If the internet is our modern religion, then Madonna is its Old Testament God — the booming, all-powerful, and unapologetically prickly creator of the overshare. You know that whole stance of artful, defiant narcissism that’s now practiced daily by anybody with a social media profile? Madonna basically invented that. In the early ’80s, before she was actually famous, she’d traipse around the Lower East Side in tattered lace and jelly bracelets, insisting to anyone who’d listen that someday she’d be bigger than Jesus. She believed the dream enough for it to come true. In retrospect, her particular kind of personal-branding pluck seems distinctly millennial, cut through with that now-familiar combination of round-the-clock business savvy and genuine, honest-to-God self-love. The first time we see her onscreen in Desperately Seeking Susan, she’s lying on her back, frowning seductively at the Polaroid camera she’s holding above her — taking a selfie, decades before we had the word for it.
Madge has never been one to kick back and let her colossal cultural influence speak for itself — even though she pretty much invented the game of modern pop stardom, she’s not ready to unfold a chair on the sidelines just yet. Over the past decade, though, this relentless drive to stay fresh, agile, and young has proven more of a curse than a blessing. Madonna’s last great album, 2005’s glistening, neo-disco reverie Confessions on a Dance Floor, had an air of effortlessness about it, but most of the music she’s made since then feels unpalatably try-hard in comparison. Though Madonna’s always been savvy when it comes to picking collaborators and producers, her last two albums felt a little behind the curve: She made her requisite (and lukewarm) Timbaland-and-Neptunes album Hard Candy in 2008, and later tried to ride the rolling EDM wave with the similarly subpar MDNA, a brittle, faceless, post-Britney album on which she sounded like she’d finally completed her long transformation from human to cyborg (but with none of the fun that could have implied). These albums were, ostensibly, in conversation with what was happening on pop radio, but right beneath the surface they crackled with a palpable anxiety that someday Madonna would wake to find her bottled supply of Fountain of Youth replaced with plain old Evian.
Rebel Heart, Madonna’s 13th album, continues in her tradition of assembling a multi-million-dollar wrecking crew of artists and producers who’ve pricked her ears in the past couple of years: This time around, she’s recruited dubstep fraternity president Diplo, Swedish EDM superstar Avicii, Yeezus mastermind Mike Dean, and DJ Dahi, who (ya bish) Madonna tapped because she loved his work on Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees.” Oh, and don’t forget indie weirdo Blood Diamonds. And rising PC Music star Sophie. And Ariel Rechtshaid. And Nas. And Mike Tyson? After a while, Rebel Heart’s production credits starts to feel like “Too Many Cooks.” And, as you might imagine, the sprawling, 19-track album that this motley crew has created together is not exactly the most cohesive entry in Madonna’s catalogue.
The best of Rebel Heart’s upbeat songs here are the ones unafraid to go a little bonkers: The minimalist, strobe-lit Mike Dean production “Illuminati” — a cheeky “Vogue” update that switches out Dietrich and DiMaggio for Bieber and LeBron — is just goofy enough to work. Same goes for “Bitch I’m Madonna,” a glorious, stupid-in-the-best-way ode to ego that I can only describe as a giant sonic selfie. Diplo’s synthetic, neon beat boings around like Flubber, and Nicki Minaj — whom Madge clearly considers some kind of kindred spirit, since she also invited her to guest on two MDNA tracks — makes perfect sense in the song’s mugging, cartoonish world.
But “Bitch I’m Madonna” also reveals the main problem with Rebel Heart: The beats sound like they’re having more fun than Madonna. Often hampered by a dead-eyed, monotone delivery, the reliably charismatic superstar at the center of these songs feels strangely hollow, even defeated and fatigued. (The same went for her strangely listless performance of “Living for Love” at this year’s Grammys.) The most affecting songs are the ones that grapple with this feeling directly: the downcast ballad “Joan of Arc,” the muted come-on “Body Shop 75,” and the mid-tempo, down-but-not-out title track, which provides such a fitting finale that I wish it closed out the standard album rather than just the deluxe edition. Elsewhere, though, these songs seem bored by going through the Madonna motions to empower and/or shock. The self-referential “Veni Vidi Vici” (which, also selfielike, lists off her accomplishments in the form of Madonna song-title puns: “I stared writing songs / I kinda got into a groove”) but the song doesn’t feel valedictory at all — its hook, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” comes off, rather inexplicably, as a whimper rather than a roar. Even worse is the deeply unsexy “S.E.X.,” which culminates in a free-association rap: “Chopsticks, underwear, bar of soap, dental chair.” Unintentionally funny, it sounds like something written to be played in Stefon’s new favorite club.
Last month, the BBC’s Radio 1 was at the center of a mild controversy when fans (and Madonna herself) accused the station of ageism for not adding Rebel Heart’s lead single “Living for Love” to its playlist. Madonna is now 56, which is four years older than Cher was in 1998 when she released “Believe” and became the oldest woman to top the Billboard singles chart. Ageism is real, pernicious, and almost always affects women more than men, but it’s a difficult claim to take at face value coming from a woman who’s spent half of her life — and an amount equivalent to a small country’s GDP — attempting to stop time in a way that so many of us mere mortals cannot. In her piece in the recent essay collection Madonna & Me, the writer Lisa Carver imagines herself posing a question to our timeless queen: “Will you have this to remember? That moment in bed when you acquiesced to the loss of your youth, and found, by surprise, something so much more graceful in its place.” The Madonna of Rebel Heart isn’t in touch with that grace just yet. She’s succeeded once again in the increasingly empty goal of sounding current, but by now this feels expected — even safe — coming from Madonna. The most rebellious heart is one that can show itself, and even its age, with #nofilter.