In 2012, I made a trip to New York just to catch Madonna on her MDNA tour. The lacklustre concert lasted an hour, even though the restless crowd at Yankee Stadium was made to wait two hours, with no opening act to boot. I remember thinking after the concert, on the subway ride from the Bronx back to Manhattan: "She's finally lost it."
I had had that same thought some years earlier, though. In 1992, when she released her Sex book, filled with explicit and provocative pictures of herself, I wondered if she had finally scraped rock bottom in her barrel of ideas. I wondered if this was the beginning of the end.
Since then, though, there have been other doomsday scenarios involving the world's second top recording artist (after the Beatles). But each time you feel like she's going to pack it in, she comes back bigger and badder, if not better.
Just earlier this month, the woman made headlines when Interview magazine published bondage-themed photographs of her by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot, including one where her bare breasts were on full display.
While some yawned that she was recycling old ideas yet again, the truth is she is still daring you to ignore her and provoking you to react. After all, a bare-chested 56-year-old elicits a completely different kind of response, compared to a bare-chested 34-year-old.
The truth is this: It's been 32 years since Madonna unleashed her first single, Everybody, onto the world. Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj hadn't even been born yet; Beyonce was just a year old. Their types have come and gone over the decades. But Madonna is still playing in the same super league.
She has not imploded, gone to seed or hied herself to a nunnery. As she proudly proclaims in one of her newly released tunes, a collaboration with Minaj, B****, I'm Madonna. And don't you forget it - you, sitting in front of your television in your mum jeans.
B****, I'm Madonna and five other tracks, which were meant to be on her upcoming March album, Rebel Heart, have just been made available on iTunes, no thanks to an egregious leak of 13 unfinished demos which Madge has decried as "a form of terrorism" and "artistic rape". All the tracks have promptly gone to No. 1 in 41 countries, however, which must numb the pain a little. In fact, if you ask cynical me, the timing of the whole kerfuffle seems a bit too fortuitous. Controversial photos, check. Leaked material, check. Christmas, check. Ka-ching, check, check, checkmate.
But, when it comes to Madonna, I, for one, am ready to be played for a sucker. While my devotion to her may have waned over the years, she is still constantly on my radar, for better or for worse. More importantly for me, perhaps, she continues to evolve as a feminist role model.
While she has always been known for her hard work, discipline and strength, she is also now becoming a beacon for those of us who are well past our halcyon days. Today, as she did in the beginning, Madonna still swears like a sailor and flaunts her body, while thinking like a corporation and smashing gender stereotypes.
As she crosses her mid-50s, however, ageism is the new barrier she must confront. Is the world ready for a sexy sexagenarian?
You'd probably be better off asking someone else. My guess is Maddie is too busy to bother with what you think. B****.
So how do her latest tracks stand up?
LIVING FOR LOVE: Produced by Madonna and Diplo
This is arguably the best track of the six. Produced by Diplo and rumoured to have been planned for a Valentine's Day release as the first track off the album, it kicks off, not with fancy production bells and whistles, but instead, places Madonna's vocals front and centre. While vocal prowess has never been her strong suit, these days, AutoTune is a fact of life and as much a tool as any sound synthesizer. In any case, Maddie's voice seems to be locked in a commanding lower register on this album, more so than ever before. Gone are the squeaky vocals and the heavy breathing.
Instead, as heard on this track, there seems to be a greater emphasis on melody and lyrics. This builds up into an anthemic dance beat where she pronounces, almost like a prayer, that "love's gonna lift me up". In short, this is a celebration of love as the ultimate divine purpose, of the kind that Maddie does best.
B****, I'M MADONNA: Produced by Madonna, Diplo, Sophie. Featuring Nicki Minaj
This one starts with a "woo woo ooo" incantation that sounds curiously like the riff from Duck Soup. In fact, this is pretty much mystery gruel. Grossly over-flavoured by Diplo and peppered with Minaj-like robotic squeaks and squawks, this one is pretty much an unlistenable litany of "I'm a bad b****" variations. Indeed, Madonna is at her squeakiest here since the 1980s and the overall effect is like a someone rubbing his fingers over a stretched balloon. In fact, it just sounds like a Nicki Minaj castaway track. Kill me now.
DEVIL PRAY: Produced by Madonna, Avicii, Dahi, Falk and Blood Diamonds
This is another curious track but a strong one. Once again, Maddie's vocals are the centerpiece and she is in confessional mood, taking on the mantle of a lone sinner looking for salvation, probably from drugs.
There are shades of House Of The Rising Sun here, by way of Catholic imagery: "Mother Mary, cant you help me?/'Cause I've gone astray/All the angels that were around me/ have all flown away." It's a fallen soul's cry, layered with a cantering beat by Diplo that recalls a cowboy's lament.
GHOSTTOWN: Produced by Madonna and Billboard
This is the power ballad of the album. Lyrical, poignant and anthemic, this is the one the clubs will play at closing time when the lights come up and the sweaty masses huddle and hug while stumbling their way out. The lyrics talk about the sorry state of the world and how "all we've got left is love" - yes, it's a ballad for the end of days. But, while Madonna entreats her lover to build a new world with her, the kids will probably be singing it to the new friend they've made tonight.
UNAPOLOGETIC B****: Produced by Madonna and Diplo
This has Diplo all over it. The feel is Jamaican dancehall syncopation crossed with Eurotrash syntax. Knee-slappingly repetitive and punctuated with beeps and horns, this one is good for formation dancing and for waving your hands in the air. The lyrics are self-explanatory and the title eponymous. Unapologetically forgettable.
ILLUMINATI: Produced by Madonna, Kanye West, Mike Dean and Charlie Heat
Madonna starts off by recanting a long list of celebrity names including Jay-Z, Beyonce, Oprah, Rihanna and Lady Gaga, almost in the vein of her famous star-studded roll call in Vogue. But while that older track joyfully celebrated an age of glamour, this one, rather pretentiously, chides people for falsely elevating today's stars: "Everybody in this party shining like illuminati," she intones sarcastically, to a dirty Kanye beat.