This Is The Problem With 'Rebel Heart'-Era Madonna

And no, it's not that she's "too old."

By Michael Arceneaux

No one with even half a clue hiding inside their head will deny the role ageism plays in the entertainment industry, particularly in the eternally image-conscious world of pop music.

So, in many respects, I totally understand why Madonna’s latest favorite collaborator, Diplo, is airing his grievances about the state of the icon’s music career. As someone still very much obsessed with the documentary Truth or Dare, Diplo is right in his assessment that, “She created the world we live in.” Likewise, Diplo is correct in noting that Madonna still manages to sell out “her tour in minutes.” However, when he tells Rolling Stone that “no one wants her to succeed,” one can’t help but boo and hiss at such a hyperbolic claim.

The same goes for Diplo’s categorizing of present attitudes about Madonna: "Madonna, we've been there, done that, now we're about Kim Kardashian. Her song ‘Ghosttown’ was a guaranteed Number One for anybody else, but she didn't get a fair shot. With ‘Bitch I'm Madonna,’ everyone said there's no way it will go anywhere, but I'm like, ‘Screw it, it represents you more than anything.’

The song “Bitch, I’m Madonna” does indeed represent Madonna in 2015 “more than anything,” only that is exactly the 56-year-old singer’s problem. I will not deny that in terms of maintaining relevance, Madonna has two disadvantages: her age and her gender. They are similar challenges her fellow older pop singers like Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, and Janet Jackson find themselves facing. It is indeed unfair how we collectively dispose of singers reach a certain age bracket.

That said, everyone has their moment and what happens after that has a lot to do with the product they present. I’m not entirely convinced that “Ghosttown” would be an easy smash for “anybody else” as Diplo argues, and while Madonna’s latest album, Rebel Heart, is her best offering in quite sometime, that’s not exactly saying much.

My favorite Madonna album is 1994’s Bedtime Stories, which Madonna acknowledged was heavenly influenced by Joi’s influential and very much ahead of its time The Pendulum Vibe, released that same year but months prior. Madonna was so influenced by that album that she tapped its executive producer, Dallas Austin, to help her steer Bedtime Stories in a similar direction. A pop star’s ability to notice trends and pull from the periphery to create works for mass consumption is a skill – one that Madonna had mastered for much of her career.

Unfortunately, with age comes a certain disconnect. For the last decade now, Madonna has been chasing trends that are either dying out or long been over. See 2008’s very good, but very much too late to the Timberland-resurgence bandwagon party Hard Candy, or 2012’s rather forgettable MDNA. This year’s Rebel Heart is no different.

Tracks like “Holy Water” don’t feel as exciting as “Inside of Me” or anything as forward-leaning on another Madonna gem, 1992’s Erotica. Diplo is not passé, but compare “WhereAre Ü Now” with Justin Bieber to anything Madonna’s singing now.

Personally, if she were going to reinvent the wheel, I would have had her reimagining songs like “Take A Bow,” only with collaborators like Miguel, Frank Ocean and The Weeknd as opposed to Babyface. The same goes for turning to house producers for dance tunes.

Then there’s the issue of Madonna pulling from the same 1980s and early '90s playbook of trying to shock and awe in the name of self-promotion. I don’t believe that Madonna is “too old” to wear attire that leaves her bare ass out for the entire world to see. Such is her right. Even so, it's fair to say that no one is surprised by these antics anymore. Moreover, it does feel stale coming someone who “created the world we live in,” as Diplo astutely notes.

The world Madonna created has changed, and while she doesn’t have to change with it anymore, the type of success she seemingly continues to covet means she has to. Part of being the premiere pop star is being ahead of the curve. Madonna has not been for a long time now, which is probably why her tour – where longtime fans can expect a good show chock full of known hits from a celebrated catalog – can sell out in mere minutes and why new music fails to make a dent on the charts.

We should talk about ageism in the music industry, though when it comes to Madonna’s cooling reception, we have to discuss more than just that.