Last week, you may have noticed that Madonna released her first track in four years, “Medellín,” alongside Colombian singer Maluma. “One, two, one, two, one, two, cha-cha-cha,” she whispers at the beginning, like a faux dance instructor in an ASMR video. And then comes in the Auto-Tune, and some lyrics about champagne and being naked. It’s a serviceable pop song. It would sound great on the work overheads after three wines. But this is Madonna. She’s given us much, much more.
To give a brief overview of Madonna’s career would be ridiculous. She’s been making music for longer than I’ve been breathing oxygen, and probably you too, and maybe us both combined? To imagine a world before Madonna is like trying to recall a distant dream. Impossible. But we all have a favourite Madonna song. Mine oscillates between “Power of Good-Bye” (underrated, appears on Ray of Light, was reintroduced recently via my hairdresser) and “Frozen” (the OG sad club anthem). In other words, you can’t say anything ~ overarching ~ about Madonna, because there are too many versions of her.
Her latest persona is Madame X – also the name of her upcoming album, due on 14 June. She describes Madame X as “a secret agent, traveling around the world, changing identities, fighting for freedom, bringing light to dark places. She is a dancer, a professor, a head of state, a housekeeper, an equestrian, a prisoner, a student, a mother, a child, a teacher, a nun, a singer, a saint, a whore.” Quite a lot then. So how do we begin to make sense of Madonna, at all? I feel like the best we can do, at present, is identify all her personas and rank them. Here they are, in order of least to most powerful.
Happy 80s Pop Madonna (1983 – 1989)
I have a theory that the worst songs are the happiest ones (“I Got a Feeling”, “Happy”, “Uptown Funk”, basically anything that makes people stomp and nod while smiling). There are certain Madonna songs that feel like this, mainly from the 80s. I’m talking “Holiday”, “Lucky Star”, “Into the Groove” and “Express Yourself”. These are the ones that make your aunt with the mullet perm swing her head emphatically from side to side while clicking. This Madonna is very into trumpets and horns and power snares. That said, her look is exceptional and unparalleled here (the glove! The fishnets! The mole!). So extra points for that.
First Lady and Spiritual Leader of the Nation of Argentina Madonna (1996)
As in, that time she played a starring role in the 1996 musical Evita. Yeah I forgot about that too.
English Accent Madonna (1999 – ~ 2002)
Look, in 2019 details of this are thin on the ground but I distinctly remember people taking the piss out of Madonna around the late 90s for ‘adapting’ an English accent. These 2003 Washington Post and 2000 Village Voice articles both make wink-wink mentions of this time. In hindsight, it’s hard to know how much of it was down to implying Guy Ritchie (her partner at the time) deeply influenced her life or how much came from her slipping and sliding between Detroit and… Kentish Town, accent-wise. But I’ll just say watch this 1999 Larry King interview and make your own mind up.
Being a Happy Mum on Instagram Madonna (2014 - present day)
Madonna has been famous for so much of her life it gives me a headache to even consider that reality. She’s put up with sexist nonsense, with an obsession with her body, and who she may have been shagging. And so it’s really quite lovely to see her also act like a regular mum online, posting sassy inspirational quotes, videos of her kids singing, filtered selfies and #TBTs from the 90s. Not as great: the time she referred to her son Rocco as “#disnigga,” in an otherwise proud and congratulatory (now-deleted) Insta caption in 2014. Her apology included such unforgettable lines as “It was not meant as a racial slur. I am not a racist” and “It was all about intention. It was used as a term of endearment toward my son who is white.”
Tonguing Britney Madonna (2003)
Small brain says Madonna snogging Britney at the 2003 MTV VMAs is yet another example of queerness being fetishised for the hetero male gaze. Galaxy brain says expressions of intimacy are complex and multifaceted and need not always be policed. My lesbian brain says: yeah but hot though.
Gentrifying Voguing and Ball Culture Madonna (1990)
You can be forgiven for thinking Madonna ‘invented’ or played a central role in New York voguing and ballroom culture, if you don’t have access to the internet nor any way to watch documentary Paris Is Burning. Yes, Madge’s “Vogue” video introduced a mainstream audience to this incredibly tight and socially important subculture, and its signature cluster of dance moves. Yet I just googled “madonna donates profits vogue new york ballrooms” and nothing really came up so there’s that too. Of course, Madonna employed Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez of House of Xtravaganza as backing dancers on her Blond Ambition tour, after they’d made such an impression in “Vogue.” And fair play to the Jean Paul Gaultier corset that defined her look at this time. But imagine if she’d shouted out the names of the many ball houses rather than loads of old white Hollywood stars. Just imagine.
Folktronica Madonna (2003)
Listen to the plastic anthem that is “Hollywood”. Listen to the light guitar strums and Auto-Tune of “Love Profusion”. Listen to the icy beats of “American Life”. And tell me again that your favourite genre of music is not in fact folktronica.
Toppling Backwards Because Her Cape Got Stuck to a Centaur Madonna (2015)
Just in case you forgot what happened at that year's BRIT Awards, which you didn't.
Losing Her Shit on the Dance Floor Madonna (2005 – 2012)
So, you know how Americans forgot about dance music after inventing it in the 80s and then remembered it again in the 2010s and called it EDM? Well, Madonna never forgot. While the rest of the country were smacking their knees to Hilary Duff and System Of A Down or whatever, she was releasing borderline techno club tracks like “Sorry” and “Get Together” and “Hung Up”.
It got a bit weird post-Confessions of a Dance Floor though. She slowly started getting shinier, pumpier, more robotic and latex-y, like Madonna playing Madonna playing Madonna. You know what I mean. Tracks still bang though, even those weird ones from MDNA.
Post Punk Teen Madonna (1979 – 1982)
One for the heads. Who knew that the same woman who did a robotic club track with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland once sounded like a group of Goldsmiths students headlining a zine fare in an abandoned church in Deptford? She truly has done it all. You can read about Madonna's early 80s post punk past here.
Bang into BDSM Madonna (1992)
Yooooo this era was wild. What's the opposite of kink shame? Kink pride? Well, Madonna basically did that to the early 90s with her fifth album Erotica, which includes a spoken word ode to her own vagina (“Secret Garden”) and multiple music videos that weren't allowed on MTV before midnight (mood). She also released a soft porn book called SEX which includes a photo of her wearing nothing but a rabbit skin and shaving some guy's pubes. Everyone should own that book.
Cowboy Hat Madonna (2000)
What a time. If you and your mates weren’t hooking your thumbs through low-rise bootcut jean belt-loops and making vague yee-haw sounds to Madge’s “American Pie” cover, were you even primary school-age kids in 2000? Fine. If you missed this era, just know Madonna immediately followed Ray of Light’s ‘ohmm hold my Kabbalah bracelet’ aesthetic with album Music – paired, inexplicably, with a howdy-western visual theme.
Main highlights from this time: an Ali G cameo in the “Music” video, where he calls Madonna’s breasts her babylons and drives her in a “Muff Daddy”-custom plated car; Madge line-dancing and bodyrolling with ‘cowboys’ in the “Don’t Tell Me” video (also: great use of a treadmill); American flags absolutely everywhere. Of course, “American Pie” featured on the soundtrack of her doomed film The Next Best Thing, and not on Music itself. Frankly the music (mostly produced by Mirwrais with a light sprinkling of William Orbit) was good so… we have no choice but to stan?
Crying in the Club Madonna (1998)
I have spent hours – days, actually – scouring through and examining Madonna’s discography with the close concentration of a mum combing her kid's hair for nits. And let me tell you this: nothing, nothing, comes close to Madonna’s Ray of Light era. “Power of Goodbye”. “Frozen”. “Nothing Really Matters”. Madonna basically invented ‘that feeling you get in the club toilets at 2AM when you look at your reflection and realise that death is coming, not just for you, but for all of us’. What a mood. What an absolute, eternal mood. :')
Collage: Madonna's Blond Ambition Corset (via); Praying Madonna (via); Madonna performing “Express Yourself” (via); Madonna on the Confessions tour (via); Madonna in black catsuit (via), Madonna in red dress (via); Madonna in pink dress (via); 'Music' album artwork (via); Madonna in 'Italians Do it Better' t shirt (via).