In the social media era, the concept of the single has lost much of its commercial sheen. The digital revolution has flattened the format of the album to a rather rudimentary formula: there is no Side B, for instance, in a digital album. Songs are merely sequenced in numbers and that's it. In fact, every song from an album today qualifies as a single. For a musician from the pre-digital era though, that is not the case. And few understand the digital predicament better than Madonna.
In 2005, after the lacklustre performance of her 2003 album American Life, she released Confessions on a Dance Floor as a DJ set. Songs segued into one another to comprise an hour-long romp of disco-inspired chartbusters as opposed to being "singles". It was a feat that reinstated Madonna to the Queen of Pop throne, but it also highlighted the tightrope high-concept act that the singer, then 47, was pulling off. Confessions on a Dance Floor was not merely a fight to regain commercial prowess over the pop industry; it was a fight to remain relevant.
In a brutally honest speech when awarded the Billboard Woman of the Year Award in 2016, the Detroit-raised singer elucidated the rules that women have to circumvent in the world of glamour. “There are rules if you’re a girl … do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticised and vilified and definitely not played on the radio,” was among the many not-so-pretty maxims Madonna revealed to the audience.
It gives Medellin, the debut single from her forthcoming album, Madame X, an emotional edge. What could otherwise have been seen as a commercial opportunity is a lot more than that: it's an artist, in her 61st year, wistfully looking back at her own trajectory – and hoping to have cultural currency in the coming years. And there is much to look forward to if Medellin is any indicator. "I took a pill and had a dream / I went back to my 17th year / allowed myself to be naive / to be someone I've never been," goes the opening verse of the mid-tempo single featuring reggaeton star Maluma.
Aside from being a summery, sultry anthem apt for a tropical beach holiday, Medellin embodies the three virtues that diehard Madonna fans have cherished throughout her 36-year innings. For one, it is evidence that Madonna is still a great collaborator. From John "Jellybean" Benitez and Stephen Bray to William Orbit and Mirwais Ahmadzai, the chanteuse has cherry-picked cutting-edge talent across four decades to create gorgeous songs. Medellin is no different.
In choosing Colombian hunk and pop sensation Maluma – whose Spanish cadences only add to the single's lilting idyllic vibe – she has countered the Donald Trump era with a necessary inclusiveness. "We built a cartel just for love / Venus was hovering above us / I took a trip, it set me free / forgave myself for being me," goes another verse from the song.
Which brings us to the second reason Medellin is special: Madonna is no stranger to controversy and her fans love her for it. The term "cartel" with reference to Colombia, a nation that has been ravaged by drug wars, has been deemed as insensitive by some critics. However, with Trump choosing hapless Mexican immigrants as his designated victims to further his right-wing agenda ("They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists," is how he described Mexican immigrants in America at a 2015 rally), building a "cartel just for love" as opposed to a wall across the US-Mexico border is not such a bad idea after all. Perhaps, for once, Madonna genuinely has good intentions beyond commerce.
And finally, Medellin is about Madonna's dedication to music. Outside of her obsession with the outre and her feigned only-I-can-pull-this-off insouciance, Madonna is a very hardworking woman. For her latest album, she has taken on the persona of "Madame X".
"Madame X is a secret agent travelling around the world, changing identities, fighting for freedom, bringing light to dark places. Madame X 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 and a spy in the house of love. I'm Madame X," she recently announced across social media. With her latest album (and song), she is more like an embodiment of Janus, the Roman mythological god depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past. It is a dexterity that deserves our respect.