Madonna’s Madame X may be a step too far, even for her

The star’s secret-agent incarnation has prompted scoffing and head-scratching

Madame X: Madonna in her short but very confusing teaser video

Madame X: Madonna in her short but very confusing teaser video

 

Madonna is pop’s original mother of reinvention and one of the great shapeshifters of her generation. But the all-new incarnation she has debuted ahead of her 14th studio album may be a transformation too far even for her.

The record is to be titled Madame X – which is also Madonna’s latest alter ego. In a short but very confusing teaser video the singer explains that Madame X is a secret agent and... well, perhaps we should let Madonna elaborate herself. (Pull up a seat, as this will take a while.)

Madame X, she explains, is “a secret agent, travelling 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.”

One recurring criticism is that, on the back of several commercially underwhelming albums, Madonna is grasping for something new and shiny to cling to

Still here? Okay, so you’re probably at least vaguely open to the idea of a Madonna concept album about the further adventures in pop of a secret agent (who is also a dancer, a professor, a head of state...). And you will no doubt be tuning in to the Eurovision Song Contest from Israel, where the 60-year-old is expected to debut material from the album.

Yet you might not be in quite as overwhelming a majority as you suspect. Although fans are thrilled she’s back, Madonna’s Madame X announcement has also prompted a degree of scoffing and head-scratching. (One wag reckoned she was a dead ringer for a Doctor Who villain in the teaser.)

One recurring criticism is that, on the back of several commercially underwhelming albums – including Rebel Heart, a conceptual exploration of her rebellious side from 2015 – Madonna is grasping for something new and shiny to cling to. That would certainly be in keeping with the modus of a star arguably second only to David Bowie in her capacity for self-renewal.

She emerged in the early 1980s from New York’s Lower East Side DIY scene (to which she had transplanted herself from suburban Michigan). The underdog scuzz was quickly ditched, however, as she spent the decade putting on a one-person pop kabuki show.

In a breathless whirl of creation, Madonna variously styled herself as the new Marilyn Monroe (True Blue), a lock-up-your-sons arch provocateur (Like a Virgin) and then, with her 1989 masterpiece, Like a Prayer, a conflicted soul who was down for dancing with Jesus. Even if the pop left you cold, the personas were self-aware and engaging.

We were reminded just how attuned she was to cultural undercurrents when the BBC recently debuted Pose, the new Ryan Murphy drama. This is a period piece about the gender-fluid “vogueing” scene of late Ronald Reagan-era New York. But Murphy was, of course, decades behind Madonna, who had already channelled the movement with her 1990 hit Vogue and the accompanying video (directed by David Fincher and choreographed by the New York “punk ballerina” Karole Armitage).

With her new project – the lead single, Medellín, is released this week – Madonna is reaching higher yet. Madame X is not an original persona – another Ziggy Stardust or Sasha Fierce – but a creation with roots in the 19th-century zeitgeist. The name Madame X was attached first to a scandalous 1884 portrait by John Singer Sargent of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, the American socialite in Paris.

His low-cut Portrait of Madame X caused a furore in France, although it was later acclaimed in New York. Madame X has ever since knocked around the cultural undercurrents as the title, variously, of an Alexandre Bisson play, a glam-metal band and an American military cryptanalyst.

Madame X: John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty
Madame X: John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty
Authentic: Billie Eilish refuses to smile in her publicity images. Photograph: Kenneth Cappello/Courtesy of the artist
Authentic: Billie Eilish refuses to smile in her publicity images. Photograph: Kenneth Cappello/Courtesy of the artist

Of greater relevance to the pop world, Madam X is the stage name of the British DJ and producer Crissi Vassilakis. She has described Madonna’s new persona as “kinda lame”. (She can hardly cry foul, given she was inspired by the Sargent painting in the first place.)

Whatever about originality, more problematic is that personas are decidedly old hat in pop. Consider the distance from Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce incarnation, from 2008, to the confessional rawness of her Lemonade album, from 2016. The former was two-dimensional chart fodder, the latter a searing act of bearing witness that succeeded according to the degree in which you invested in Beyoncé’s off-stage life and how it intersected with class and gender.

Surveying modern pop, it’s clear that what audiences crave is authenticity. Billie Elish, currently atop the Irish charts, refuses to be “fake” by smiling in her publicity photographs. Before he was a global pop star, Troye Sivan was a YouTube icon whose vlogging empire was built on his willingness to share his deepest secrets with his audience. SoundCloud rap – the closest thing to a grass-roots youth movement in pop – prioritises realness above all else. This is pop with its psychological scar tissue bared to the world.

And into this steps Madonna, still trying on costumes, still attempting to be anyone other than Madonna Louise Ciccone, who was raised in boring Bay City, Michigan, and whose mother died from cancer when the future star was 13 years old. Somewhere under the disguises there surely lingers some of that ambitious young woman, frustrated by the suburbs and her conservative Catholic family and dreaming of a bigger life. For her next conjuring trick, perhaps Madonna should try being herself.

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