It hasn’t been a great year for Madonna.
The lead up to her March release “Rebel Heart” was a mess. A handful of songs leaked on the web, prompting an early digital release of half the tracks, robbing the project of its marketing momentum.
The publicity campaign that built to its proper street date ran afoul, Madonna’s usual stabs at controversy drawing sighs rather than shock: She posted pictures of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. in bondage ropes on Instagram, and then co-opted the Charlie Hebdo killings for album promo.
The result: “Rebel Heart” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, her first album since 1998’s “Ray of Light” to miss the top spot, then sank like a stone.
Things didn’t get any better from there. “Rebel Heart’s” three singles all flopped; “Living for Love” and “Ghosttown” missed Billboard’s Hot 100 entirely, while the third single, “B—- I’m Madonna,” peaked at No. 84.
There was that weird make-out session with Drake at Coachella, which ended with the Canadian rapper wiping his mouth like he had just taken a swig of expired milk.
And then there were Madonna’s comments about Michigan, when she remarked “oh, nothing” when asked what her favorite part about growing up here was.
Collectively, the misfires led to the same chatter that has plagued the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer for more than 30 years — questions of her relevancy, complaints about her brashness, wishes that she would just go away already.
Madonna has heard it all before and weathered it all before. And as she brings her “Rebel Heart” tour to Joe Louis Arena Thursday, the same wisdom applies:
Write Madonna off at your own peril.
People have been dismissing Madonna her entire career, and still she stands, the Queen of Pop. For her, the title is a lifetime appointment, the same way Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul or Michael Jackson is the King of Pop. Others come along, glory fades, the spotlight shifts. But no one challenges the throne.
Yet the question remains: Are Madonna’s hitmaking days are behind her? For an artist who has been so entwined in the zeitgeist that for several decades she was the zeitgeist, her thuds of late are deafening.
It’s not just her lack of album sales and single traction. Creatively, her last three albums — “Rebel Heart,” 2012’s “MDNA” and 2008’s “Hard Candy” — are her three least satisfying works, finding the one-time pop culture maven chasing trends rather than setting them.
In the case of “B—- I’m Madonna,” she’s purporting to live a lifestyle — “we go hard or we go home, we gon’ do this all night long, we get freaky if you want, b—- I’m Madonna” — that sounds just plain silly coming out of her mouth.
Pop is traditionally a playground for the young, and the 57-year-old has angled to buck that trend. Still, her last No. 1 single was 2000’s “Music,” which was released when current Billboard chart-topper the Weeknd was in 5th grade. (Madonna was 42 when “Music” hit No. 1, and no artist older than she was at that time has sat atop the Hot 100 since.)
Madonna has fought back against the forces of ageism and sexism in the music industry, and if she wants to go on stage and make out with a rapper less than half her age, no one is going to tell her she can’t. But that doesn’t mean make it a good idea, and Madonna seems to have either A) lost touch with her ability to make smart decisions or B) stopped caring altogether about making smart decisions.
She is playing by her own rules, which is something she’s always done, since she told Dick Clark in 1983 that she planned to one day rule the world.
Madonna hasn’t changed, it’s our expectations of her — and of a performer of her age — that have. We want her to play nice, which she has never done, and she’s not going to start now.
So here she is, still ruffling feathers, refusing to go down quietly. And the “Rebel Heart” tour is making plenty of noise: Rolling Stone called the show “a tour of everything only Madonna can do,” and it’s poised to make a killing at the box office. (Madonna’s last two tours, 2008-09’s Sticky & Sweet and 2012’s MDNA outing, are the fifth and 11th highest-grossing tours of all-time, respectively).
Where does she go from here? She can keep touring as long as she wants to: She’s still sharp on stage, and artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney are proving musicians can still tear up the road well into their sixth and seventh decades. She’s not likely to settle down, and she’ll take risks that may or not pay off.
Her legacy is intact, her influence is undeniable, her impact is immeasurable. True, Madonna hasn’t had a great year. But she’s still dancing, whether we like it or not, to the beat of her own rebel heart.
The Detroit News
Beyond the hits
From “Like a Virgin” to “Like a Prayer,” to name just two of her 12 No. 1s, everybody knows Madonna’s hits. But what about her lesser-known songs? Here are 10 of the best deep cuts from her catalog:
1. “Spanish Eyes” (from “Like a Prayer”) — This moving Spanish-flavored ballad mourns the death of a friend from AIDS and showcases a vulnerable Madonna pushing her vocals to their limit.
2. “Love Tried to Welcome Me” (from “Bedtime Stories”) — Madonna compares her heart to a lonely hunter on this quiet storm “Bedtime Stories” track, which has the sound and feel of raindrops running down a window pane.
3. “Easy Ride” (from “American Life”) — Over Mirwais’ glitchy production, Madonna looks back at her life and finds she likes struggle more than complacency, and that she wants her mark to be earned rather than handed to her.
4. “One More Chance” (from “Something to Remember”) — A sparse acoustic ballad shepherded by super-producer David Foster, with Madonna warming up her pre-“Evita” pipes.
5. “I Want You” (from “Something to Remember”) — Madonna’s aching cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 original is full of longing and desire, while the moody production — courtesy of Massive Attack — creates a sense of tightly controlled bombast.
6. “Love Song” (from “Like a Prayer”) — What if, at the height of their respective fame, Madonna and Prince made a song together? Guess what: They did!
7. “Incredible” (from “Hard Candy”) — One of the Neptunes’ busiest productions unfolds over several mini-suites, and builds to one of Madonna’s most direct statements: “Sex with you is incredible!”
8. “Nobody’s Perfect” (from “Music”) — “Music” is hands down Madonna’s best-ever album, and Mirwais’ experimental production brought out a yearning and a destitution in Madonna that wasn’t heard before or since. This is among a handful of tracks from that album that could have occupied this slot; “I Deserve It” or “Paradise (Not For Me)” are just as worthy.
9. “Over and Over” (from “Like a Virgin”) — Madonna made her ambitions clear on this upbeat dance track way back in 1984 — “if I fall, I get up again over and over” — so it should be no surprise she’s where she is today.
10. “I’m a Sinner” (from “MDNA”) — Madonna reunites with William Orbit, and together they have such a blast ripping off their own collaborations “Beautiful Stranger” and “Ray of Light” that they could sue themselves for copyright infringement.