The ages of Madonna – the evolution of an icon

The queen of reinvention, you can picture what every great Madonna record looks like without even listening to it

Oh just seize me by the collar and cha-cha me into oblivion, Madonna! This month The Queen of Pop returned with the first taster of ‘Madame X’ – her first record in four years – and in short, it’s evidence that she’s bursting with fresh inspiration. Featuring the Colombian singer Maluma, and taking its name from his birth city of ‘Medellin’, Latin pop influence appears to be back for Madge – who moved permanently to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon last year. And while she might’ve been enjoying a few more trips on the city’s ancient trams in recent years (who am I kidding, she definitely has a chauffeur) this isn’t a brand new obsession. In truth, Madonna has been channelling this sort of thing since the days of ‘La Isla Bonita’ and her video for ‘Borderline’. Perhaps that’s why it stands out?

When it comes to Madonna, the word reinvention quickly comes to mind. Think about her path, and you think of the effortless way that she transforms herself; she’s a chameleon who shifted from ‘True Blue’s yearning Marilyn Monroe figure to the crotch-grabbing sinner of ‘Like A Prayer’. These days every pop star worth their salt approaches each album like a separate world with a distinct visual identity; it’s now very common to hear music fans referring to things like Ariana Grande’s ‘Sweetener’ phase or The 1975’s ‘Music for Cars’ era. This has been Madonna’s game since 1979.

Let’s be real, we’ve been waiting for Madonna to return with a strong new era for some time. Yes, ‘MDNA’ had a few underrated bangers in the mix but it was also fragmented as albums go, and felt like a rushed production job; the album title bearing all the subtlety of a Stella-swigging lad asking if “anyone’s got Mandy’s number”. Though her 2015 follow-up ‘Rebel Heart’ was a far stronger record, it was also one of jarring halves that didn’t quite connect; torn somewhere between the music Madonna wanted to make, and the music that she perhaps felt she had to make.

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Meanwhile, the entire visual identity of her forthcoming new album ‘Madame X’ feels like a deliberate throwback, in the sense that it nods to Madonna’s most sensational run of albums. From ‘Music’s campy cowboy look around the turn of the noughties, to ’Confessions on a Dance Floor’s high-cut neon leotards, the wedding dress of ‘Like A Virgin’ or ‘True Blue’s preened mop of glamorous platinum blonde, you can picture what every great Madonna record looks like without even listening to it.

Here’s a rundown of her most iconic eras…

The Material Girl

Prancing around a red velvet set nicked straight out of Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ Madonna – complete with shimmering diamond jewellery and an entourage of adoring men – is lavished with gifts and attention in one of her best known videos. Parodying the superficiality of fame, Madge might coyly declare that she’s a ‘Material Girl’ over a Nile Rodgers-produced beat, but this isn’t a superficial song about being wooed by expensive gestures and cash-grabbing from hapless men. Instead, Madonna’s singing about mastering the rules of our greedy society, playing its lead culprits at their own game, and ensuring that she gets every single penny she’s owed. “Experience has made me rich, and now they’re after me,” she sings sweetly. “I don’t let them play, no way,” she warns elsewhere.

Tearing up the canals of Venice in her title-track’s matching visual, ‘Like A Virgin’ takes a different approach to the weirdly creepy practice of putting female sexual purity on a pedestal. The entire ‘Like A Virgin’ era –  centred around Madonna’s second album, on which ‘Material Girl’ also appears – is broadly concerned with playfully dissecting what Madonna isn’t: speaking to Rolling Stone, she said: “they were ironic and provocative at the same time but also unlike me. I am not a materialistic person, and I certainly wasn’t a virgin. And, by the way,” she asked, “how can you be like a virgin? I liked the play on words; I thought they were clever. They’re so geeky, they’re cool. I never realised they would become my signature songs.”

Key song: ‘Material Girl’
Key album: ‘Like A Virgin’ (1984)

The Pop Art icon

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Flinging back her head and channelling platinum-hued Marilyn Monroe once again – this time, through the bold pop art lens of Andy Warhol –  ‘True Blue’ has to be Madonna’s most iconic album cover. If ‘Like A Virgin’ proved that she was an artist capable of becoming an icon, its successor is the record that seized superstar status with both hands.

On her third album, Madonna fully harnessed the power of image and creating a mythology to match each record. Her Who’s That Girl? world tour took things even further. “What have I done? What have I created?” the star once asked. “Is that me, or is this me, this small person standing down here on the stage?… I play a lot of characters, and every time I do a video or a song, people go, ‘Oh, that’s what she’s like.’”

Incorporating Spanish influences into ‘La Isla Bonita’ for the first time in her career, standing up to male authority atop the jaunty classical strings of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, and acknowledging sexual desire on ‘Open Your Heart’ in a way that predictably angered conservative listeners, ‘True Blue’ paved the way for the controversy-seeking Madonna that we know and love today. It also inspired plenty of ill-advised hair bleaching among fans along the way.

Key song: ‘Open Your Heart’
Key album: ‘True Blue’ (1986)

The penitent Catholic

From ‘Like a Virgin’ to ‘Like A Prayer’, Madonna had a talent for a surprise simile. And in her fourth studio album, her raunchily religious explorations prompted a firestorm; the actual Pope even took time out of his day to condemn her sacred (or sacrilegious, depending who you ask) imagery.

Either way, who can forget the flaming crucifixes and suggestive kneeling-stances of late-’80s Madge? Drawing comparisons between sin and kinkiness, equating spiritual worship to sexual ecstasy, the ‘Like A Prayer’ era was all about Madonna finding a way to stack up her Catholic upbringing next to lust and desire.

On one side, there’s the clout of ‘Express Yourself’. Strutting around in a power-suit, fag in hand – while an army of well-oiled men thrust their pistons about (yes, that is a visual euphemism) in a dystopian factory beneath her- Madonna eventually ends up pouring milk over one particular muscular man who leaves his work post to pursue lustier temptations. In his absence, things descend into Fight Club level brawling, long before Fight Club was even a thing. Then there’s ‘Cherish’ – a deliciously catchy ode to love that approaches the level of worship. And on the other, ‘Oh Father’ is a sweeping pop epic; written to Madonna’s dad in the years following her mother’s death. Though Madonna’s time as a penitent Catholic is often remembered as her most controversial era, it’s probably her most honest, too.

Key song: ‘Express Yourself’
Key album: ‘Like A Prayer’ (1989)

Big Strap Energy Madonna

Defined by sleazy Shep Pettibone beats, orgasmic gasps, and choice lyrics like this one – “My name is Dita, I’ll be your mistress tonight, I’d like to put you in a trance, if I take you from behind” – Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ makes 50 Shades of Grey look tamer than a fully-domesticated alpaca. Celebrating sexuality – specifically a kinky, dark and subversive kind of desire – there’s a threatening danger to ‘Erotica’. Provoking a huge backlash when it was released, Madonna was one of the few mainstream artists exploring the sex politics around the AIDS crisis and the highly conservative Reagan era.

Around the same time, Madonna also began work on called Sex – a hulking great coffee table book dedicated to the act of bumping nasties. Filled with essays, poems and stories, and written under her Mistress Dita pseudonym, the 182 page book also featured explicit imagery: ranging from a naked Madonna hitchhiking to Miami and shaving a man’s pubic hair, to hefty bits of bondage gear, whips, chains, and knives. She even threw in a bit of rimming, and honestly, since she was aiming for full-blown scandal, why the hell not?

Featuring various contributors including Isabella Rossellini, rappers Big Daddy Kane and Vanilla Ice, the supermodel Naomi Campbell,  and gay porn star Joey Stefano, the book saw Madonna renamed “the queen of obscene”. It has to be said that Madonna’s chief goal wasn’t outrage: she wanted to open up a dialogue around responsible, safe sex. Though Sex was her most explicit statement yet, encouraging listeners to use protection – particularly with regard to countering the stigmas and myths associated with AIDS – had been a goal of Madonna’s since the days of ‘Like A Prayer’. “I don’t think sex is bad. I don’t think nudity is bad,” she said around the release of ‘Erotica’ and Sex. “I don’t think that being in touch with your sexuality and being able to talk about it is bad. I think the problem is that everybody’s so uptight about it and have turned it into something bad when it isn’t. If people could talk about it freely, we would have more people practicing safe sex, we wouldn’t have people sexually abusing each other.”

Key track: ‘Erotica’
Key album: ‘Erotica’ (1992)

Mystic Madge

A bit like taking a wrong turn in Glastonbury’s Healing Fields and stumbling upon a trance-soundtracked meditation session involving a lot of chakra aligning and crystals being waved about, Madonna’s seventh album ‘Ray of Light’ seems to emit liquid chill hippy vibes. 

According to ‘Ray of Light’s producer William Orbit, Madonna’s catchphrase during this new zenned-out era was “don’t gild the lily” – aka. keep things imperfect. And listening to stonking moments like ‘Frozen’ and title track ‘Ray of Light’, you can see what she was getting at.

Channelling her new-found spiritualism – Madonna got really into Kabbalah and Ashtanga yoga around this time – it’s an era of reflection that mixes futuristic electronica with eastern influences and ambient music. “When I was very young, nothing really mattered to me but making myself happy, I was the only one,”  she sings on ‘Nothing Really Matters’, “Now that I’ve grown, everything’s changed.”

Singing about her daughter Lourdes on ‘Little Star’ and revisiting the pain of her mother’s death elsewhere, ‘Ray of Light’ didn’t just shake up the face of contemporary pop; it saw Madonna blending icy aesthetics with a warmer kind of honesty.

Key track: ‘Frozen’
Key album: ‘Ray of Light’ (1998)

Red Dead Redemption meets campy cowboy

Look, if you’re somebody who shopped at Tammy Girl in the early noughties, you’ll recognise that the ‘statement belt’ is an item best left in the past. Wearing a gigantic buckle covered in diamanté gems does not a fashion icon make: pair it with tartan and stick your thumbs in it, and you’re just asking to get mistaken for an extra from Sex and the City. There’s but one caveat: none of this applies if you’re Madonna.

Sauntering down a deserted highway, and kicking her mud-caked flares through the dust, Don’t Tell Me’ is the definitive Western Madge moment. Because simply walking somewhere would be far too passé, director Jean-Baptiste Mondino filmed Madonna walking on a treadmill in front of a green-screen; which gives the whole music video a campy, artificial quality. Co-written and co-produced by Mirwais (who produced a good portion of Madonna’s forthcoming ‘Madame X’) ‘Don’t Tell Me’ was originally written as a jaunty tango number, but Madonna fiddled around with the arrangements and landed on country-dance splendour. The switch was inspired by the new direction of her 1999 Austin Powers soundtrack contribution ‘Beautiful Stranger’ (tune!) along with that dubious cover of ‘American Pie’ from the turn of the millennium.

As a whole, her 2000 album ‘Music’ – complete with a cover that shows a glamourous, hat-doffing Madonna lounging on a haystack – is line-dancing pop ridiculousness with a synthetic edge. Absurdly All-American, it’s an era of gas stations out in the sticks and star-spangled colour combinations, but it’s also a tongue-in-cheek celebration. From the style nods to gay icon Judy Garland to the total impracticality of pairing hugely expensive stilettos with cowboy work gear, there’s a touch of absurdity to Madge’s American Dream. Is it an homage, a parody or both? Either way, it bangs.

Key song: ‘ Beautiful Stranger’
Key Album: ‘Music’ (2000)

Hench disco Madonna

Inspired by a heady blend of Saturday Night Fever, Donna Summer disco gold, and precarious roller skating routines, Madonna’s ‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’ flipped her previous album upside down. While ‘American Life’ was a fiery political release, complete with a cover that reimagined Madonna as Che Guevara, this was a record concerned with letting loose and dancing the night away. Everyone probably remembers watching Madonna dancing in the video for ‘Hung Up’ and thinking, ‘bloody hell, I’d keel over from exhaustion if I even attempted that!’.

Heading down to the studio in her now-iconic pink leotard, the video in question features Madonna in training to join some sort of exclusive parkour and breakdancing troupe, and for her final audition, she performs a frenzied dance-mat routine at an arcade. It’s accompanied – of course – by the unmistakable hook of ABBA’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’. In order to secure the sample, Madge sent a special pop diplomat to hand deliver a letter to the group in Sweden, asking for their permission. After giving it some thought, they gave her the go-ahead. “This is only the second time we have given permission,” ABBA’s Benny Andersson told The Telegraph in 2005. “We said ‘yes’ this time because we admire Madonna so much and always have done. She has got guts and has been around for 21 years”.

Thank god they did, because propelled by its gigantic lead single, ‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’ was a spandex-clad explosion of euphoria, crammed full with sly references to past icons and Madonna’s own back catalogue. Lyrics from her 1989 Prince collaboration ‘Love Song’ pop up again on ‘Hung Up’, while her eighth record ‘Music’, her formative years in New York, her biggest artistic inspirations, and multilingual tendencies all get a shout out. Flexing her self-referential muscles (along with her actual ones) this era is all about throwing a nonchalant middle finger in the direction of ageist naysayers – ten albums in, and Madonna’s still the queen.

Key song: ‘Hung Up’
Key Album: ‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’ (2005)

And how about Madame X….?

Looking at ‘Madame X’s first statement of intent – “Madame X is a secret agent travelling around the world, changing identities, fighting for freedom, bringing light to dark places,” Madonna said in a teaser video, while striding around waving a whip – Madge’s new record seems to subscribe to similar ideas when it comes to strong eras. Throw in the involvement of ‘Music’ producer Mirwais (he’s been working on the new record, as revealed on her Instagram ) along with ‘Medellin’’s rhythmic cha-cha throwback – which brings to mind ‘Hard Candy’s ‘Give It 2 Me’ – and the dots begin to join up; Madame X is a return to the bold imagery that ‘Rebel Heart’ and ‘MDNA’ were missing.

‘Madame X’ also feels like a fitting moniker for Madonna to adopt. The original Madame X was an American socialite called Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau who moved to Paris and married a French banker. She soon had hordes of men – mainly leering artist types – falling at her feet and begging to paint her. Thoroughly unimpressed by it all, Gautreau eventually agreed to sit for one painter in the end; a fellow American expatriate called John Singer Sargent. Hard to imagine, but she found sitting still for hours on end very boring – and in dramatic @beam_me_up_softboi fashion, Sargent moaned of the “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.” What a big mood.

Once he was finished, the painting scandalised the gentile art types of Paris – it had far too much flesh on show, it was vulgar and racy! Disheartened, Sargant had to repaint her dress strap to make it look more ‘securely fastened’, and shortly afterwards, he fled to London out of embarrassment. Meanwhile, Madame X returned to the portrait circuit, and stuck with her original choices. A second painting, by Gustave Courtois, went down a storm. These days, her first portrait hangs in the Met – one of the most prestigious museums in the world. Madame X really did get the last laugh, huh?

Given the parallels between the painting’s controversial reception, and Madonna’s own career, it’s the ideal name for Madonna to pilfer, really. Over the course of a forty year career, she’s outraged, delighted, and puzzled her listeners in more or less equal measures – and like Madame X she’s emerged on top; a classic figure in the pop world who paved the way for countless others.

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