There are no lyrics in the liner notes to Madame X; only images of a majestic mother in motion. Madonna is, at her core, a dancer. When she sings, she moves in time to the music. She feels rhythms and senses beats, she surfs the latest trends but also has a deep aesthetic sensibility that reaches back into the Expressionistic era of the 1920s, if not earlier. Somehow, I as a casual Madonna listener had forgotten that. If I ever really realized it before.
Madonna, she is a sponge. She soaks up the new and the novel, and she regurgitates it back in a form that privileges movement, kinetics, and flow, not lyrical introspection or virtuoso musical brilliance. She surrounds herself with youth, beauty, and boldly articulate artists of various and diverse backgrounds. Like Dorian Grey, she resists the urge to act her age. To her mind, she is ageless; she reminds me in this album especially of Leni Riefenstahl, but with an All-American, expatriate-in-Iberia twist. Like Leni, Madonna is a master of movement who parleyed her talents into sonic and visual arts of the highest order, even if it meant socializing with unsavory characters at times to realize her pure, aesthetic vision. For Leni, this meant top ranking members of the NSDAP. For Madonna, this meant Sean Penn (not as bad, I grant you). But she outlives them all because she is always the consummate artist at heart, for whom no amount of effort or risk is too much, if it results in an uncommonly creative act. I am fairly confident that Oscar Wilde would have agreed.
And now, as a single mother of six and multimillionaire many times over who is more cosmopolitan than commoner, she oozes influence. Sure, she still sings and dances for money. But more properly understood: she emotes. She elicits. She entices. She entangles. She enchants. She elevates. She enlightens. Homer would make of her life an odyssey. And there would be no need for Penelope. Madonna would be Ulysses and Penelope fused into a pan-gender hero who flouts conventions while fearlessly challenging Zeus and the Titans to an epic, all-in battle for earthly supremacy.
Is Madame X a transcendent album of original music? I don’t know. In terms of musicality, to my ear, it only really gets good at Track 7 (“Crave”), although I am warming up to the earlier, more experimental tracks after multiple listenings. But by Track 7, at the latest, I am fully attentive to the music, although truth be told, it is a bit like listening to an opera without actually watching the action unfold on the stage. You have to imagine these songs with energetic, exuberant bodies in motion. Beautiful, sinuous human shapes of varying ages, tones, and topicalities. To play this CD without watching Madonna dance is like listening to Triumph of the Will on your iPhone without watching the masses move and undulate as if they were a single, strident organism and not separate parts.
Madonna, if you are reading this: know that I am not your normal demographic. I have never been to one of your live performances. I do not own any of your albums, although I do check them out frequently and repeatedly from public libraries. I only really know you from MTV era music videos, especially “Express Yourself,” which is so good that they study it in German Studies courses at America’s top liberal arts colleges. I know; I’ve been there to watch and listen as it happened.
But Madame X is impressive. I love its rootedness in place and time, but also its paradoxical, lingering impressions of placelessness and atemporality. I love the way you surround yourself with youth and verve and vivaciousness, but I also adore your ancient and ageless soul. I marvel at the indomitable way you work work work to will your body and vocal chords into shape to sell this piece of performance art is if nothing else and no one else in the world mattered, except maybe your children, and the entirety of humanity. I think you encompass and envelope them all. And for that, you have my admiration and undying respect and also these five stars on Amazon.
If you are ever in the Bay Area and need a Bikram yoga partner, or a redwood forest day hiker, or someone to show you the best spots on the San Mateo coastline, or to sample some the world’s finest food, spirits, and wine, please by all means seek me out. Message me on Yelp. I won’t tell anyone. Your secrets will be safe with me. I am neither a fan nor a follower; rather, I am a fellow traveler. Your 2019 Madame X Tour took you to San Francisco and Los Angeles last November; if you need a reprieve and chance to be yourself on a future visit to the Golden State, perhaps I can help.
After all: you can’t stay Madame X forever. You will still need to reshape and restyle yourself multiple times more in order to become who you always were meant to be. One day, before you dissipate into the cosmos, I hope you will return to the home of your youth to make a Michigan-themed album, maybe with Motown icons and Eminem and Kid Rock and whomever else you desire; but don’t leave the Heimat behind. You are too memorable simply to be someone as ephemeral as Madame X or the Material Girl or the Queen of Pop or a tireless fundraiser for humanitarian causes. For me, you are a hyperchromatic expression of human struggle, survival, and accomplishment: a pyroclastic force of nature; a restless scintilla of smoldering sexuality; a lightning flash of creative brilliance illuminating briefly but spectacularly the darkened labyrinths of body and mind that surround us in fearful and terrifying shadows obscuring the truth; and a spark of pure, universal radiance that will shine cool, bright, and numinous for all of eternity, and beyond.