Only six years after the release of 2015’s Rebel Heart, Madonna will be eligible for Social Security benefits in the U.S. And the 56-year-old pop provocateur can already get 10% off breakfast at Denny’s. But if you think the Material Girl’s advancing age is crimping her penchant for naughtiness, well, then next time you’re at Denny’s try ordering the duck confit.
A seemingly salvific love (“Made me feel like I was born again/You empowered me, you made me strong”) crumbles on album opener “Living for Love” (“Now I’m down on my knees, alone in the dark”). But Madonna’s determined to press on and seek love again (“I’m not giving up/ … Love’s gonna lift me up”). Similar themes permeate “Hold Tight.” And “Ghosttown” is an ode to faithfulness amid fear (“Everything’s bound to break/Sooner or later/ … I know you’re scared tonight/ … I’ll never leave your side”).
The provocatively titled “Devil Pray” plays out as a relatively complex story dealing with sin, temptation and deliverance. “Take my sins and wash them away/Teach me how to pray,” Madonna begins. Then she links drugs and alcohol to the idea of being lost (“And we can take drugs and we can smoke weed and we can drink whiskey/Yeah, we can get high and we can get stoned/And we can sniff glue and we can do E and we can drop acid/Forever be lost with no way home/Yeah, we can run and we can hide/But we won’t find the answers”). The titular devil? He seems to be a force of deception here (“Ooh, save my soul, save my soul, save my/Devil’s here to fool ya”). Madonna seems to understand her own spiritual plight when she sings this provocative line: “Mother Mary, can’t you save me?/’Cause I’ve gone astray/All the angels that were around me/Have all flown away.”
“Iconic” encourages listeners to pursue their dreams. The introspective “Wash All Over Me” confronts confusion, fear and change. And “Joan of Arc” demonstrates that Madonna understands the power of what we say to one another (“Each time they write a hateful word/Dragging my soul into the dirt/I wanna die/Never admit it, but it hurts/ … Words are like weapons, they betray/When I am afraid/One word of kindness, it can save me”).
“Inside Out” longs for emotional transparency (“Let me in, let me in/Yeah, on your knees, confess to me/Every doubt, every sin/Yeah, that’s how love’s supposed to be/ … Let me love you from the inside out”), but …
… those longings get expressed sexually later on (“Show me yours and I’ll show you mine/ … Kiss me here, touch me there/Yeah, purest form of ecstasy/Truth or dare, don’t be scared/ … Let’s cross the line so far we won’t come back”).
“Holy Water” finds Madonna returning to her longstanding habit of sexing up spiritual imagery. The song repeatedly blurts out “b–ch” as it crudely compares oral sex to holy water. We also hear repeated, crass, partially bleeped references to “p—y.” Then “Body Shop” saucily appropriates mechanical jargon (complete with breathy, Marilyn Monroe-style vocals) as sexual come-ons. And “B–ch I’m Madonna” finds Madge channeling her inner Britney-meets-Miley as she celebrates excessive drinking, indiscriminate smooching and antisocial behavior (“Yeah, we’ll be drinking and nobody’s gonna stop us/And we’ll be kissing anybody that’s around us/I just wanna have fun tonight/Blow this s— up/ … We gon do this all night long/We get freaky if you want”).
“Illuminati” strangely mingles celebrities, religious imagery and an odd shout out to the “all seeing eye.” “Unapologetic B–ch” repeatedly labels an ex’s bad behavior as “bulls—,” and Madonna tells him, “F— you.” She mocks, “When we did it, I’ll admit it, wasn’t satisfied.” F- and s-words turn up again in the wake of another bad breakup on “HeartBreakCity.”
Rebel Heart is Madonna’s 13th studio album, after getting her eponymous start way back in 1982. And what’s perhaps more unexpected than the naughtiness and nastiness is how many songs on it also unpack romantic yearnings and showcase her sensitive side.
In the March 12, 2015, issue of Rolling Stone, she said of Rebel Heart’s thematic dichotomy, “Originally, I wanted to have two records—one that was going to be all of my envelope-pushing, mischief-making, provocative music. And then there was going to be the more romantic side of me, the more vulnerable side of me.”
Madonna’s double-album dream didn’t materialize. So it’s all present in a jumble of love, sex and spirituality that gets mashed messily together. One moment, Madonna’s pouring out her heartbroken woes and longing for a pure, faithful love that will last. The next, she’s embracing temptation, evoking the devil and making self-destructive choices, reveling in carnal excess.
“Once again, I’m defying the convention that you can’t be both [spiritual and sexual], or that you have to be one personality trait,” she told Rolling Stone. There’s no law that says that you cannot be a spiritual person and a sexual person. In fact, if you have the right consciousness, sex is a like a prayer. it can be a divine experience. So why do they have to be disassociated with one another? … There are certain religious groups who have turned it into a sinful act. I’ve always tried to open people’s minds to the idea that it’s not something to be ashamed of.”
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.