By Erica Russell
She’s been a dance-floor cowgirl. A disco diva in leg warmers. A punky bubblegum pop star. An erotic mistress. A spiritual guru. An American dream girl. A rebel heart. We’re four decades into the chameleonic Queen of Pop’s career, but there’s one thing that Madonna has never been: uninspiring.
On the cusp of her 14th studio album, Madonna has reinvented herself yet again, this time as Madame X: a professor, a cabaret singer, a cha-cha instructor, and a spy in the house of love, as she divulged in cryptic promotional posts to her millions of Twitter followers. “Madame X is a secret agent traveling around the world, changing identities, fighting for freedom, bringing light to dark places,” the musician mused in a video teaser for the forthcoming concept album, out June 14. Perhaps serendipitously, the statement itself nods to Madonna’s career-long trajectory: She has, quite literally, changed her identity time and time over, fought for freedom of expression, and brought illumination to the depths of our often murky pop-culture waters.
Born Madonna Louise Ciccone on August 16, 1958, the artist moved to New York City in the late 1970s to pursue a career as a dancer. It was there, after dropping out of college and taking gigs as a backup dancer, she found her true calling as a solo singer and performer. Her eponymous 1983 debut album set the standard for the sound and energy of post-disco dance-pop, while her sophomore release, Like a Virgin, solidified her as a determined provocateur, delivering with its titular single one of the most controversial, memorable, and, particularly for its time, scandalous pop hits in history. To this day, her 1984 MTV VMAs performance, during which she revealed her underwear and humped the stage while wearing a wedding gown, remains one of pop culture’s most infamous and legendary moments.
Through the countless albums that followed, Madonna has maintained her status as one of the prototypical inventors of pop reinvention, refusing to, as one might say, stay in her lane. On 1992’s sexually-charged Erotica, she introduced Mistress Dita, her dominating alter ego, while embracing the club-friendly new jack swing and house music of the time. Six years later, she emerged as an enlightened earth mother amid the effervescent trip-hop of Ray of Light. In 2005, she ventured back into the glare of the discotheque lights on her critically acclaimed electronic opus, Confessions on a Dance Floor. Every album released between and since has seen Madonna wholly transform herself.
Over the span of her game-changing career, Madonna has both defined and redefined what it means to be a pop star, a performer, and an icon. She topped charts, broke records, and, most importantly, railed against the rules previously set for female mainstream musicians in the industry, voraciously fighting for control over her production and image while simultaneously ushering in new norms for women’s self-empowered sexual exhibition in music, injecting the pop machine with a much-necessary punk spirit. She set a revolutionary precedent that nearly every pop artist who has emerged since has acknowledged, whether overtly or subtly within their own art. Even in 2019, nearly 40 years after her debut, contemporary pop’s biggest players are still taking notes.
Madonna’s continued acts of public reinvention, for example, both within her art and her persona, have left a lasting mark on the culture of pop music, normalizing it for artists to reinvent their image, sound, and creative themes upon each new “era,” or album release. In the 2010s, Miley Cyrus twerked her way from the post-Disney dance-pop of Can’t Be Tamed to the controversial hip-hop of Bangerz, before switching things up again with the sunny country-tinged pop-rock of Younger Now. Similarly, across her albums, Katy Perry transformed from rebellious pin-up girl next door to electro-pop teenage dream to prismatic princess of love and light, among other personas. Stars like Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, and Gwen Stefani have all reinvented themselves. And Britney Spears, Madonna protégé and pop heir, is similarly no stranger to reinvention — or dutiful homage, for that matter. (Just compare Spears’ performance of “Breathe On Me” during her 2004 Onyx Hotel Tour to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” performance from the 1990 Blond Ambition Tour.)
On a broader scale, Madonna also helped shape the way pop artists release music. After the decline of the rock-oriented concept album in the 1980s — thanks in part to the rise of MTV and the increased focus on singles-driven music video releases — Madonna helped reignite interest in the art of the concept album within mainstream pop with thematic albums like Erotica and American Life. Her blueprint can be seen all over modern popular albums, from Halsey’s Hopeless Fountain Kingdom to Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart; Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid to Lorde’s Melodrama.
Of course, it would be heresy to wax on Madonna’s legacy without addressing her penchant for flirting with all manner of controversy, a skill she elevated to an impressive art form. From sharing a steamy kiss with Spears at the 2003 VMAs to dangling from a disco ball crucifix during her 2006 Confessions Tour — not to mention the burning crosses featured in her “Like a Prayer” music video, which was at one point banned from MTV — Madonna has scandalized and titillated in equal measure, pushing the boundaries with her signature embracement of hyper-sexual and religious themes.
Without her early pioneering in unapologetic pop provocation, Christina Aguilera may never have gotten quite so “Dirrty,” Lady Gaga may not have danced with “Judas,” and Rihanna may not have dabbled in “S&M.” Madonna’s assertive omnipresence can be felt in the work of provocative artists like Billie Eilish, Lauren Jauregui, Grimes, and Lana Del Rey, to name a few. Even Beyoncé has cited her as an influence.
And it’s no coincidence that Madonna’s heavenly disembodied voice delivers a sermon in the celestial music video for Ariana Grande’s 2018 single, “God Is a Woman.” Grande, a fellow Italian-American performer who cut her teeth in the New York City entertainment biz, has frequently cited Madonna as one of her most significant influences, but without Madonna’s audacious early forays into so-called blasphemous imagery, Grande (who also faced some controversy for her single) may not have found a space in which to explore her own brand of feminine divinity.
In 2019, Madonna sure as hell doesn’t need to provoke. Her iconoclastic and innovative artistry, though problematic at some points in her career (the star has been heavily criticized for being a repeat offender of cultural appropriation), continues to inform the landscape of pop music, despite declining album sales in recent years. Her music, imagery, and confrontational boldness may not seem so revolutionary today in the age of modern feminism, but that’s because she made it so. And yet with ageism and sexism still rampant in the music industry, her work is far from over: As a 60-year-old woman in a highly visible entertainment field, her mere refusal to quiet down, cover up, and fade away is an act of brilliant rebellion.
“Is Madonna still relevant?” From misogynistic critiques to ageist diatribes as to why she’s supposedly “too old” to express herself in the way she wants to, a quick Google search yields an aggravating insight into why her presence is necessary. So no, Madonna’s relevancy doesn’t hinge on the success of her albums, or whether or not she still quite shocks the public as she did back in 1984, or if her new music is sonically groundbreaking. Rather, she remains relevant because, quite frankly, she’s still here; still uncompromising and still reinventing; still flipping off a culture that seeks to push her out. And still breaking new ground for the artists who came after her.