As much as we tolerate Madonna (mainly thanks to Ray of Light), we’d find it hard to describe the entire Rebel Heart campaign as anything other than an abortion of a shit-show. A dozen leaked tracks, a hurried half-release to iTunes, and a social media campaign so ill-judged that, had someone not intervened, it could quite conceivably have ended with the Holocaust memorial draped in Rebel Heart tape.
Of course, stunts like these aren’t new to Madonna – like Rihanna and Kylie, she’s usually been a vessel for someone else’s work (and invariably her songs have only as much personality as the producer attached to them) so extra-curricular shock tactics are de rigueur. Having said that, MDNA was relatively low-key but still yielded a decent album in its unashamed electronic revelry; Rebel Heart continues that sound, predominantly thanks to Ariel Rechtshaid, if not necessarily that result.
The new record – as its title suggests – takes aim at the Man, religion, and any form of authority. It’s an odd sentiment for Madonna to continue championing even at this stage of her career; after all, this is the woman who has scandalised the world on more than one occasion. Still, you have titles like Devil Pray, Illuminati, Joan of Arc, Iconic, Holy Water… clearly, subtlety and understatement are not qualities that age has inspired in Madonna.
It’s also that word “age” that a lot of people come back to with Madge. Fair enough, she doesn’t help herself with her coarse grasp of social media, but it’s not a word we think matters when assessing Rebel Heart – she’s still got the energy and pizzazz of any young upstart. What matters more than age is time, or rather timeliness. Where once Madonna was ahead of the pop curve, in recent years she has fastidiously remained behind it: rave-horn reggae on Unapologetic Bitch? Meh. Pop-trap beats on Iconic? Been there a lot lately.
Not that Rebel Heart is a bad album by any means, in fact a lot of it is perfectly acceptable – Living For Love and Bitch I’m Madonna are shamelessly good pop songs (though the less said about ballads like HeartBreakCity the better). But expectations from Madonna always remain sky-high, and in a climate that includes people like Taylor Swift and Tove Lo, we deserve pop that’s a bit meatier rather than the sort of “go hard or go home” lyrics that reek of someone trying to catch up with youth slang.
When it’s all over, two things linger: one, the phrase ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’, which feels like it needs to be less a “look at me, I’m still here” flag to us (we already know who you are, love) and more a reminder to Madge herself of what she’s capable of. Otherwise, and this is the second take-home, her rhyming of Iconic with “ironic” feels like it could become oddly prescient: what Madonna does next might well decide which of those boxes her legacy ends up in.