Madonna’s latest album release, Madame X, has created all the expected headlines about the Queen of Pop. Oh, is she too old to be doing all this? Can she still innovate like she used to? Who is her music for? Why does she keep saying stupid sh*t in interviews? In one sense, it’s almost comforting to know that over 35 years since her debut, she’s still able to drum up such attention and piss off so many people. That was what made her such an urgent artistic presence in the first place.
Madame X has been strongly received for the most part, although if you ask me, it’s not a patch on her previous album, Rebel Heart (now that’s one everyone slept on!) It’s a weird artistic mish-mash that has some great moments but feels muddled in ways that don’t excite or intrigue. The singles haven’t been its high points either, but then there is God Control, and boy is there a lot going on here.
The video for God Control is directed by longtime Madonna collaborator Jonas Åkerlund, who recently made Polar. His work is bombastic, noisy, and typically devoid of depth, which makes him a curious choice for this song. To get straight to the point, God Control is about gun violence and America’s refusal to deal with its current epidemic. To illustrate this, the video features a mass shooting in a nightclub. The allusions to the Pulse nightclub massacre have escaped nobody.
So, how do we talk about this?
On a purely creative level, there is something to be said for this era of Madonna finally having a tangible cause to direct her artistic provocations towards. Madonna likes to shock. She’s good at that. Usually, she’s inciting people’s fury through her candid attitudes on sex, relationships, ageing, etc. When he’s been directly political, as she was during the misguided American Life era, it was never as effective. She’s not really an activist musician in that regard, but God Control is probably the best attempt she’s made at converging those disparate elements. The message is simple: America needs gun control and its refusal to take action on this sickness has made them a national joke. The video is unflinching, extremely violent, and clear as a bell in its agenda. For those of us who accused this era of Madonna of being aimless, this is certainly a striking rebuttal of that. She also released a statement to accompany the video, saying, ‘I want to draw attention through my platform as an artist to a problem in America that is out of control and is taking the lives of innocent people. This crisis can end if our legislators act to change the laws that fail to protect us all.’
But intent and execution don’t always line up. Åkerlund feels like a strange choice for this video. He loves eye-bleeding colours and hyper-stylized parties, which are all here. The party is fun until it isn’t, which is obviously the point but how do you faithfully show something as destructive as a mass shooting in a music video style? Can you even do that? There’s an entire argument to be had about whether it’s possible to artistically depict violence without glorifying it. Film scholars have been discussing that conundrum for decades. How do you show the contrast between people partying care-free and the death that follows in a way that is truthful but not fetishistic? And given that the Pulse tragedy is an obvious parallel she wants people to make with this video, what about the risk this poses for re-traumatizing those who lived through that, or the families of those who didn’t? Can you appropriate a disaster like that to make a point and not be exploitative?
As you can tell, I don’t have answers to that. I wish I could properly parse out my feelings on this video, which I think is classic Madonna in the best and worst ways: It’s uncomfortable, memorable, angry, strange, moving, provocative, irritating, driven. It’ll piss people off because it’s supposed to, but will it piss off its intended targets?
Then there’s the song itself. Not Madonna’s best, and certainly way too many ideas and styles for one song. I also never ever need to hear Madonna sing the line ‘Each new birth, it gives me hope // That’s why I don’t smoke that dope’ again (Madonna’s engagement with hip-hop and rap continues to be… well, it continues to be that).
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Header Image Source: YouTube // Madonna