From here until the next reinvention, you will know her as Madame X.
According to her creator, “Madame X is a secret agent. Traveling around the world. Changing identities. Fighting for freedom. Bringing light to dark places. She is a dancer. A professor. A head of state. A housekeeper. An equestrian. A prisoner. A student. A mother. A child. A teacher. A nun. A singer. A saint. A whore. A spy in the house of love.”
It’s quite the job description – but then when you’re Madonna’s latest alter-ego, it’s never going to be a nine-to-five affair.
Madame X – who was unveiled ahead of the release of Madonna’s new single Medellin on Wednesday – is only the latest in a series of guises the 60-year-old pop icon has adopted over the years. From her earliest days dancing and singing in New York’s underground clubs, Madonna was a magpie, keenly appropriating and remoulding, imitating and enhancing. Like Bowie before her, her career has seemed as varied as a dozen of her rivals.
BBC Music takes a moment to look back to the Madonnas of yesteryear…
Pop Madonna (1983)
This was the Madonna that was launched upon an unsuspecting world in 1982. Her characteristic look – a melange of second-hand threads, dyed hair, often with a hat perched on top – accompanied a raft of dance pop songs (Everybody, Lucky Star, Holiday) that quietly revolutionised pop music for the next decade. There were hints, too, of something more underground. Madonna, by then 24, had spent the last few years dancing in clubs like New York’s Fun House – in the images shot for her self-titled debut, there’s a chain around her neck. Even amid the pop fluff, there’s a hint of the magpie Madonna.
The vamp (1984)
The look that spawned a thousand outraged sermons from the pulpits of Middle America. The cover of 1984’s Like A Virgin found Madonna pouting underneath a mountain of distressed hair, wearing a bustier and a wedding dress, simultaneously an object of both respect and desire. The video upped the ante considerably; much of the action takes place in Venice, with Madonna wearing a number of garlands, including a conspicuous Christian cross.
The blonde bombshell (1985)
Another year, another transformation, this time in the video for Material Girl, with Madonna reimagined as a blonde 1950s bombshell. The video was heavily influenced by a scene in Marilyn Monroe’s film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Madonna sports a pink dress-and-gloves combo a la Monroe.
The video, and look, helped launch her to global superstardom, but it also came with a cost – the moniker “Material Girl”, with all its coded hints at gold digging, remains a nickname to this day.
Kinky Madonna (1987 to 1994)
Not only an excellent, as-yet-unused band name, this period saw the singer take provocation to new heights. It began, arguably, with the video to the 1989 single Like A Prayer, a newly brunette Madonna kissing a saint in a too-hot-for-TV video studded with sexual imagery and religious motifs. There was outrage from the Catholic Church, enough that a multi-million-dollar deal with drinks maker Pepsi was terminated after a matter of weeks.
Madonna then recorded the 30s-inspired album I’m Breathless, which contained the single Vogue and was the impetus for the Blond Ambition tour in 1990. With its costumes masterminded by French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, most notably the iconic conical bras, the tour mixed Catholic imagery with almost pornographic sexual display.
Madonna wasn’t finished. In 1994, she released both the album Erotica and the book Sex, a no-holds-barred monograph from photographer Steven Meisel, who had also shot the Like a Virgin cover. Madonna kept pushing against the boundaries, with the follow up tour The Girlie Show being even more explicit, with the 34-year-old taking the role of a whip-cracking dominatrix.
Opera Madonna (1996)
After a disastrous 1994 appearance on the David Letterman Show, Madonna pulled back from her seemingly default position of mocking the moral majority. She recorded a series of ballads called Something to Remember, and won the role of Eva Peron in Alan Parker’s 1996 film Evita. Madonna was given an audition after she wrote Parker a four-page letter expressing how committed she was to the role. The film was a huge success, with Madonna stepping seemingly effortlessly from provocateur to refined Hollywood star.
Spiritual Madonna (1998 to 2000)
Madonna’s music was ripe for another reinvention, achieved in no small part by the inclusion of British producer William Orbit on 1998’s acclaimed album Ray of Light. It wasn’t the only big change. Instead of playing with religious imagery, Madonna was now embracing it, though this time it was the iconography of a brand of mystical Judaism rather than the Catholic rituals. Madonna’s interest in Kabbalah – a school of Jewish teachings about God’s relationship with the Universe – was writ large in her videos, including the wearing of its telltale red-string bracelets.
English aristocracy (2000 to 2004)
Madonna was a staple of the British tabloid gossip columns, thanks to her romance – and then marriage – to aristo-cum-Cockney film director Guy Ritchie. Suddenly, the woman who once donned lingerie pointed enough to take eyes out was caught slurping pints of bitter in Kensington pubs while wearing plus fours.
Cowgirl Madonna (2000 to 2002)
Only Madonna could rock two iconic looks at once. Offstage, she looked every bit the Land Rover-driving country wife racing back to the manor. Onstage, at least, the look was more double denim and cowboy hat. The impetus was 2000’s album Music, her eighth. Photographer Jean Baptiste Mondino pushed the idea of a Western motif for the album, wearing similar clothes matched with red heels for the album’s promotional dates.
Disco Madonna (2005)
If you’re going to borrow melodies from Abba (Hung Up), there had better be a dancefloor involved. 2005’s album Confessions on a Dancefloor witnessed full-on 80s nostalgia, not least in the Hung Up video, which brought weapons-grade lycra back into the public consciousness in a way unmatched since mid-80s aerobics routines.
Madame X (2019)
And now we come to Madame X, the latest attempt to set the zeitgeist from an artist always keen to borrow from a bubbling underground. The teaser trailer for the album, expected some time later this year, includes Madonna in a range of costumes – from a cigarette-smoking Western bride to a classic film noir blonde and what looks suspiciously like an eye-patched secret police investigator. Just which of these rises to the top of the pile remains to be seen…
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