If Madonna Wants to Be Important, She’ll Need to Learn How to Shock Us Again
Madonna has the unique distinction of creating both the best and worst musical moments of the past three decades.
Let’s start with the good: “Like a Prayer.” It’s one of the greatest pop songs ever written, a saintly anthem that squeezes and releases at all the right moments like a massage from Saint Peter himself. It’s bouncy and fun but melodramatic in all the right ways, just like Madonna. Remember the music video too? Remember black Jesus? That scared a lot of white people. And the number of white people you’re scaring is a good barometer that you’re doing something artistically correct.
Now for the bad news: “American Life.” It’s the titular track from Madonna’s 2003 album. And the song isn’t that bad; it’s just a part of the song that’s the issue, sort of like finding rat testicles in the center of a decent cake. About two and a half minutes in, out of nowhere, Madonna launches into the unequivocal worst rap verse in rap history (a close second: Blondie’s nonsensical rhymes in “Rapture”).
Here it is, in its entirety:
I'm drinkin' a soy latte/I get a double shot-e/It goes right through my body/And you know I'm satisfied.
I drive my Mini Cooper/And I'm feeling super-duper/Yo, they tell me I'm a trooper/And you know I'm satisfied.
I do yoga and pilates/And the room is full of hotties/So I'm checking out their bodies/And you know I'm satisfied.
I’m diggin' on the isotopes/This metaphysics shit is dope/And if all this can give me hope/You know I'm satisfied.
I got a lawyer and a manager/An agent and a chef/Three nannies, an assistant/And a driver and a jet/A trainer and a butler/And a bodyguard or five/A gardener and a stylist/Do you think I'm satisfied?
I'd like to express my extreme point-of-view/I’m not a Christian and I'm not a Jew/I’m just living out the American dream/And I just realized that nothing is what it seems.
Unfortunately, she performed neither one of these songs live at Miami’s American Airlines Arena during the first of two sold-out, back-to-back shows.
I would have loved to see both. Because, even though the two are on polar opposite sides of the quality spectrum, both are reasons why you should, indeed, love Madonna. She tries.
She’s not content to just sit back and ride the wave of her past success, which she totally could do, justifiably. Madonna’s urge to remain relevant has pushed her to do many things, some good and some bad, but always, at least, interesting.
There was the Britney Spears kiss in 2003. That was good and interesting. It got folks talking, but more than that, it forced folks to talk. That’s Madonna at her best, making the country have a conversation she wants it to have. But then there was that time she asked the crowd at Ultra if they’d seen molly. That was bad, a blatant and inauthentic pandering that would make Trump shiver.
Two attempts to remain relevant in pop culture; two very different results.
I love that Madonna does this. Because it would be so easy to just sit back and let the new generation take over while you slip into retirement and travel the world and thumb through old photo albums, proud of it all.
But Madonna isn’t lazy. She’s out there trying to solve a new cultural Rubik's Cube each decade. Maybe a pinch of Diplo, just a dash of Nicki Minaj will get these whippersnappers to remember her name.
But this process of reinvention that she’s signed up for, it has its downside: We all get to see when she falls flat. Her live show, part of the Rebel Hearts tour she’s currently hauling across the country, is a lot of things. It’s a visual treasure. It’s fun, wonderfully choreographed.
But one thing it is gapingly not is dangerous. No black-Jesus-level shock and awe. She was competent and most definitely not drunk, a weird rumor that's flashed around the internet over her past few shows. The concert lived up to expectations, but that’s just it. Madonna became a legend by smashing expectations. The only surprising thing that happened during the whole show was when she brought out DJ Khaled for no apparent reason, because I think that’s a requirement at this point for any concert above a certain capacity.
(Also, on an unrelated note, we’ve found the one demographic of people who couldn’t give less of a fuck about DJ Khaled: Madonna fans. They were confused by his presence and would have cheered louder for a cantaloupe.)
The bulk of Madonna’s set were songs from her most recent, 13th studio album, Rebel Heart. She performed some hits: “Like a Virgin,” “Dress You Up,” “Material Girl.” But she spun her classics into gothic, almost dub step-y remixes. Her version of “Material Girl” sounded like it was produced by the puppet from the Saw movies.
For her encore, she sang a pretty straightforward version of “Holiday." It was the song she sang on Dick Clark's American Bandstand in 1984, when the world was first meeting the singer. After the performance, Clark pulled her aside for a brief interview. Asked what she wanted to do next — what her hopes for the future were — an out-of-breath Madonna replied without hesitation: "To rule the world."
And she did. The world, for a while, fit comfortably in her palm. But now she’s faced with an even harder task: taking it back. Can she do it? God knows she’s trying.
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