Sun. Aug 9th, 2020

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 14 “MADAME X”

Madame X is a secret agent. Traveling around the world. Changing identities. Fighting for freedom. Bringing light to dark places. She is a dancer. A professor. A head of state. A housekeeper. An equestrian. A prisoner. A student. A mother. A child. A teacher. A nun. A singer. A saint. A whore. A spy in the house of love. I am Madame X.

After another successful world tour, Madonna took her time releasing her 14th album. A new presidential election happened between albums, tearing the country and world apart. She packed her bags and moved to Lisbon, Portugal to give her son David a shot at a football career but also to expand her own musical horizons. Ever the pacesetter, she had in recent years become the chaser of them and it felt like with Rebel Heart – a sometimes inconsistent and forced mash of styles that never quite gel – Madonna seemed to finally accept that radio and U.S. listeners didn’t give a shit about her but her world audience always had and never gave up, generation to generation. She was inspired by fado, reggaeton, trap music and much more and found new musical spirits for Madame X. She pushed herself further out of her boundaries than she ever had before with “Dark Ballet” and “God Control,” a one-two punch of hugely political anthems with two of the most aggressive and diverse musical arrangements of her career. She found herself working with female co-songwriters for nearly half of the tracks on the standard edition of the album including a center run of songs that could easily go up against her greatest works.

No matter where we are. Where we travel. No matter who we’re with or what language we speak, when we hear music, even if we don’t understand the words, we can still connect to the vibe, to the soul, to the feeling, the emotion that the artist put into that music. You can still relate to it. It doesn’t matter what language people are singing in, or the beat or genre. We will always, in a primal way, be connected through music. I feel that my record, because Lisbon is a melting pot of culture, from Angola to Spain to Brazil to France – I had the pleasure and honour to meet musicians from all these places and be inspired by their music and let it influence me. And that’s how all these songs came to be. We were connected before Instagram, people.

Madonna to Billboard, April 2019

Despite the Billboard Hot 100 and general radio play not giving her a place at the table, the album includes the singles “Medellín”, “Crave”, “I Rise” and “I Don’t Search I Find,” all of which reached the top spot on the Dance Club Songs in the United States, extending her record as the artist with the most number-one songs on a singular Billboard chart, with a total of 50. She also became the first and only artist to achieve a number-one song in five consecutive decades.

Enjoy our conversation about Madonna’s newest album, Madame X, an album that will undoubtedly find itself among her greatest in future retrospectives the way that American Life now is.

MEDELLÍN (with Maluma)

AN: It’s interesting to talk about the Madame X era because it’s so recent that I almost feel like I haven’t had the time to truly process it. What I will say is that prior to this era, the Madonna collaborator I most dreamed of her reuniting with was Mirwais. As anyone who has read this series knows, American Life is my favorite Madonna album and I’m also obsessed with their collaborations on the Music album. So when I heard they were working together I expected a return to the kind of cohesive greatness that a lot of us missed from the previous few albums, which all had phenomenal songs on them, but didn’t feel like the grand artistic statements that we had come to expect from our queen. So to begin with, I’ll say that I absolutely love this album. It’s the sound of a revitalized Madonna, leaning into the things she cares about, the things she wants to say about our current world, and doing it with her usual pop flair. All that said, the first song on the album is probably my least favorite. I understand why it was the lead single. And I love the video with Madonna sucking the toe of the sexiest man alive. But it doesn’t feel as vital and connected as what comes after it. I suppose it is the perfect opening song in some ways because it eases the listener into the world of Madame X, which will become much more challenging with the next string of songs. And the one-two-cha-cha-chas are instantly iconic. So yeah, I like the lead song but like everything that comes after it even more. And since my last trip before quarantine began was to Colombia, big shout out to a country that is magnificent.

EA: I’m always excited for a new Madonna album. I want to know what she’s going to do next; what sources she’ll pull from as inspirations and what she’ll give us we haven’t heard before. Madame X exceeded every possible expectation in so many ways. I love that she came back with a ‘character’ like Dita from Erotica. The album is such a vast exploration of her experiences, her life in Lisbon post-Rebel Heart, bringing Mirwais back as a primary producer but also working with the fantastic Mike Dean and Jason Evigan as producers. The limited number of producers this time around was the best choice ever. Her last two albums, while still good, feel more disjointed than they needed to be. As a kick off single, “Medellín” is a lot of fun. The “one two, cha cha cha” is delicious and the song and video are sexy and dreamy. It’s one of my favorite Latin-inspired songs of hers.

DARK BALLET

EA: When I tell you I gagged when “Dark Ballet” turns from a neat song into the most experimental, craziest thing she’s ever done, believe me. I gasped the first time I heard it. Then the second. That middle section is so jovial and sinister at the same time. It’s A Clockwork Orange meets Joan of Arc (that video!). She gets to address some of her main issues: sexism and fame. It’s a great example of the songs on this album that are so issue-centric but done with the exact right tone. It’s never cloying or over/underwritten. Weird Madonna is often my favorite Madonna and it’s songs like this, productions like this that give me life from someone almost 40 years into their career.

AN: For me, this is where the album truly takes flight and never lets go. Everything about “Dark Ballet” from the title to the lyrics to the production to the music video is epic and daring. It’s a special song because Madonna teased it in the perfection that was her Met Gala performance. I listened to the verse she sang in that performance over and over and over again, since it was the only hint we had of the sound that would be coming from her next. I immediately loved its defiance. When I heard the complete song, I was gagged like you. That one verse didn’t prepare us for what was to come. It’s a song that packs so many ideas in that it’s shocking that it’s only a little over four minutes long. And what an exhilarating four minutes. I love that Madonna and Mirwais incorporate The Nutcracker into the song. I love how prescient the lyrics are. And I think the video – with the phenomenal Mykki Blanco playing Joan of Arc – is truly inspired. It’s right up there with “God Control” as the best video from the album, and a real return to the kind of ballsy music videos Madonna was making in her glory days. And I love that she barely appears in it, allowing Mykki to be the star. I’ll end this by saying there aren’t many pop songs with lyrics that speak to the times like, “They are so naïve. They think we are not aware of their crimes. We know, but we are just not ready to act. The storm isn’t in the air, it’s inside of us.” I mean, come on. This is a woman who pays attention to the world around her.

GOD CONTROL

AN: “God Control” is my favorite song on the album, just a flawless song. I have nothing but the highest praise for the risks Madonna takes here. A song like this tells the world exactly why she’s the queen of pop, because who else is doing this? The opening where she sings as if her mouth is wired shut, perhaps an homage to the album cover, is devastating. She’s using a vocal technique we’ve never heard from her before to tell a story. I think that’s one of the things I love most about Madame X, the risk taking that’s happening in service of the story Madonna is telling. Deeper into the song, we get a quick rap where Madonna sounds exactly like she did in the Truth or Dare era. Again, using her voice to tell a story. Also, the fact that a song about gun control and the devastation that comes from violence turns it into a disco anthem is really fucking powerful. Because the best dance music is often about loss and grief and sadness. That is why so many of us seek the dance floor. And Madonna knows that better than anyone else. It’s on the dance floor that she can create “a new democracy.” The video for this is very hard to watch, but a real testament to Madonna’s vision for this album. And it brings to light the ways in which violence has often touched Madonna’s own life – from her own assault to the death of friends like Gianni Versace. Back to the song for a moment, this feels like Madonna’s version of some of the risk-taking Kate Bush was doing in an album like The Dreaming. There’s a confidence to the choices here that comes from a real artist knowing who they are and what they want to say. A masterpiece.

EA: I agree 100%. It’s the best song on the album (a perfect continuation from “Dark Ballet”) and a pinnacle in her career. It’s impressive that a song that is truly an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ of ideas works as brilliantly as it does. It’s her most aggressive political statement but when couched in one of the best disco songs ever it doesn’t minimize it, it gives the listener the space and freedom to hear her and begin to heal. Dance has been a cornerstone of her life, long before her singing career. It’s an outlet to speak without words and it’s a way to deal with intense sadness. The clinched vocals (getting tighter as that section goes on) perfectly represents the lack of voice the populace has in the realm of gun violence legislation and the silly rap section“ harks back to Dick Tracy, of all things. The choir voices are something that’s always been successful in songs and using a child’s choir here, and the specific inflection of ‘God Con-Trol’ is everything. The video is another epic masterpiece from Jonas Åkerlund, what more can you say?

FUTURE (with Quavo)

EA: After “Medellín,” “Future” starts to explore the incredibly wide range of world music that Madame X is about. It’s funky reggaeton, which as you know hasn’t been my favorite style for her to dip her toe into. But I really like this. I think this is the only Diplo-produced song on the album and it’s interesting that she chose to keep him on from Rebel Heart for just one song. I like how the song kind of unfolds, a bit clench-jawed at the beginning then opening us as the song does. I love her wink to “Don’t Tell Me” with “Don’t tell me to stop/’cause you said so.”

AN: Future is a song that has grown tremendously on me. I always liked it, but it gets better with every listen. The lyrics, like “Dark Ballet” and “God Control,” are almost uncomfortably prescient. There’s a reason conspiracy theorists have become obsessed with her Eurovision performance. But where they see some kind of Illuminati crap, I see the work of an artist who was paying attention to the world around her and warning us about what was to come. While we’re on it, I want to say that I really loved that Eurovision performance. I get that it’s Eurovision and people wanted her to stand on a disco ball and sing the hits, but it’s Madonna. She’ll never do what’s expected of her, or give the people what they want. That’s what makes her the artist she is. She takes us to places we may not be ready to go. And I thought the performance was really powerful. It told a story, and warned people that they needed to wake up. Maybe that’s not a popular message, but it’s a necessary one.

BATUKA

AN: Okay, I have to talk about the Madame X Tour for a moment. Alongside Blond Ambition and Girlie Show, it’s the most powerful experience I had at a Madonna show (and I’ve seen every tour except Who’s That Girl). One of the clear highlights of the show for me was the presence of the Batukadeiras Orchestra, who Madonna clearly loves performing with. There’s a love and connection that came through when they were on stage together that was thrilling. I mentioned earlier that this is a sound of a revitalized Madonna, and obviously Madonna’s life in Portugal has everything to do with that. Apparently, she moved there so her son David could play soccer, and he co-wrote this song, which is pretty impressive. Once there, she was exposed to a whole new world of music that connected her to a new source of creativity and to a hunger deep inside her. She has spoken very movingly about the experience she had in Portugal, and I so get it. I’ve been there once, and it was so beautiful that I named my daughter after I city I visited there. Also, for those of us who pay close attention to Madonna’s career, what I love about this is that it’s the first time in a few albums where Madonna isn’t taking inspiration from what’s currently on the radio, but instead creating her own lane. That’s what she always did, and many of us were ready for her to do something that sounded uniquely hers. A pop call and response song inspired by Cape Verde is a long, long way from collaborating with Justin Timberlake, and I’m here for it. Also, can we please get that old man and put him in a jail? Please.

EA: Yes! To all of this! It’s why this album is such a huge departure in so many ways, because she’s not following anyone or anything, which is how she used to be. I truly love that her move to Portugal was for her son David (a great dancer and football player) and that he – and her kids had a hand in writing this. I love going on this worldwide journey with her and finding inspiration from Batukadeiras Orchestra. While something like “Dark Ballet” is a wild diversion for her, “Batuka” reminded me of “Shanti/Ashtangi” from Ray of Light; something that is wholly its own but an integral part of her journey at this time in her life. I’ve never heard this kind of drum music from her, this level of repetition (almost every lyric is repeated). It also gave us the BEST moment of the Madame X show, as you say. What a closer.

KILLERS WHO ARE PARTYING

EA: So this, for me, is a big misstep. It’s so weirdly self-serving, even though I don’t think it was her intention. She’s taking on the woes and troubles of marginalized people, carrying it on her shoulders alone. I do like the fado-inspired arrangement but this is a moment where I think her lyrics fail her. Her intentions are good, to be sure, she’s been a fighter for civil and human rights her entire career and this album represents a world under the current administration and a song like this is a direct response to it (“Batuka” was too) but when she loosens her grip on her ‘too on the nose’ lyrics she’s far more successful.

AN: When I heard the title of this song, it was the one I was probably most excited to listen to. To say the song wasn’t what I was expecting from the title is an understatement. Lyrically, it’s undeniably clunky. I’ve seen Madonna get heat for the sentiments expressed here, but given how steadfast she’s been in using her platform to stand with marginalized communities, I have to agree that she wrote them with the best intentions. And I think the most important lyrics here are “I know what I am, and I know what I’m not.” She’s not pretending to be of the communities she sings about, she’s stating her intention to stand with them forever. The end of the song – when Madonna sings “wild is the world” – is one of my favorite parts of the whole album though. Musically, it plays movingly with the Portuguese fado sound, and it also brings to mind Nina Simone’s version of “Wild is the Wind” (which may be my favorite song of all time, and I know Madonna shares my Nina love).

EA: I can see that! Well, hear it.

CRAVE (with Swae Lee)

AN: “Crave” is the most effortless pop moment on the album. The hooks are plenty and the delivery is smooth. Swae Lee’s voice plays really beautifully off of hers (especially his backing vocals, which give the song a luxurious feeling of flight). In another world, this could’ve been a major hit for her, but we don’t live in that world. I’m pleased that Madonna scored her 50th club #1 with this album (which really did deliver epic remixes, including to this song), a well-deserved honor for the queen of the dance floor. Also, while the video for this isn’t as ambitious as the other videos for this album, she looks jaw-droppingly stunning in it.

EA: This song is so gorgeous it’s not even funny. I love it. Madonna and Swae’s vocals are absolutely perfect together. I love the vocal motif of the clenched jaw is present here again but then opens up. It reminds me a lot of the feeling of “Secret” from Bedtime Stories. Luxurious is right, as you say. It should have been a big hit, Swae Lee has a top song right now! That said, even though this was a Billboard Hot 100 hit it ended up being one of her biggest hits in years on other charts like Adult Contemporary and Adult Pop Songs (both of which she used to dominate too). I don’t mind that the video is a bit simple (flying birds/birds set free, not exactly groundbreaking) but I do love the Creation of Adam shot and yes, my lord, she looks incredible in this.

Oh and I wanted to mention something we don’t really talk about with her songwriting partners. She doesn’t use female songwriters that much, sometimes maybe one song per album. But “Crave,” along with six other songs have female co-writers including this section where we’re in right now. Brittany Hazzard co-wrote “Crave” and four other tracks.

CRAZY

EA: This is another song that could have and should have been a radio hit for her (if only radio would play her). It’s a song that were it sung by a younger artist would be an easy top 10 hit. Give it to Selena Gomez or even Taylor Swift and you’d hear it every hour. I love the accordion opening (makes me think of her Tears of a Clown for some reason). I think it’s one of the best written songs on the album too. “Peel off my weakness, layer after layer” and the nod to “Like a Prayer.” They’re not over complicated and her infusion of Portuguese is kind of perfect. It’s also one of the few breakup songs which have populated so many other albums. I don’t think I’ve ever felt her so…happy with where she is in her life than on this album. Even as the world is in strife she feels so centered.

AN: I agree with everything you say here. There’s something about the middle of this album – especially the three songs in a row that start with the letter C – that really excites me, and it has to do with how happy she sounds, how connected she feels. This is also a return to flawless sequencing. The beginning of the album hits hard, and once Madonna has gotten some of her anger out of the way, she seems ready to have fun again. In some ways, this follows the trajectory of American Life, which packed its most aggressive songs upfront before opening up into themes of love and connection. Like “Crave,” I find “Crazy” so effortless. It’s breezy and fun. She moves from English to Portuguese with ease. She seems to be having a genuinely good time. And I am all in for the accordion.

COME ALIVE

AN: “Come Alive!” If “God Control” weren’t the masterpiece it is, this would be my favorite on the album. It’s propulsive and stirring. It’s a song I want to listen to every time I need to feel motivated. The lyrics are fantastic, and so uniquely her. The “who you talking to” refrain reminds me of the “who do you think you are” from Bitch I’m Madonna. “Mouth closed I don’t want your opinion” brings me back to “Human Nature.” “All I want is peace peace peace” brings me back to the Ray of Light era. The choir brings Like a Prayer to mind. It’s a song that harkens back to so many different Madonna eras, and yet sounds completely new. What more can you ask for? Also, this was a MAJOR moment on tour. The outfit. The Batukadeiras Orchestra. The rousing chant of Come Alive, Come Alive delivered over and over again. I felt like I was flying when she performed this for our audience. Stunning. You know, as we’re having this discussion and I’m revisiting the music, I’m starting to realize I like this album even more than I did when it came out. I have a feeling this will be one of those albums that we’ll find even more love for with time.

EA: FLAWLESS. This is such a powerful anthem. Again, props to Madge and Brittany Hazzard (with Kanye West producer Jeff Bhasker) for this gorgeously written song. I really hope she continues to work and write with Hazzard in the future. Had Madame X not been a theatre tour this would be such an incredible closer. The melody, the beat, everything begs for a huge audience to sing it together. “Stand out now I don’t want to blend in” would have spoken directly to me as a kid and is probably my favorite lyric.

FAZ GOSTOSO (featuring Anitta)

EA: This is a song that could have used a video because you know it would have been sexy as hell. It’s a fun song and fits right into this album and all of its fado-inspired music. You could think it’s all about Maluma as a dangerous, dirty guy up to no good with Madonna and Anitta conspiring to expose or dispense of him somehow. It’s fun, a bit of a throwaway (although musically rich) but when have I ever not liked that on a Madonna album?

AN: After “Medellín,” “Faz Gostoso” is the most streamed song on the album, which is wild considering it wasn’t a single, never got a music video, never got remixes, and wasn’t performed on tour. But that’s the power of Anitta, and of a robust pop song that is full of joy. I absolutely love this one. I love that it’s a cover, which we don’t get very often from Madonna. I love how seamlessly their voices mesh together, and that we have Madonna collaborating with a female voice on the album is fabulous. I wish it had been a single. I can only imagine the music video that could’ve been, and yeah, it definitely should’ve also starred Maluma.

BITCH I’M LOCA (featuring Maluma)

AN: Oh, I love this song so much. It’s like a little gift stuck at the end of the album. It sounds like it belongs in an early Almodóvar movie, so sassy and in your face. Maluma sounds so sexy (I mean, I can’t take it), and she has now fully let go and is having a blast. There are so many lyrics that make me laugh out loud. I just love that on an album that takes on very serious issues, Madonna finds room to display the sense of humor that has always been one of her biggest assets.

EA: Speaking of Maluma….oye this clunker. I have very little to say about this that’s good, I’m sorry! I love Maluma and he’s having fun and sounds better here than on “Medellín” but I can barely get past the title and some of her staccato vocals. I totally get where you’re coming from though; it has a sense of humor, especially with the closing lyrics. It’s playful at least, I’ll give it that.

I DON’T SEARCH I FIND

EA: I am obsessed with “I Don’t Search I Find.” It’s just such a focused track. Keeping the writing and producing to just her and Mirwais (like “Dark Ballet” and “God Control”) works to its advantage because it feels so free. It’s not a wild and complex amalgam like those two songs, it’s a true throwback era song for the gays in the club. She’s talking directly to us, and to herself. It reminds of her great early work with Shep Pettibone (what I would give for them to collab again). As I mentioned before, this is an album of a woman who seems – at 60 – to be in the most control of her life than she’s ever been. She finally understands who she is, who she wants to be and is supposed to be. I could listen to this song over and over and I have, on repeat, and the remix EPs are incredible.

AN: Another gift. It’s funny that I began by saying “Medellín” is probably my least favorite song on the album, because I still like it so much. But every song that comes after it is so good that how could it not be? “I Don’t Search I Find” sounds like a lost track from Erotica, but the lyrics speak directly to where she is now. Is there anything more moving than Madonna, a woman who has sought the adulation of millions, singing the words “Finally Enough Love.” Also, the spoken word section brings me right back to all those songs we’ve discussed loving, from “Rain” to “Words” to “Justify My Love” – where Madonna speaks the lyrics. I just couldn’t love this song more. And for anyone who wanted Discodonna back, the Kue remix of this song is all disco and is my favorite remix of the era.

I RISE

AN: “I Rise” is a perfect closer for an album that takes us on an often difficult journey. I love that Madonna nods to a new generation of activists with Emma Gonzalez opening the track, and I really appreciate the spirit of activism and perseverance the song embodies. It really slayed on tour, where you could feel Madonna’s joy at singing a song that speaks to her being a freedom fighter. I will say that musically, I’m a bigger fan of the two tracks that didn’t make the standard edition, “Extreme Occident” and “Looking for Mercy,” both songs I find deeply moving and personal. But I understand why “I Rise” had to close out the album, and I feel deep gratitude for what Madonna gave us in this era. An album that will stand the test of time as a profound artistic statement. Her first theater tour, which added so much intimacy to her live show without sacrificing the spectacle. The best string of music videos she’s made since American Life. What an era. I truly can’t wait to see where she takes us next. It’s very clear that her creative well is still very full.

EA: Although I kind of wish the last two songs’ orders were flipped (I just love the idea of opening and closing the album with dance numbers), “I Rise” really hits both of her main themes for this album: her political activism folded into her bread and butter, perfect club numbers. If I’m being honest, the song doesn’t need the opening dialogue from Emma Gonzalez (especially since Gonzalez was not happy about its use) but Madonna’s intentions were true and I agree with you, in service to a new generation suffering through things hers didn’t. It’s still very moving and does close out possibly her most cohesive album since Ray of Light.

Stay tuned for a special episode of Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi dropping in a few weeks just in time for Madonna’s 62nd birthday.

Madame X by the numbers

  • Released on June 14, 2019
  • Peaked at #1 on Billboard 200 album chart June 29, 2019
  • Length: 56:01
  • Sales numbers not finalized

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 1 – ‘MADONNA’ (1983)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 2 – ‘LIKE A VIRGIN’ (1984)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 3 – ‘TRUE BLUE’ (1986)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 4 – ‘LIKE A PRAYER’ (1989)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 5 – ‘EROTICA’ (1992)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 6 – ‘BEDTIME STORIES’ (1994)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 7 – ‘RAY OF LIGHT’ (1998)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 8 – ‘MUSIC’ (2000)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 9 – ‘AMERICAN LIFE’ (2003)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 10 – ‘CONFESSIONS ON A DANCE FLOOR’ (2005)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 11 – ‘HARD CANDY’ (2008)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 12 – ‘MDNA’ (2012)

Talking Madonna with Erik and Abdi: Episode 13 – ‘Rebel Heart’ (2015)

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