for second best, baby!” Now, her music sounds so tentative, so trapped, so shabby.
Ageism is a cruel and formidable force in popland, but Madonna’s desire to live forever young isn’t the problem, here. It’s the fact that she takes pains to sound so juvenile. The lyrics on “Rebel Heart” feel violently resistant to wisdom, as if espousing the slightest air of sophistication might remind the planet that Madonna is now 56 years old.
So instead, we get the lumpy neo-reggae of “Unapologetic B––,” in which she sasses a boy-toy: “See you trying to call me, but I blocked you on my phone.” Over the bratty dubstep of “B––, I’m Madonna,” she brags of partying so hard that “the neighbor’s p––- and says he’s gonna call the five-o.” And on “Devil Pray” – a song that doesn’t have the word “b––” in the title – she rattles off a menu of intoxicants: “We can do drugs, and we can smoke weed, and we can drink whiskey / Yeah, we can get high, and we can get stoned / And we can sniff glue, and we can do E, and we can drop acid. . . .”
Which one will best help us forget that this is happening?
As she did on her last album, 2012’s almost-as-bad “MDNA,” Madonna has called on a hodgepodge of hitmakers to help produce these tunes. And this time the list includes Diplo, Avicii, Kanye West and Ariel Rechtshaid, all names skimmed off the top of today’s pop marquee. Accordingly, “Rebel Heart” sounds dispassionate and incurious about the world it’s trying so hard to participate in.
But when things go especially awry, they do so in perversely interesting ways. Like when boxing legend Mike Tyson shows up to play the hype-man on “Iconic.” Or when rap great Nas materializes for “Veni, Vidi, Vici,” a duet in which Madonna raps the autobiographical highlights from her Wikipedia page. For an album so lacking in personality, these quirks go a long way.
Overall, the spackle holding “Rebel Heart” together is the fact that Madonna is still intent on making dance music – perhaps for a dance floor that now exists only in her imagination.
Or maybe it’s stadium filler. When she hits the road later this year, we’ll be reminded that Madonna has only two living peers: Bruce Springsteen and Prince. The trio rose to ubiquity in the 1980s, exploiting MTV to cement the enduring ideal of pop-star-as-character.
Today, all three enjoy very different relationships with their flocks. Prince delights in defying expectations, while Springsteen fulfills them with plenty of gusto and little imagination. As for Madonna, it’s trickier.
From the launch of her career through her last great album, 2005’s excellent “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” Madonna has been throwing her parties in spaces her fans might not otherwise visit. And maybe that’s what’s happening on “Rebel Heart”: Instead of actually forging a meaningful dialogue with contemporary pop music, she’s simply trying to make her longtime followers feel as if they’re connecting with 2015 kiddo-culture.
But that’s a charitable hypothesis, and for those of us who don’t need Madonna to hold our hand on a tour through today’s teeming pop scene, “Rebel Heart” will sound like a string of poor decisions made by someone with evaporating confidence and deteriorating taste.
Even second-best has never felt this far away.