FEATURE: Always the Sinner, Never the Saint: Will the World Ever Get Off of Madonna’s Back?




Always the Sinner, Never the Saint


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Will the World Ever Get Off of Madonna’s Back?


I have raised this point a few times…

but it seems, through the years, Madonna has received her fair share of criticism! In fact, most of the criticism and flack she gets is not warranted at all. It makes me wonder what an artist needs to do in order to get proper respect. It is true that, since 2000’s Music, her album output has been impressive but the quality has not been at her high level – 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor is an exception. Her new album, Madame X, is out and it has received a lot of love. The Guardian claim Madonna’s fourteenth studio album is her weirdest yet:

Throughout, there is more density and musical adventure than at almost any other point in her career (perhaps this is the influence of Mirwais, who produces numerous tracks here and gave Music its fiendish intricacy). Her voice is remarkably plastic, pitched down one minute and up the next, into a Sia-like bleat and out into robotic polyphony. Often, around the seabed of the mix, is a swirl of aqueous psychedelic sound, profoundly different and much more interesting than her earlier R&B and EDM minimalism.

Killers Who Are Partying ends with the questions: “Do you know who you are? Will we know when to stop?” The untamed, batshit Madame X suggests that Madonna doesn’t have the answer to either – and that her strength is in never knowing”.

In this review, more positive vibes are put Madonna’s way:

Her resulting 14th album implores us to take a ride with her new persona and her many and varied guises – “a secret agent… 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. A spy in the house of love. I am Madame X” – and the results are at once stupefying and tremendous. This record is a true cathartic journey from the expert of such travels, with brilliant past collaborator Mirwais doing much of the driving. Most of this sprawling album, sung variously in English, Portuguese and Spanish and with an astonishing array of musical flourishes, is truly experimental, and captivating with it.

Tracks precursing the album’s release include the retro and slick R&B lick Crave, with Swae Lee, and the dark and trippy Future featuring Quavo, which has Diplo‘s fingerprints all over it. Elsewhere, Killers Who Are Partying is likely to be one of the more controversial moments. Madonna has always been a champion of minorities and name-checks a good many of them here, from Africa to Islam via Israel to a woman who was raped, with some hard-hitting lyrics in support. The starkly defiant and beautiful Extreme Occident explores a push and pull between herself and her critics. Even now, while often praised for her ability to reinvent, this is now something she is derided for. The hypocrisy of her detractors in this regard is astounding”.

That last review raises an interesting point: how Madonna is celebrated because she reinvents herself yet derided for it at the same time. This time around, when she was putting singles out, there were some who were turning up their noses; of the opinion Madonna was going too far or the sound wasn’t quite right. She has collaborated with a few artists on Madame X and there is a definite modern sheen; a pulsating and energetic vibe but throughout, there are unexpected moments of tenderness and darkness. If she had released an album like American Life (2003) or Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) then critics and fans would go at her for repeating herself. Her more-recent albums – such as 2016’s Rebel Heart – have been received well but not gained the sort of kudos she is used to. In a way, Madame X is this throw-down to those who have written her off and claimed she is ripe for retirement. I remember when the Madame X trailer was out and we saw this new persona take shape. There was a lot of online criticism and cruelty; those who felt she was ridiculous and what was the point of doing all of this. I have not seen any other artist who has received the same relentless scathing and mockery through their career. Madonna recently appeared on Graham Norton’s chat-show and there has been criticism relating to that.

Some say she was rude and dismissive; a bit cringey and cold. Others ask why she was wearing an eyepatch. The latter, obviously, can be explained because she is Madame X: a new figure who, as part of her wardrobe, wears an eyepatch. We have heard Madonna being interviewed since the early 1980s (or before) and we know how she approaches interviews. She is quite guarded and can appear standoffish at times but that is a way of shielding herself. The abuse and comments she gets on social media is appalling and I do not see why people have an obsession with putting her down. There have been occasions where she has been the creator of her own downfall – some unwise comments online and some odd award speeches – but these in the minority. A new album is out and it has gathered incredible praise. I think Madame X is her most well-received album since 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor and one would hope Madonna would get some rest. Madonna has also received a lot of negative response because, in an interview, she had some negative words about Instagram:

You get caught up in comparing yourself to other people. Should I be like that, act like that, look like that?” she told the Sun.

“Will that make me more popular, or more successful? People are a slave to winning other’s approvals. I refuse to bend a knee to convention and what society expects of me as a woman. 

Madonna, 60, added: “I think Instagram is made to make you feel bad.”

Social networks are expected to soon encounter tighter laws amid growing concerns about child safety online, with companies being urged to prioritise the protection of their users over commercial interests.

In the interview, the “Queen of Pop” said social media culture “runs people’s lives” and she was fortunate to have grown up in the pre-social media era”.

It is inevitable that every big artist, at some point, will get some criticism and they are not going to have an easy ride. From her earliest days, she had to face abuse and the constant media glare. When she was expressing sexuality and confidence in her music, she was accused of being a slut or setting a bad example. There is more than one example of her being taunted and abused at an award ceremony; sexist comments being thrown her way by male bands. At other times, the media have maligned her and discredited her records because there is mention of sex. Even during her Like a Prayer (1989) – Erotica (1992) phase, there was never anything in the albums that could be considered overly-offensive. The music world had never seen anyone like Madonna and she became an easy target. Sexism has followed her around for decades and, as a leader in Pop, she has opened doors and horizons for female artists.

Not only that but, as the music industry does sort of judge and limit artists when they get to a certain age, Madonna has rebelled against that. Her albums are always vibrant and fresh and, even though she is now sixty, there are some stations that refuse to play her music because of her age. Madonna, in this interview with Vogue, talked about ageism and how she has fought against it:

People have always been trying to silence me for one reason or another, whether it’s that I’m not pretty enough, I don’t sing well enough, I’m not talented enough, I’m not married enough, and now it’s that I’m not young enough,” she tells Aitkenhead. “So they just keep trying to find a hook to hang their beef about me being alive on. Now I’m fighting ageism, now I’m being punished for turning 60.”

She’s motivated by the thought of paving the way for women to come, but Madonna’s duty of care to younger generations is often overlooked by the celebrity gossip narrative. “People got very excited about [the thought of Lady Gaga and myself as] enemies, when we never were enemies,” she sighs of society’s tendency to pit women against each other”.

In the list of things Madonna gets grief about we can put her gender, age and music to the list. She is criticised when she is interviewed and when she talks about anything; when she gives speeches and when she dares to reinvent herself or do something new. Where does all this stem from? The wave of attention sort of presented itself by the time of 1986’s True Blue; it heightened in 1989 with Like a Prayer and hasn’t really let off since. Is it because the industry has not seen anyone like her and does not know how to process her personality and music?

This illuminating article in The Independent, written by Helen Brown, offers an apology to Madonna; the attitudes many aim her way regarding retiring with dignity and going on for so long:

If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion that’s out of line with the status quo. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness. And do not, I repeat do not, share your own sexual fantasies with the world. Be what men want you to be, but more importantly, be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men. And finally, do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticised and vilified and definitely not played on the radio.”

In her Billboard speech, Madonna said: “I remember wishing I had a female peer I could look to for support. Camille Paglia said I set women back by objectifying myself sexually. So I thought, ‘oh, if you’re a feminist, you don’t have sexuality, you deny it.’ So I said ‘f**k it. I’m a different kind of feminist. I’m a bad feminist.’

Journalist Fiona Sturges, who normally writes this column, has previously suggested we all back off on Madonna’s age and just judge her on the music alone. I certainly agree with Sturges that women are judged much more harshly and I’m equally furious with those who tell Madonna to “put it away, grandma!”

But I also love her endurance, her wit, her ongoing embrace of fresh, new sounds and ideas. I love that she continues to speak up for women and named Simone de Beauvoir, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Carson McCullers, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo as inspiration for her most recent incarnation: Madame X”.



In this interview with The Guardian, Madonna also talked about the sort of unwanted attention she experienced early in her career:

She has recently spoken of how Harvey Weinstein was “incredibly sexually flirtatious” with her and “crossed lines and boundaries” when they worked together on 1991 tour documentary In Bed With Madonna. “Harvey Weinstein was untouchable. His reputation was universal – everybody knew he was, you know, the guy that he was. I’m not into name-calling, but it was like: ‘Oh, that’s Harvey, that’s what he does.’ It just became accepted. And I suppose that’s the scary thing about it. Because if people do things enough, no matter how heinous and awful and unacceptable it is, people accept it. And that certainly exists in the music industry, too.”

She came up against it herself in the years when she was trying to get a record deal. “I can’t tell you how many men said: ‘OK, well, if you give me a blow job’, or: ‘OK, if you sleep with me.’ Sex is the trade, you know? I feel like maybe there isn’t a movement so much because we’re already used to expressing ourselves in a way, or fighting for things, although I do wish there were more women in the music business that were more political and more outspoken about all things in life, not just … the inequality of the sexes

PHOTO CREDIT: Galella/WireImage 

Against all the judgement and pressure that is put her way, Madonna continues to forge her own path and stand up. I do hope she never retires because, as Madame X shows, she has plenty of life and inspiration in her. It is sad that some radio stations ignore her and it is exhausting seeing endless articles about Madonna with a negative spin. Do a quick search on Madonna and you will see more press inches regarding her age, fashion and comments than you will her music, messages and legacy. I have only skimmed the surface regarding the sort of attention Madonna gets. Many people forget about the music and all she has given the world. Maybe this will never change and, regardless of the music she is putting out, someone is going to have a go. It just seems like she has been facing constant scrutiny for decades and you wonder when it will stop. Madonna is not ever going to back down but it seems disheartening to see so much agro and negativity go her way. Sure, there have been times where she has divided opinions and not always been sensible but, when it comes to a Pop megastar, this is what we should expect, surely? This is the second of three features today where I am ending with a playlist. I am doing so to highlight the incredible music Madonna has put out and how, over thirty-five years since her eponymous debut album, she continues to inspire and push music forward. Just listen to the tracks below and realise why Madonna deserves…


A lot of respect.