Nico Muhly Talks Madonna’s Rebel Heart

A lifelong Madonna fan contemplates her new album, the role she had in his life and the role she’s had in everything.

The year 2015 yielded a truly eclectic and impressive crop of outstanding albums spanning all genres and generations of artists, from Justin Bieber to Sleater-Kinney to Madonna. So we’re celebrating some of the biggest records of the year with insightful pieces written by some very special people: musicians.
— The editors of Talkhouse Music

I’ve had Madonna on my mind recently. A couple of months ago, I rediscovered my old collection of 2 Live Crew records. I had completely forgotten about the outrageous sequence of shout-outs towards the end of “Pop That Pussy,” (from their 1991 album Sports Weekend: As Nasty as They Wanna Be, Pt. 2), during which Madonna is one of the four women Luther Campbell and company mention by name. I remember staying up late and secretly watching the video for this on BET after midnight, and being absolutely shocked and delighted as an 11-year-old by every single thing about the song, the situation, the video, everything.

This is all to say that my morning alarm — a ringtone I generated myself, so if you want it, call me — is the screamed lyric, “Madonna, pop that stinky, smelly pussy, baby,” with a beat that is surprisingly forward-looking, towards the nihilistic emptiness of Kanye West’s “I Am a God,” but with an almost Tuvan vocal expression on the word “smelly.” Leaving aside the horrifying misogyny of the sentence (and indeed, the sentiment), what I am reminded of here is that Madonna has been with us for a minute — certainly throughout my entire life, and with a glorious and wonderful consistency unique to her. She has similarly been the object, throughout her entire career, of shocking and consistent misogyny, from her detractors, from seemingly passive observers and cultural commentators and even from many of her own supporters, who see her as an empty vessel to be filled with their own radical Madonna/Whore visions.

Janet Jackson, similarly name-dropped in “Pop That Pussy,” has since checked out and checked into the glamours of the Arabian Gulf — and good for her. (If any Qatari quadrillionaires are reading this, I have a passport, passable Arabic, and a modest sequence of burqas in a go-bag under my bed.) Madonna, on the other hand, has stuck around, and we have stuck with her. We have been with her through the cultural wasteland of the Britney years, the mysteries of Kabbalah, her marriage to that fine but unmemorable filmmaker, the ecstatic Koyaanisqatsi-like video for “Ray of Light,”and whatever it was she was wearing on the cover of Music (2000). We have all had major moments in our lives punctuated, if not narrated, by her voice. I can think of such moments underscored by “Vogue,” by “Like a Prayer,” by “Cherish,” by “Hung Up.” I am of the age where we all turned on the TV at a specific time to watch the premiere of the “banned” video for “Justify My Love,” and now: here we are, with Rebel Heart.

A few initial statements about this release, her 13th album: I had to ask for an extended credits list because on first listen it sounded like literally every sentient being on the planet (and perhaps elsewhere) had had his or her tentacles up in here. Full disclosure: some of these songs, in various primitive formats, crossed my own desk about six months ago, and it is fascinating to see what has happened to those tracks in the interim. My normal modus operandi for pieces here in the Talkhouse has been to go track-by-track and break shit down in order, but I feel like for this one I’d rather think more broadly about songs, the voice, and fold in some general thoughts about Madonna.

What is fascinating about this release is that some songs sound wholly Madonna’s — songs of which I can imagine only her versions, at least for now, until college a cappella groups go buck-wild in 2018 with embarrassing dance routines and that one boy who can do mouth percussion approximating dubstep to a slightly less sexually appealing effect than he might hope. “Ghosttown,” for instance, reminds me of the lesser known and slower tracks from Madonna’s previous albums, in the most exquisite way. It’s anthemic but contained, and I can imagine it meaning a lot to a lot of different people. On the other hand, “Unapologetic Bitch” feels like a masterwork of production that belongs not to Madonna, specifically, but to a different generation with which she’s catching up. Listen specifically to her fast, Lil Wayne-like delivery of the line “When we did it” — is anybody convinced by this? Even the prosody of the word “unapologetic” doesn’t quite land for me. However, I should add that when I say “catching up,” I’m not hierarchizing this — we have all been trying to catch up with Madonna for years, and I celebrate her standing back and being a human being and letting the kids decorate their own rooms for a minute before she comes back with her Polaroid and notebook and can of grey paint.

The first song on the album, “Living for Love,” is one of those jams where I like the beat and that’s enough for me. I don’t in any way wish the synth piano were a real piano; it’s great as it is. The riddim is focused on the second beat of the bar, which is a really satisfying thing to dance to in one’s seat on an aeroplane. Madonna’s voice is in good form here, which is to say, I am 100-percent sure that I will never hear this song again aside from down at the gay bar, at which time I will rejoice lustily. I don’t mean this with even the remotest disrespect: her voice is, I think, the perfect expression of the times in one’s life when one feels that one is going through the same thing as somebody else somewhere and, as a result, the music is best experienced in public, with an eyebrow knowingly raised and mouth agape. Other extraordinary voices — Jeff Buckley, Antony, Gurrumul — have the effect of the call coming from inside the house: an intensely personal, direct-to-the-vein kind of drug. Madonna’s has always felt like a voice speaking to a carful of people, a community, friends and strangers collected together.

“Bitch I’m Madonna” is pure fun, mainly because the song does every imaginable thing. All sorts of beats are represented here, from the purely Eurotrash to the synthesised and manipulated air-horns of which one imagines Diplo, one of the song’s producers, having a bedazzled flash drive connected to a carabiner on his belt. Nicki Minaj’s verse here is welcome, ecstatic and recorded in a satisfyingly precise way. I wish that the liaison between the end of Minaj’s verse and Madonna’s chorus recapitulation were slightly more angry: “It’s that ‘go hard or go home’ zone/I’m Madonna, these hoes know” feels like a perfect moment for Madonna herself to jump up and reinforce this sentiment. When she screams, “Who do you think you are” before Minaj’s verse, we approach — but don’t quite reach — the raw power of a voice like Kelis’s in “Caught Out There.”  This is a small detail. I can promise you that I will listen to this song before I go out. Part of me wishes they’d turned up “Who do you think you are,” because she is quite right. Not one of us has any business taking her picture when she’s trying to take her kids to a Purim service, to say nothing of talking about her, fussing over her life, zooming in on her red bracelets and adoption scandals. Give the woman some space!

“Joan of Arc” is a beautiful, beautiful song. It belongs to the genre Britney explored in her convincingly personal “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” and is an expression more poignantly situated by the fact that this album — or some part of it — was leaked. I hate album-leakers. I find the act completely repellent, and it makes me insane that two of the world’s most iconic artists — Björk and Madonna — had material leaked in the same calendar year. One imagines the (presumably male) record-label employee smugly clicking the button to send a collection of MP3’s into the ether, perhaps to his friend “Dave” from high school who lives in his parents’ basement and has a lot of opinions about Gamergate. It drives me 150 percent bonkers and when I’m Queen, these boys are going to be made to go before Madonna and Björk on their knees and explain what the fuck went wrong in their childhood that would make them behave in this fashion. My majordomo would then send video of this humiliation to their mothers in Darien, Connecticut, or wherever, and from that day forth the other neighbourhood children would cross the street to avoid that house and would not ring its bell come Hallowe’en.

The song “Body Shop” is a curiosity. Here, the production is totally weird and, to me, futuristic-seeming. I can really hear what Madonna’s voice sounds like in its natural and conversational form, and she explores various registral variations, crossing from a throaty, luscious range between middle C and the G below it to a coquettish conversational flip just above those notes. Even though this song slightly disappointingly occupies the double part of the double-entendre of its title, I was still touched by it. I’ve an aunt who lives with my uncle, a rescue dog, and her nine and a half fingers in Bland, Virginia, and works in a body shop and who is, in a variety of ways, one of the most glamorous women in my life. I pictured my Aunt Donna deriving some specific and functional pleasure from this song, and was happy at that time.

Can we just have an honest conversation about white people pronouncing words as if they themselves were not, in fact, white people? I know it’s a homophonically linked set of women on Twitter feuding about this, one Australian and white and the other neither, and I know I’m meant to have a variety of political feelings about this, plus somebody black said “faggot” or something, but can I take this opportunity to confess to you that I can barely spell the word “azalea” without consulting a dictionary? In any event, at the beginning of the otherwise successful song “Holy Water,” Madonna instructs, “Bitch, get off my pole.” She says pole in — well, you know how she says it.

Here is the thing: we can argue for years about the permeability of the membranes between how gay men speak, how black women speak, the appropriative linguistic gestures that define, in both direct and indirect ways, among other things, reality TV, queer communities, an ugly and casual misogyny in gay male communities, but also the fluency with which, for instance, NeNe Leakes speaks “ball,”  AAVE,  reading, serving, working, and things of this nature. Does it not seem to you, gentle reader, that Madonna is the only person on this planet who should not feel like she has to inflect the word “pole” in a mortifying ethnic way? She performed the original appropriative gestures already — on 1989’s “Like a Prayer” and 1990’s “Vogue” — and I think, unless somebody on Tumblr disagrees, that we have already given her a pass for this. These works (both in music form but also, of course, video) are built into society, for better or for worse, and it is queens of every colour, genital configuration, identification and age who, the instant that first A-flat in the “Vogue” synth strings sounds in the club, start looking for a surface on which to rest their vodka and cranberry and get it DONE. Even when I was 16 years old in Providence, Rhode Island, with braces and literal pleated khakis and a hairstyle that looked like Lea DeLaria had fought me, won, and taken a trophy, could find a ledge on which to rest my Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry® Cocktail and unselfconsciously tut my way through a few verses. It is in this spirit that I was struck by the larger sadness of this song, which conflates the Catholicism of Madonna’s youth with what I suppose could generously be called a celebration of her yoni and its powers, yet again. Didn’t we have this in “Like a Prayer”? Didn’t we have this conversation already about the merits, problems and complexities of the gospel choir? Shouldn’t a moment on Rebel Heart where the voice of our faggotry intones “ladies with an attitude” feel like an ecstatic arrival, recapitulation and explosion? I will confess that on first listen, I got a chill, but I realise that was a bittersweet memory: driving on a country road in a minivan in Scituate, Rhode Island in 1998 with friends with whom I’m not in as constant contact as I’d like to be.

I am similarly frustrated and yet moved by Madonna’s resistance to giving us any real personal details. Many of the songs here are generically, rather than specifically, intimate. I am actually quite interested to know the ugly practicalities of Madonna’s life: where is her actual dwelling-place? What happens in the morning, before the many punishing hours of Ashtanga yoga? She has four kids: what’s that like? When she says, “Each time they take the photograph/I lose a part I can’t get back,” doesn’t it feel like it’s missing one crucial or personal detail? When Kanye says, manically, “I’ll move my family out the country so you can’t see where I stay,” we can picture the move; we see the family packing clothes — Spanx and faux-fur shrugs folded into convenient shapes — and thinking about nannies and schools. When Michael and Janet made “Scream,” didn’t you find yourself envisaging the horrors of Michael, alone in that huge house, amidst all those allegations, the giraffes quietly and deferentially nibbling on acacia outside their master’s window? And perhaps more relevantly, the heart-shattering detail Joni Mitchell gives us when she says, “The bed’s too big/The frying pan’s too wide” — we picture that precise old frying pan, its greasy patina informed by various fried Canadian delicacies, and shimmering with remembered arguments and intimacies with her lover?

“Inside Out” is giving me life right now. I miss this kind of slow-jam Madonna. I wish they’d sent me this track because I could have done something better with the strings than this disgraceful voice-leading and appalling EQ. I love that the Material Girl now wants to love [me] from the inside out. This is truly a reversal, brought about by years of living, years of leaving and being left, of being a mother. It is a song of great personal reconciliation, simply delivered, with the grain of the voice obvious to the listener.

As you might have been able to gather, I love me some Madonna. I probably listen to one or two of her tracks per week, casually, to ready myself emotionally for some kind of outing, confrontation or journey. This album — of which I now realise I have the ultra-deluxe, perhaps Japanese, edition — is great and fun and has a bunch of excellent songs on it. I’m slightly unconvinced by some of the tracks that feel like songs that Madonna happens to be singing rather than Madonna Songs. I’m not convinced, however, that this is in any way a bad thing. Much of the album is decidedly hers, and represents her commitment to working with the best, with a wonderful stable of producers and a pointedly universal songwriting scope. Madonna has kept popping it since the ’80s, and we are all trying to keep up. You guys: SHE IS LITERALLY MADONNA.

Nico Muhly is a New York-based composer and songwriter. He has collaborated with Björk, the National, Philip Glass, Usher, Antony and the Johnsons and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, among others. You can follow him on Twitter here and visit his website here.