Yesterday, the heavens opened up and dropped a new Madonna video into Snapchat, a platform I use but detest for its superficial, ephemeral silliness. In the last decade, we’ve seen Madonna at her most ephemeral, and her most silly. Despite moments of undeniable greatness (remember Super Bowl halftime shows before she did one? Neither do I.) and commercial highs, Hard Candy and MDNA are albums not just critics but ardent fans admit are flimsy efforts.
I’m quick to note, they are great albums. The smash success of “Blurred Lines” proves that, if anything, the beats and frills of Hard Candy came five years too soon. But timing, like the leak-plagued release of Madonna’s forthcoming Rebel Heart, has not always been on the Queen’s side.
That’s what makes yesterday’s video release such a resounding success. Since Confessions on a Dance Floor, radio has backed off from Madonna’s music–no matter how successful or record-breaking an album or tour is, she’s held to the side as something different, something less than mainstream. For her to have been relegated to this “legacy” phase would be less insulting if she were making music that was worthy of her legacy, but she wasn’t. Or wasn’t quite.
“Living for Love” is the best song Madonna has released since 2005. The video, which casts her as a “Take A Bow”-style matador fighting off minotaurs, or wooing them, or both, is exceptional in many ways. Despite the choppy editing, the Birdman-like fluidity of the camera shows us Madonna at her most physically powerful and commanding, perhaps ever. This is the superhuman Madonna of legend, not of reality, which we see in painful Instagram gaffes and that ricket-ridden appearance on stage with Macklemore at the 2013 Grammys.
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It’s all still there. The immaculate use of gesture, the peerless gyration. It was a moment when, as the lyrics of “Living for Love” suggest, Madonna picked up her crown and put it back on her head. She’s not just keeping up, as many have accused her of failing to do in recent years.
I don’t want to know how we got to a place where “feminist” blogs like Jezebel reward one of the most important women of the last century by opining that she’s desperately clinging to youth. Or worse yet, telling her to “stop.” Oh no, not that. Please don’t. Don’t ever tell Madonna to stop.
In the video, Madonna dominates a room full of men, not with dainty pop dismissals but with palpable conviction and force. Her eyes are as stony and confident as we’ve ever seen them while she flies on wires and vanquishes her ex-lovers. Guy. Sean. Warren. Jesus. We have to believe they’re all there in effigy. The feminist subtext is not a needle in the haystack. It is the haystack.
For Beyonce fans, addressing Mike Huckabee’s preposterous attacks is easy to build a consensus around. Madonna’s greatest adversaries live within institutions she helped to build: catty gay men who prefer someone newer, pop divas who don’t know their place, gossip sites that trade on the brand of celebrity Madonna invented, and third-wave feminists who willfully submerge Madonna’s importance.
One has to believe that anyone with the audacity to tell Madonna to stop has slept through the first three decades of her career. The entire premise of the Madonna enterprise is that she’s an unstoppable force, who will do as she pleases without yielding for criticism. As fans, we go through the fruitless motions of defending her: Sometimes that’s easy and sometimes it’s a challenge. This is not a difficult time to stand up for Madonna. It’s not a hard groove to get into.
I could wax predictably about how Madonna makes me feel strong when I’m weak. How her defiance in the face of critics has caused me to care less about what my own critics, including those in the committee inside my head, think of me. I could say that Madonna made coming out easier, that her records and performances have been transcendent experiences in my own coming-of-age story.
I could write about ageism and sexism and rattle off the objective metrics by which Madonna is untouchable by her peers and followers. And usually, I would have to write those things. I would have to give exposition and context, a bit of history and a bit of religion. But her latest video, praise be, doesn’t require me to do that. It speaks for itself.
At best, Madonna’s recent albums have been described as “savvy.” In her new video, Madonna is not being savvy. Madonna is being Madonna.