Pop Sovereign: A Conversation With Madonna

T. Cole Rachel • Pitchfork • March 2, 2015

There’s an approximate 100% probability that any living human over the age of, say, 25 has some sort of specific Madonna-related memory. Perhaps you slow danced to “Crazy for You” at a high school prom, memorized the “Vogue” choreography in your dorm room, warbled out “Express Yourself” at a bachelorette party, had a dancefloor epiphany to “Ray of Light”, or fumbled through some sexual experimentation with Erotica throbbing in the background. Perhaps, like me, you grew up worshipping at the altar of “Into the Groove”-era Madonna and quietly contemplated your own burgeoning sexuality after obsessively viewing Truth or Dare around five million times. Even if you aren’t a super fan—or even a fan at all—there’s no escaping Madonna. She is everywhere.

It is not hyperbole to say that Madonna profoundly influenced the ways in which an entire generation of young people thought about music, fashion, and—in particular—sex. She was one of the first celebrities of her time to advocate on behalf of gay people and speak openly about AIDS. She was a provocateur of the highest order, even when it wasn’t necessarily in her best interest. (Go back and watch some of the now quaint-seeming news coverage regarding the release of her 1992 Sex book just to have a laugh at how radically the cultural landscape has—and hasn’t—changed). She has also sold over 300 million records. These are all good reasons to talk about Madonna, but they still aren’t the most important reason: She essentially built the house that everyone else—Britney, Beyoncé, Nicki, Gaga, Sky, Rihanna, Katy, Ariana, even Kanye—all now get to call home. She devised the archetype of pop stardom as we know and understand it today. And, with the exception of Michael Jackson—the King of Pop to her Queen—Madonna’s enduring impact on popular culture remains pretty much unequaled.

But what does Madonna mean in 2015? And what does being Madonna mean in 2015? It’s not an easy subject to unpack. It’s also a question that Madonna herself seems to struggle with. On her forthcoming 13th studio album, Rebel Heart, the 56-year-old pop paragon chooses to re-examine rather than simply reinvent. As a result, the 19-track opus is, in many ways, the entire Madonna mythology writ large—a record that vacillates between empowerment anthems, romantic missives, and the now-requisite assertions of complete and total dominance (see: “Bitch I’m Madonna”), with stops along the way to revisit her lifelong obsessions with sex and Catholicism.