Madonna: A Rebel With a Cause

Madonna is a sacred subject.

I learnt this last week when I penned an op-ed piece for Advocate arguing that Madonna's latest album Rebel Heart was in itself an achievement. I wrote that whether or not the album had any musical, aesthetic, or cultural impact in today's music scene was not important. The sheer act that Madonna (at 56) was releasing her thirteenth-studio album was enough for me.

Rebel Heart would demonstrate Madonna's ability to subvert and break existing cultural narratives about women, music, and ageing. For me, it would be another watershed moment for the legendary singer.

Now that the actual "official" release of the album is only days away, it may be worth briefly backtracking the hype around Madonna's 2015 record.

Although Rebel Heart has attracted much media attention because of the multiple leaks that has plagued it, Madonna has persevered in maintaining official dates for its release. Sometimes an online music "leak" is a ploy to generate interest and media attention in an artist's forthcoming song or album.

In Madonna's case, it was obvious that this was far from true. The singer took to Instagram to describe the experience as "artistic rape" and discussed the trauma in follow-up interviews, including a revealing one given to Rolling Stone.

Rebel Heart has been marked by multiple controversies, including Madonna's reappropriation of images of civil rights and religious figures. This is not unfamiliar territory for the singer who has, for instance, been on the Roman Catholic Church's hit list for decades. But her use of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King on Instagram was seen as disrespectful and offensive. Some saw it as a poor reappropriation and one that was more an attempt to publicise her album than commemorate the deep and meaningful legacy of these humanitarian figures.

But the conceit behind Rebel Heart is really about the singer challenging the status quo. Madonna's Instagram images have profiled a number of figures from history who were rebels who fought for political and social injustices and became heroes because of their civil and religious campaigns.

For fans of the Queen of Pop, the meaning of the album's title is self-evident. Many of us have known the singer's history of challenging and complicating the existing social, political, and cultural norms around women and sex and then injecting her own brand of transformative and performative style into these conventions.

Indeed Madonna has been a major "rebel" -- the only? -- of the music scene for the last thirty years. Just scanning the track list of Rebel Heart we see the album make explicit references to her rebellion with songs including the title track "Rebel Heart," alongside "Bitch I'm Madonna (feat. Nicki Minaj)," and "Joan of Arc".

While her previous two albums, 2008's Hard Candy and 2012's MDNA were apparently chasing the cultural and musical zeitgeist, Rebel Heart is not as preoccupied with emulating the existing musical and aesthetic energies of today's music scene. Instead it feels more like self-reflective essay from the legendary singer, with dance tracks, ballads, and electro-pop songs marking each new "chapter" of her confessional dissertation.

Some fans cite 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor as her last great piece of musical triumph. Its disco-inspired sound, continuous flow from track-to-track, and iconic "Hung Up" music video offered fans a side to Madonna that took us back to her musical roots and revisited a defining moment of twentieth-century music.

But Rebel Heart is Madonna's next masterpiece in the making.

The title track of the album "Rebel Heart" is striking in that many of the leaks of this song had more of an electro dance sound. (Sorry for listening to the leaks Madonna!) But the finished version of "Rebel Heart" opens with a series of strumming guitar sounds. This lends the song a sense of candour and intimacy as though the songstress is telling us that she is really opening up on her struggles and pains as the only iconoclast of modern music. She is telling us that she has always had a rebel heart and will continue to break the rules that others won't.

In the same song she admits, "I've spent some time as a narcissist/...trying to be so provocative." Madonna's history of transgressing the traditional trajectory for pop stars and musicians has made her one of the singular icons of dissidence and female defiance in twentieth-century music. Compare "Rebel Heart" with "Unapologetic Bitch" and we see Madonna have some fun with this metaphor through the blendings of a reggae sound as she sings "sometimes I got to call it like it is".

Other tracks like "Wash All Over Me," "Ghostown," and "Joan of Arc" are really moving and uplifting songs as they prioritise Madonna's raw vocal talents and the singer's desire to be more direct in communicating her intimate confessions to fans. Madonna is telling us that she is and has been a rebel of the music, art, and culture scene for decades and that sometimes she has hurt, ached, and burned with painful emotions.

But because she is Madonna she will continue to break the boundaries set on her identity as a singer, artist, and woman.

It would not be a true Madonna record without some Catholic symbolism thrown in for good measure. We find her "tast[ing] holy water" before encouraging us to genuflect and to "confess". Madonna here returns to religious symbols she originally exploited in the 1980s (who can forget her greatest hits record The Immaculate Collection?), reminding us other disobedience toward the Roman-Catholic church and her own religious upbringing.

To me, whether or not the album itself is well received by her critics is unimportant. The very existence of Rebel Heart is exciting and gratifying enough.

With this thirteenth record, Madonna is telling us she has not, does not, and will not ever stop her campaign against breaking the rules of gender, sex, and the limits placed on her own humanity.