Madonna

The Music Video as Art: Dark Ballet by Madonna

Since the video became a ubiquitous part of popular music nearly forty years ago, it has sometimes struggled as an art form. The marriage has not always been harmonious: sometimes you have great songs with mediocre videos and vice versa. What I have always appreciated about it, when it does approach art, is that a story or message can be conveyed without the constraint of a script, spoken word, or even the lyrics of the song.

Madonna, who rose to prominence during the early years of the music video, has produced a stunning body of work in both video and song. However, in the last decade, this has not been case; she seemed more occupied with cannibalizing younger recording artists and profitable touring than producing thoughtful work. Mercifully, she has returned to peak form with “Dark Ballet.”

The song and video are essentially a pop version of the opera by Tchaikovsky, The Maid of Orleans, which tells the story of Joan of Arc. Interestingly, this is not Madonna’s first time exploring Joan of Arc in her work: in her last album, Rebel Heart, she had a song titled “Joan of Arc.” In my review, I noted it as the most irritating song because she was essentially complaining about being famous and I questioned what that had to do with Joan of Arc.

“Dark Ballet” is told from Joan of Arc’s point of view. In the brilliant bridge of the song, set to a pulsating electronic arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed-Flutes” from The Nutcracker, Madonna speaks:

“I will not denounce the things that I have said
I will not renounce my faith in my sweet Lord
He has chosen me to fight against the English
And I’m not afraid at all to die ’cause I believe him
God is on my side and I’ll be his bride
I am not afraid ’cause I have faith in him
You can cut my hair and throw me in a jail cell
Say that I’m a witch and burn me at the stake
It’s all a big mistake
Don’t you know to doubt him is a sin?
I won’t give in”

The video is book ended by quotes, with one by Joan of Arc and another by queer poet and activist Mykki Blanco, who was cast as Joan of Arc in the video. Madonna is surprisingly absent except for a very brief cameo. Blanco gives us some incredible acting here. I also can’t heap enough praise on the cinematography, production, and direction by Emmanuel Adjei (he is one to watch).

And while the song and video is about Joan of Arc, it feels as if Madonna and Adjei are also addressing the toxic mix of bigotry and religion that pervades the world: too many people use religion to justify their prejudices and fears.  

Madonna’s pop version of the opera The Maid of Orleans is “Dark Ballet.”

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Music Review: Madonna’s Rebel Heart

I have been a true blue Madonna fan for 30-plus years. Madonna’s initial appeal for me stemmed from the way she brought her East Village sensibility to the mainstream: as a native New Yorker, I totally grooved to this. Later, I would appreciate and identify with the way she let her love of classic music and cinema inspire her work. You can hear and see the influences that include Sly and the Family Stone, Marlene Dietrich, Frida Kahlo, Cabaret, Disco and Walt Whitman. Yes, Walt Whitman. On one of the songs from her 1994 album, Bedtime Stories, she quotes a line from Walt Whitman’s “Voices” from Leaves of Grass. If you had asked me in 1994 if I thought that Madonna would one day write and record a song called “Bitch I’m Madonna” I probably would have replied with a resounding no.

So what the hell happened? How did she go from being inspired by artists from Motown’s roster and Tamara de Lempicka, to being inspired by Nicki Minaj? And before you accuse me of ageism, the point I am trying to make is that her work lately has devolved and not evolved. Madonna is pushing sixty yet her earlier work was far more sophisticated. Using words like “fuck” is not necessarily excelling at songwriting or staying relevant. Is dumbing it down the only way to appeal to young people?

Rebel Heart is not a total loss. There are some good tracks and some really terrible ones. I read that she intended each song to stand-alone so that is how I am going to approach this review.

Living For Love: The best song on the album. An instant classic. Madonna at her best.

Devil Pray: The second track and the second best song. The song explores how people take drugs and religion to connect to a higher level of consciousness.

Ghosttown: The third track and the third best song. The song explores humanity connecting to one another in spite of the world’s insanity.

Unapologetic Bitch: Here is where the album starts to get shaky. The song is catchy, but sounds like something a younger and inexperienced recording artist would sing.

Illuminati: Beyonce meets Minaj.

Bitch I’m Madonna: Perhaps the worst song lyrically. The music is actually appealing, but those lyrics…

Hold Tight: Lyrically good, but overproduced musically.

Joan of Arc: For me, the most irritating song on the album. I find it absolutely ridiculous when she writes songs complaining about being famous (such as “Drowned World” from the brilliant Ray of Light). She sings, “Each time they write a hateful word, Dragging my soul into the dirt, I wanna die, Never admit it but it hurts.” Come on Madonna, you have never publicly uttered a hateful word at others? And what the hell does your fame have to do with Joan of Arc?

Iconic: A fun pop song that features Mike Tyson!

HeartBreakCity: The fourth best track on the album. It explores the aftermath of a relationship that has gone sour after putting your best foot forward. The track could have been better had it not been for the processed vocals.

Body Shop: A tongue-in-cheek song about the parallels between cars and sex.

Holy Water: A peculiar song about the miracles of oral sex. Okay Madonna, I guess eating your pussy is like holy water…? I cringed when I heard her sing, “Bitch get off my pole.” Where did you get the idea for that lyric, a reality show? She also sings, “Yeezus loves my pussy best.” I am pretty sure that she originally sang it as “Jesus”, but someone likely told her to tone it down because most of the world may not remember that she once had a boy toy named Jesus Luz (I could imagine her defending why she sang the lyric using him as the “inspiration”).

Inside Out: A great song about getting closer to someone by asking them to confess their deepest secrets. Another song where I wish she hadn’t over processed her vocals.

Wash All Over Me: A pretty good song that explores life’s uncertainties that could have been great, but again we have the over processed vocals.

Best Night: A boring song about having sex. Snooze.

Nas and Madonna

Nas gets licked by Madonna.

Veni Vidi Vici: This autobiographical song incorporates past song titles into the lyrics and features Queensbridge Rap Legend, Nas. Nas’ contribution was the best thing about this song.

S.E.X.: And yet another boring, and remarkably unimaginative song, about screwing. Yawn.

Messiah: A brilliant song about trying win over someone’s heart. I wish it were more acoustic because it had the potential to be an emotional and vocal tour de force.

Rebel Heart: The title track where Madonna finally showcases some vocals without that processing—which doesn’t translate well while listening with headphones. The track is a departure from many of the other overproduced tracks on this album.

If Madonna had cut songs like “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Bitch I’m Madonna” and brought a more acoustic feel to some of the vocals, this could have been a good album. A rebel is a person who resists any authority, control, or tradition. While I would certainly consider Madonna an artist with a rebel heart, by dumbing down lyrics to stay relevant and appeal to young people, what she is actually doing is simply marching in step with everyone else.