The Ghost of Madonna’s Mother in Her Videography
This essay was originally published by Much Ado About Cinema on January 31, 2020. “Why Did You Do That?” was a column dedicated to pop music videos warranting further critical respect and/or attention.
In October of 1992, Madonna was Vanity Fair’s cover story — well, she and the two projects that she released shortly after the issue went to press. There was Erotica, her fifth and most sexually explicit studio album to date, and there was Sex, which writer Maureen Orth called “perhaps the dirtiest coffee-table book ever published.” By the end of the Erotica era, Madonna would — among other things — sing about taking her partner from behind, pose for softcore porn, star in an erotic thriller alongside Willem Dafoe, and simulate an orgy with her dancers on stage (dozens of times around the world). That being so, it might surprise you that she spent a significant portion of her Vanity Fair interview — a crucial promotional opportunity for both the album and book — talking about the death of her mother, a reputedly modest and devout Catholic woman, nearly 30 years prior.
Last March, I started making my way through Madonna’s career from front to back. This broadly included every song and video, any key interviews and performances, and whatever biographical information I could get my hands on. I’ve done this with several artists, but never one whose career has spanned almost four decades. Put differently, while I can usually catch myself up on someone in a few weeks to a couple of months, it took me the greater part of last year to learn how Madonna (1983) became Madame X (2019). I’d expected the process to take a while: there was a lot to go through, and I generally do this sort of thing on the side, not to mention at a leisurely pace. What I didn’t expect was to come out of it itching to write about Madonna’s artistic relationship to — out of everything I could possibly choose from — death.
Going through all the Madonna things, it seemed like she’s sung and made videos and spoken about death a lot over the course of her career — certainly more than average for a chart-topping artist. It hasn’t been to be edgy, as far as I could tell, and not necessarily because she’s a morbid person, either. Is it her Catholic upbringing? Her interest in spirituality more generally? That she has lost so many loved ones, walking away from multiple tragedies and personal crises in her 61 years? All of the above? I tried writing through working thesis after working thesis, but everything kept coming back to the loss of her late parent when she was a child.
“While pregnant with her youngest daughter, Melanie, Madonna Sr. was diagnosed with breast cancer,” writes Lucy O’Brien in a 2007 biography of Madonna. Her six children — including Nonnie, as the Ciccone family called Madonna growing up — noticed that she wasn’t acting like herself, seemingly “too exhausted to give them the nurturing they needed.” In an earlier book, J. Randy Taraborrelli adds that “Little Nonnie and her siblings watched as she slowly wasted away over a period of about a year.” Madonna Sr. died on December 1, 1963 — a week or so after the assassination of JFK, a few before Christmas. She was only thirty, Madonna only five.
The story is almost Dickensian on paper. Left with six small children to raise, Tony Ciccone married the family’s housekeeper, Joan, who brought two kids of her own to the union. Madonna, who’d “clung to” her father in her mother’s absence, took it as a personal betrayal. The familial challenges from this period are well-documented, including but not limited to the fraught relationship between the now-eight siblings. Taraborrelli sees Madonna Sr.’s death as “the defining moment of Madonna’s childhood — the one that would have the most influence in shaping her into the woman she would become.” Madonna has never suggested otherwise, once saying, “If she were alive, I would be someone else, I would be a completely different person.” In case it wasn’t yet clear, Madonna has rarely shied away from talking about her mother’s death. It makes sense, then, that she’d come back to it time and time again in her music.
When it comes to her videos, however — and there are nearly 80* — Madonna Sr. is harder to find. The most explicit visual reference that Madonna has ever made to her death is “Oh Father,” David Fincher’s second video for Like a Prayer (1989). The song is credited with ending her “run of seventeen back-to-back top-ten singles” — perhaps because it was a ballad, more likely because it was heavy. It was also accompanied by the most disturbing video that she’d ever put out, one notorious in part for a shot inspired by a haunting childhood memory. At Madonna Sr.’s funeral, she’d been “laid in an open casket, decked out like an angel,” writes O’Brien. “Only one thing was askew. Her mouth, as Madonna remarked many years later, ‘looked funny.’ When she got closer and peered at her mother’s face, she saw that [her] lips had been sewn together.” (After premiering “Oh Father,” MTV reportedly asked that the shot [which appears at 3:50] be removed before broadcasting it again. Madonna threatened to cut ties with the network in response, forcing it to back down.)
I’d argue — and again, I’ve had some time to consider it — that Madonna Sr.’s ghost has been more present in Madonna’s videos than is usually articulated. To prove this, I’ve chosen four, one from each decade of her career, that I’ve come to believe were informed by the loss in some way. None are about it: the connection is sometimes aesthetic, more often thematic, and mostly in behind-the-scenes details regarding the video in question. If all goes well, you’ll agree that once you go looking for Madonna’s mother in her work, you’ll find her everywhere.
* For the sake of length, this essay makes reference only to videos associated with Madonna’s 14 studio albums. Exceptions have been made for videos from compilation or soundtrack albums where relevant.
DECADE I: “DEAR JESSIE”
After years of looking for her break in New York City, Madonna released her self-titled debut. Madonna (1983) consisted of eight dance tracks, so with the exception of Steve Barron’s “Burning Up” and Mary Lambert’s “Borderline,” its videos featured Madonna doing little more than dancing. It was really her second effort, Like a Virgin (1984), that launched her into stardom. “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl,” both of which Lambert directed, were the standout videos of this era. Madonna had started to release projects that invited interpretation (as the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs indicates). In 1985, she married Sean Penn, to whom she dedicated her next album, True Blue (1986). Despite his reputation for public violence, things seemed relatively good between them at first, which gave rise to videos like James Foley’s “True Blue” and Jean-Baptiste Mondino’s “Open Your Heart.” Lambert helmed “La Isla Bonita,” the most Catholic video that Madonna had ever put out. In hindsight, True Blue confirmed that she wasn’t afraid to be challenging (see: Foley’s “Papa Don’t Preach”) and even dark (see: Foley’s “Live to Tell”).
By 1989, things had gotten bad. Madonna filed for divorce from Penn in January, the reasons for which have long been the subject of debate. She’d also spent the last few years being ripped apart for her acting ventures — not ideal for someone who’d grown up wanting to be either “a nun or a movie star.” On top of everything, she was now 30, the age at which Madonna Sr. had died. Which brings us to Like a Prayer (1989).
Madonna’s fourth studio album is widely accepted to have been a breakthrough in her career, the point when she went from star to capital-A Artist. I wanted to chat with someone who’d experienced its release in real time, so I called Luis, a Madonna fan since the beginning. (He recently saw her live for the 25th time.) Luis grew up in Portugal, where his uncle would occasionally visit with Madonna LPs from Canada. Despite not speaking English yet, it wasn’t long before he had her catalogue memorized. “Every album has helped me in different aspects of my growing and life experiences,” he explained. In the case of Like a Prayer, that was “coming to terms with being a young gay man” at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “I remember the CD had a little brochure on AIDS and how to protect yourself, which was a big deal,” Luis said. He described Like a Prayer as his “coming-of-age album,” one that he loved in part for its introspection.
The album was as much about love and empowerment as it was familial strain and God, and its videos reflected this. Lambert’s controversial “Like a Prayer” came first, followed by David Fincher’s Metropolis-inspired “Express Yourself” and Herb Ritts’s “Cherish” (a merman classic). “Oh Father” was next. Aside from “Like a Prayer” and “Oh Father,” Like a Prayer’s more challenging subject matter stayed in its non-singles. On “‘Til Death Do Us Part,” Madonna alludes to an abusive marriage: “She takes the keys, he breaks the door / She cannot stay here anymore.” There’s also “Promise to Try,” where she “has an imaginary conversation with her mother, her voice husky with emotion,” as O’Brien puts it. “Promise to Try” wasn’t given a video, but it backgrounds a famous scene in Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991) where the star visits her mother’s grave.
There was one more video from Like a Prayer, and I truthfully didn’t think much of it until learning its origin story. One day, back when the title track was being written, producer Pat Leonard — with whom Madonna had been collaborating since True Blue — didn’t show up for work on time. He’d gotten held up retrieving his young daughter, Jessie, from school. Madonna was annoyed until he arrived at the studio with Jessie in tow, at which point the star “struck up a rapport” with her. “It was […] as if I was my mother and Jessie was me,” Madonna later said. “We were playing in our backyard again.” Madonna was still seven years away from becoming a mother, yet she was already picturing herself in a maternal role. “I would love to have a child,” she told Rolling Stone around this time, adding that it was “definitely up high on the list of things to do.” At some point before Madonna and Jessie’s meeting, Leonard had written a song for the latter, which he’d appropriately called “Dear Jessie.” He offered it to Madonna to record for Like a Prayer; some changes were made, but it was ultimately finished within 72 hours. As O’Brien notes, the track is a “sugary lullaby” addressed to a child, with Madonna “summoning up a psychedelic fairy-tale landscape where pink elephants roam with dancing moons and mermaids.” The video was outsourced to the London-based Animation City, where it was directed by the company’s co-founder, Derek Hayes. Madonna appears as a Tinkerbell-like character and only in a handful of shots, with the majority devoted to the other animated creatures who lull the titular Jessie to sleep.
There’s clearly nothing in the sonic or visual design of “Dear Jessie” that would lead one to think it’s about something like loss, let alone death. My intention isn’t to change that so much as point out that Madonna Sr. played more of a role in its creation than might be obvious. Aside from the memory of Madonna’s cited above, Like a Prayer was dedicated to her mother, and she frequently came up in interviews about the album. That included Madonna recalling that the Ciccone children “really tortured her when she was sick, because we wanted her to play with us. […] We picked on her all the time because we just didn’t understand.” With all due respect to Jessie, what was so special about her that she got her own song on an album that Madonna described as being “about my mother, my father and bonds with my family”? Perhaps hanging out with her — and enshrining that hangout on the album — tempered those more difficult memories of her mother, if only the tiniest bit. There’s also the ordering of the album’s track list: not only does “Dear Jessie” precede “Oh Father,” the violins from the outro of the former very loosely carry over to the intro of the latter. It’s no perfect match, but they’re the only songs on Like a Prayer that use this sort of instrumentation. “Dear Jessie” doesn’t allude to Madonna Sr. as obviously as something like “Oh Father,” but there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that she was equally top of mind during its production.
Later, as Madonna approached 10 years in music, she contributed “This Used to Be My Playground” to the soundtrack for A League of Their Own, in which she also starred. The song (alongside Alex Keshishian’s video) matches the film’s mood perfectly, but it seems to have been at least partly inspired by the challenge of letting Madonna Sr. go. “Wishing you were here with me,” Madonna sings at its end, echoing numerous times that she’s expressed the same sentiment regarding her mother. It was recorded in between sessions for Erotica, which came out several months later. The scandal of the Sex book eclipsed much of the album’s subversiveness, but the latter was nevertheless promoted through five videos: Fabien Baron’s BDSM-themed “Erotica,” Bobby Woods’s star-studded “Deeper and Deeper,” Fincher’s “Bad Girl” (a Wings of Desire-inspired video in which Madonna is murdered by a one-night stand), Stéphane Sednaoui’s trippy “Fever,” and Mark Romanek’s “Rain” (the song that Julia leaves blasting in Howard’s apartment in Uncut Gems).
Erotica’s videos weren’t altogether as sexual as the album’s title intimated. To a greater extent, they were profound, even somber at times. As Barry Walters argued for Rolling Stone in 2017, “Sex and Erotica’s greatest contribution remains their embrace of the Other. […] Madonna took what was marginalized at the worst of the AIDS epidemic […] and shoved it into the mainstream for all to see and hear.” She lost several friends to the disease, mourning some on the song “In This Life”: “Have you ever watched your best friend die? / Have you ever watched a grown man cry?” I poked fun at her earlier for talking about her mother on the album’s press tour, but the truth is that it was conceived during an awful time, one that may have reminded her of her childhood to some extent. It’s worth considering how the death of Madonna Sr. went on to inform the way that Madonna has processed other losses throughout her life.
DECADE II: “THE POWER OF GOOD-BYE”
It sounds silly now, but Madonna’s image needed salvaging after Erotica and the Sex book. As Matthew Jacobs wrote for HuffPost in 2017, “In [the public’s] eyes, Madonna, who already faced accusations of overexposure following a decade of chart-topping provocations, had crossed the line.” She spent the next couple of years defending — some might say answering for — the two projects. “I feel I’ve been misunderstood,” she told the L.A. Times in 1994. “I tried to make a statement about feeling good about yourself and exploring your sexuality, but people took it to mean that everyone should go out and have sex with everyone.” She’d do four things before the end of the millennium that steered her brand in a more palatable, if still bold, direction.
First, she released her sixth studio album, Bedtime Stories (1994), calling it “a combination of pop, R&B, hip-hop and a Madonna record” and adding that it was “very, very romantic.” It’s tempting to read it as a corrective to Erotica, but Jean-Baptiste Mondino’s “Human Nature” video clarified that she had “absolutely no regrets” about that era. Otherwise, there was Melodie McDaniels’s Harlem-centric “Secret,” Michael Haussman’s “Take a Bow” (another plain reference to violence at the hands of a partner), and Mark Romanek’s surrealistic “Bedtime Story.” These videos didn’t shy away from sex but arguably attenuated it with dramatic narratives and fine art references. Second, there was Something to Remember (1995), a compilation album featuring Madonna’s best ballads. Included on it was “I’ll Remember” from the soundtrack for With Honors, which had come out the previous year. (Its director, Truth or Dare’s Alex Keshishian, also directed the video.) As with “This Used to Be My Playground” from A League of Their Own, “I’ll Remember” fit the film it was written for but seemed more than a little influenced by Madonna Sr.’s absence. That said, it was lyrically a lot more optimistic: “I’ll remember / The strength that you gave me / Now that I’m standing on my own.”
Third, there was Evita, in which Madonna played Eva Perón. Her performance was largely praised, a rarity for her in the 16 features she’d been in. (She ultimately won a Golden Globe for the role.) Given the focus of this essay, it’s worth mentioning that Perón died of terminal cancer at the age of 33. Madonna kept a diary during production that was published in Vanity Fair’s November 1996 issue, about a month before the film’s release. Among other things, the diary reveals that she thought of Madonna Sr. often while on set: “I kept thinking about how my mother must have felt with my father when he told her that she was dying. And how she stayed so cheerful and never gave in to her sadness even at the end.” Lastly, Madonna had discovered during production that she was expecting a baby with then-boyfriend Carlos Leon. She gave birth to her first child, Lourdes (aka Lola), just before the Vanity Fair story hit newsstands. Motherhood had, as we know, been an interest of hers for some time, and her next project suggested that she was finding the experience nothing less than spiritual.
Ray of Light (1998) has often been described as Madonna’s most “reflective” album (not to mention her most culturally appropriative one). Released almost a decade after Like a Prayer, it indicated that she was thinking about many of the same things — joy, motherhood, loss, spirituality. The difference now was that she was a mother herself. “Becoming [one] seemed to spark off a revelation about her own mother and the effect of her death,” writes O’Brien.
On “Mer Girl,” Madonna describes running “From my mother who haunts me, even though she’s gone / From my daughter that never sleeps.” Some of the album’s videos were on the edgier side, like Chris Cunningham’s “Frozen” and Walter Stern’s “Drowned World / Substitute for Love.” (Many critics read the latter upon its release as referencing the late Princess of Wales, who’d died in a car accident while fleeing paparazzi the year prior. Madonna got to meet Diana at one point, reportedly giving her advice on how to handle fame, and was equal parts “devastated” and “enraged” by her death. She described a sort of survivor’s guilt when asked about it: “I have been chased through that same tunnel so many times that I have lost count.”) At the complete opposite end of the spectrum was Jonas Åkerlund’s vivacious “Ray of Light.” Johan Renck’s “Nothing Really Matters,” in which Madonna is dressed as a geisha, sat somewhere between the two poles.
Also in the middle was “The Power of Good-Bye,” which meditates on the dissolution of a romantic relationship. Directed by Matthew Rolston, the video blends two very different film references: the chess scene from The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison’s original) and the ending of Humoresque. The latter reference warrants a closer look. Humoresque is a drama about a doomed couple that ends with Joan Crawford’s character, Helen, tearfully walking into the sea in an evening gown. “The Power of Good-Bye” recreates this moment — practically shot for shot — with Madonna taking Helen’s place. It was a rather depressing choice to premiere right before the MTV VMAs in 1998. Sure, Madonna and Leon had gone their separate ways the year prior, but did the split really warrant such morbidness? What was death doing in this breakup video?
In 1995, Madonna had sat down with Primetime’s Forrest Sawyer to talk about her then-recent projects, including Evita. “Describe [Eva Perón] for me,” Sawyer orders her relatively early in the interview. They go back and forth about the traits that Madonna finds most compelling — desperate, misunderstood, generous, driven. “She was… a little hurt by life?” Sawyer asks. “Hugely hurt,” Madonna responds. “Does this sound familiar at all to you?” “Yes, of course.” She laughs nervously, realizing that he’s more interested in her personal life than the film. There are 30 or so seconds where she does her best to regain control of the interview until he finally goes for it: “Why do you feel hurt by life?” “Why am I so hurt?” Madonna asks, almost rhetorically. “I think […] losing my mother at a very young age was a devastating experience. And I really did feel completely abandoned at that point in my life, and I’m sure […] that has influenced every decision that I’ve made, and left me with a hunger, a longing, a feeling of emptiness. You sort of grow up being afraid to love things because they’re gonna leave you.” Her eyes have welled up with tears by this point, but she never sheds a single one.
Biographies of Madonna have often linked her relationship woes — platonic as well as romantic — to the loss of her mother, but this was a rare moment where she actually vocalized the connection herself. It adds an interesting layer to her breakup songs, and the ones about losing people more generally. Entertainment Tonight was given an exclusive look at the set of “The Power of Good-Bye.” When Madonna was asked on camera what it was about, she replied, “Breaking up with someone, the power of goodbye… or letting someone go.” That postscript suggests that she believes there to be power in saying goodbye in various contexts, not just romantic ones. The Humoresque reference implies that Madonna considers breakups a kind of death — or, at the very least, that she was thinking about the two things in tandem while putting the video together. Throw in the fact that the song’s lyrics are relatively vague in terms of their addressee, and it’s entirely possible that her experience of losing her mother — and learning to find power in that loss — helped her write it. In the end, the video makes a crucial change to the ending of Humoresque: Madonna makes it as far as the water’s edge, but chooses to sit down on the beach rather than drown herself, seemingly at peace with her loss.
Madonna released singles from Ray of Light until 1999, the same year she met future husband Guy Ritchie. By the end of 2000, she’d given birth to her second child, Rocco; married Ritchie; and put out her eighth studio album, Music (2000). Though Madonna adopted a cowgirl image for its rollout and there was a folky bent to its sound, it’s probably more accurate to call it an electronica album. Only three videos were released to promote it: Åkerlund’s somewhat convoluted “Music,” Mondino’s “Don’t Tell Me” (the only dance video from the album and arguably its best), and Ritchie’s MTV-banned “What It Feels Like For a Girl.” (In the latter, which was thankfully Ritchie’s sole contribution to Madonna’s videography, she goes on a violent rampage with an elderly woman after picking her up from a nursing home. Their relationship is never explained, so some fans have interpreted the woman as a stand-in for Madonna’s mother.) The family settled into a mansion in the English countryside not too long after the release of Music, officially kicking off Madonna’s “lady-of-the-manor” phase.
DECADE III: “HUNG UP”
Madonna started working on her ninth and most divisive studio album, American Life (2003), shortly after 9/11. As Chuck Arnold argued for Billboard in 2018, Madonna “was very much still in risk-taking mode” following the success of Ray of Light and Music. A lot of American Life spoke to her disillusionment with American culture and politics, but it was equally about herself, namely her fame and her family. On the quirky “Mother and Father,” she candidly sings (and raps!) about her parents: “Oh mother, why aren’t you here with me? / No one else saw the things that you could see / I’m trying hard to dry my tears / Yes father, you know I’m not so free.” Just as she did in her 1995 Primetime interview, she also links her childhood trauma to her trouble maintaining relationships as an adult: “I made a vow that I would never need / Another person ever / Turned my heart into a cage / A victim of a kind of rage.”
The first video of the American Life era was technically the Traktor-directed “Die Another Day,” which helped to promote the James Bond film of the same name in 2002. (Madonna makes a brief cameo as fencing instructor Verity.) Combining torture and religious imagery, it remains the second most expensive music video of all time. Four months later, Madonna and Jonas Åkerlund filmed an extremely violent anti-war video for American Life’s title track, which was set to be its first official single. Just as it was about to be released, however, the United States began its invasion of Iraq. It was subsequently pulled and replaced with a more toned-down “American Life” video (also directed by Åkerlund) that came out in mid-April. Enough word had already gotten out about the original video that Madonna was accused of being “downright un-American”; it didn’t help that she was spending most of her time in the United Kingdom. American Life’s final two videos — Jean-Baptiste Mondino’s “Hollywood” and Luc Besson’s extremely Luc Besson-y “Love Profusion” — were generally more well-received, but it ultimately became the lowest-selling album of Madonna’s career at that point.
After “Love Profusion,” Madonna and Besson began collaborating on a never-finished musical film project in 2004. (He has in recent years been accused of sexual misconduct or assault by nine women.) Its plot revolved around “a woman on her deathbed looking back at the life she thought she had lived but, due to senility and amnesia, didn’t actually experience.” Madonna was working on music inspired by various eras for the project, including songs “from the Twenties, big-band stuff from the Forties, Sixties folk music à la Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, punk, and music from now.” The film was abandoned after Madonna read and “hated” Besson’s script. “After so much work, I was kind of devastated,” she told Rolling Stone in 2005. “But I loved the song ‘Hung Up.’ So I thought ‘Let’s just keep writing in this direction and see what happens.’” What happened was Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005), a largely disco-inspired album with its tracks “segued together, so that one runs seamlessly into the next.” For the lead single, “Hung Up,” Madonna formally asked ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson if she could sample “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” The pair is notorious for declining such requests — they’d previously only ever said yes to the Fugees — so Madonna sent her “emissary” to Sweden “with a letter and the record begging them” for the sample. They ultimately agreed, with Andersson explaining to The Daily Telegraph that he and Ulvaeus were fans.
Things were finally looking good, with the album’s release set for mid-November of 2005. Then, while celebrating her 47th birthday in August, Madonna was thrown from an “unfamiliar horse” and seriously injured. She broke eight bones, including her hand, her collarbone, and some ribs. Rolling Stone called the accident “a wake-up call to her own vulnerability.” (They also dubbed it “her first experience with mortality,” but you can probably imagine if you’ve read this far that I don’t agree.) The video shoot for “Hung Up” was scheduled for October, by which point her bones wouldn’t be fully healed. This posed a serious problem, since the planned video was a tribute to John Travolta’s dance films, taking inspiration from Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and Perfect. Madonna, however, seemed unfazed: asked how she was going to dance with a damaged collarbone, she replied, “Watch me. I’m going to invent some new dance move that doesn’t use the bad bits. I’m still a tough girl.” Many people are familiar with “Hung Up” — it’s one of the best-selling singles of all time — but it isn’t common knowledge that Madonna was a mess of broken bones during its video shoot. (Note that she feigns a collarbone adjustment at 0:24.) David LaChapelle had dropped out of directing the video after he and Madonna couldn’t agree on its creative concept, at which point Johan Renck took over. After the shoot, Renck told MTV News that Madonna had been “a trooper” but that it was obviously difficult for her: “When she said ‘it hurts like fuck,’ she’d take a break and sit down for two minutes.”
It’s intriguing that “Hung Up” came out of a discarded project in which Madonna was going to play a woman at the end of her life. It arguably gives us a sense of the headspace she was in when she began work on Confessions on a Dance Floor, and might explain why her lyrics sometimes make her sound like someone with nothing left to give. On “How High,” she asks, “Should I carry on? / Will it matter when I’m gone? / Does it make a difference? / Will any of this matter?” To a much greater degree, though, the album presents a woman obsessed with being alive, one who didn’t intend to retire or disappear anytime soon — even if many people wanted her to. On “Like it Or Not,” she sings, “You can love me or leave me / ‘Cause I’m never gonna stop.”
Madonna’s biographers have often connected her zest for life to — wait for it — the death of her mother. O’Brien argues that the loss imbued her with a “lifelong aversion to weakness,” citing it as a defining force behind everything from her ambition to her famously intense exercise regimens. (This is a woman who kicked off every night of her Re-Invention World Tour in 2004 by hitting a series of Ashtanga yoga poses.) “If her mother’s body failed her, Madonna would make sure she was in peak physical condition,” O’Brien writes. “She chose dance, not just as her primary means of expression but also as a way of exhibiting physical strength and stamina, feeling alive and rooted in the present.” It sounds like a reach, but Madonna has actually said this: “Her death had a lot to do with me saying — after I got over my heartache — I’m going to be really strong if I can’t have my mother. I’m going to take care of myself.” Following through with the original “Hung Up” treatment would’ve been at least partly about not wanting to derail the album’s release, but Madonna is also known to be someone who’d rather dance with eight broken bones than let the world see her vulnerable. (She has recently made headlines for cancelling a handful of shows on her Madame X Tour due to injury, precisely because she has almost never done that in 35 years of touring.) The remainder of Confessions on a Dance Floor’s videos similarly highlighted her body and all the things it could do, from Jamie King’s “Sorry” (a sequel of sorts to “Hung Up”), to Åkerlund’s “Jump” (parkour!), to Logan’s rather forgettable “Get Together.”
By the end of the aughts, Madonna had divorced Ritchie; adopted two kids, David Banda and Mercy James; and released her eleventh studio album, Hard Candy (2008). The latter came with Jonas & François’s video for “4 Minutes” (featuring Justin Timberlake), Tom Munro and David Rissman’s “Give It 2 Me” (featuring Pharrell), and Rissman’s “Miles Away.” The album did well commercially, but neither it nor her next one, MDNA (2012), seemed to have anything all that interesting to say. MDNA was released not too long after Madonna’s Super Bowl performance, and was promoted through Megaforce’s “Give Me All Your Luvin’” (featuring Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.), Mert and Marcus’s “Girl Gone Wild,” and Munro’s Florence-shot “Turn Up the Radio.” While Madonna’s name had previously been synonymous with gutsy visuals, fans arguably hadn’t seen anything fitting that bill — with the exception of maybe “Girl Gone Wild” — in years.
DECADE IV: “GOD CONTROL”
As of 2013, the world has been witness to Madonna’s fourth decade in music. She released her thirteenth studio album, Rebel Heart (2015), to significantly better reception than her previous two. It had a lot more to offer visually, even if not everything about its videos worked. There was J.A.C.K.’s matador-inspired “Living For Love” and Jonas Åkerlund’s celebrity-cameo-heavy “Bitch I’m Madonna.” Åkerlund also directed the post-apocalyptic “Ghosttown,” in which Madonna is nearly killed by Terrence Howard before tangoing with him instead. The song is about rebuilding after “this world has turned to dust,” something that Madonna has arguably had to do several times in her life. The video takes place in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster, with Madonna surrounded by a crucifix and photographs of her family. There’s even one of Madonna Sr., which makes “Ghosttown” the only video in Madonna’s entire videography where her actual mother — not someone playing her, not her ghost — makes an appearance. Critics seemed to collectively agree that Rebel Heart was Madonna’s best album since Confessions; she’d finally, after quite a few speed bumps, found her groove in the digital age.
In 2017, Madonna adopted two more kids, twins Estere and Stella. This officially made her responsible for six, just as her own mother had been. In a New York Times profile published last June, Vanessa Grigoriadis connected Madonna losing her mother to her desire to be a great one: “It was almost a matter of reversing the historical record, making good on the promise of her own mother before she was snatched away.” Alas, when David Banda shared his “aspirations of being a professional footballer,” Madonna moved to Portugal so he could train at a top academy. “I went to Lisbon to be a soccer mom,” she told MTV last April. “I found myself just going to school and picking up kids and going to soccer matches. […] I got a little depressed and thought, ‘I’ve got to make friends and […] meet people.’” She befriended some local artists who introduced her to fado, morna, and samba music, all of which influenced her most recent studio album, Madame X (2019).
The project has been a real full circle moment for Luis, my trusty Madonna superfan. As he told me during our call, “To take that influence of my country and my people and our music and sort of manifest it into something that’s so beautiful and current — with some electronic flavour to it — was just beyond.” He once memorized Madonna’s songs in her language, and now she’s singing in his.
There have only been three singles for Madame X, but that hasn’t stopped Madonna from releasing videos for six of its songs: Diana Kunst and Mau Morgó’s “Medellín” (featuring Maluma), Peter Matkiwsky’s protest video “I Rise,” Emmanuel Adjei’s haunting “Batuka” and the Joan of Arc-inspired “Dark Ballet,” Nuno Xico’s “Crave” (featuring Swae Lee), and Åkerlund’s “God Control.” The Madame X era harkens back to the American Life one, especially with Madonna laying into the United States from abroad. “God Control” is the most direct example of this. Proceeding in reverse-chronological order, its video depicts a mass shooting at a nightclub, where a blond Madonna had been partying with Monét X Change, Gigi Gorgeous, and Sofia Boutella. Interspersed are shots of a brown-haired Madonna (as her alter ego, Madame X) typewriting the song’s lyrics at her desk. There are clear allusions to both Studio 54 — where Madonna partied as a young woman — and the 2016 Pulse shooting. The video is made all the more jarring by the fact that the song itself is a disco track with a recurring Tom Tom Club-like rap interlude. (Its approach isn’t altogether dissimilar from that of the scrapped “American Life” video that Madonna and Åkerlund made together in 2003.)
While the song was a highlight of Madame X for many critics, the immediate reaction to the video last June was largely negative. It was denounced by several high-profile survivors of gun violence, including X González, whose voice had been sampled for “I Rise.” (A tweet from the official March For Our Lives account nevertheless thanked Madonna for “using [her] platform, speaking out, and creating this call to action.”) Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf thoughtfully criticized the video, saying that he appreciated the message — graphic delivery and all — but that Madonna had effectively “[used] Pulse as a prop” in not involving any survivors or explicitly naming the massacre.
“God Control” isn’t Madonna’s best-executed political statement, but I’m less interested in whether it’s ‘good’ and more interested in its influences. I’m not about to argue that it’s secretly about losing Madonna Sr. to breast cancer, so don’t worry. But it’s arguably worth considering how that formative loss — and subsequent losses in Madonna’s life — may have seeped in, just as in the previous videos I’ve discussed.
Take, for instance, the artwork for Madame X, in which the album’s title is stitched across Madonna’s lips. In her New York Times profile, Grigoriadis wrote that the cover “reminded me of an indelible autobiographical image from [Fincher’s “Oh Father” video]: a little girl attending a funeral and walking up to her mother’s corpse, then realizing that the mortuary had stitched her lips together.” A month after the profile was published, Madonna seemed to confirm that she’d had Madonna Sr. in mind while designing the artwork. “This particular photograph, you might find it strange that I put this on the cover, but this is what my mother looks like,” she told a crowd at iHeartRadio’s “The Box.” “I sent this photograph to my sister, Melanie, and she was like, ‘Oh my God, you look like Mom. That’s so weird.’ So anyway, I’m representing her.” Madonna Sr. isn’t namechecked on Madame X, but she appears to have inspired the alter ego, if only aesthetically. Madonna’s hair in the “God Control” video looks strikingly like that of her mother in photos that exist online.
The response to “God Control” suggested that Madonna is perceived as being outside the issue of gun violence. This completely ignores the fact that guns have killed multiple people close to her, but aside from that, is it really possible to be outside the issue if you’re American? If you’re the mother of six children, four of whom are currently school-aged? If your scary first husband was a known firearm aficionado, at one point owning a nearly 65-piece collection? On a more basic level, Madonna knows what it’s like to have a loved one ripped away unexpectedly, whether from cancer, or AIDS, or drugs, or heart failure. She’s also intimately familiar with the frustration that comes from losing someone and not being able to do a thing about it. Her anger is palpable throughout “God Control,” as when she slams her fists down on her typewriter at 5:59. In some ways, the video takes all the roles that Madonna has played in her career — including but not limited to the dancing queen, the activist, the bereaved daughter/friend, the maternal figure to the LGBTQ+ community — and channels them into Madame X.
Writing this essay confirmed a few of my early hypotheses — that Madonna has lost more people than most, that she has channelled nearly all of those losses into her work, that her known interest in religion and spirituality has often allowed her to do that without being seen as morbid. But I’d been slower to realize something essential.
These four videos that I’ve discussed in the context of death are all actually about carrying on in the face of it — outsmarting it, even. “Dear Jessie” spins an upsetting memory about loss into a children’s lullaby. “The Power of Good-Bye” has Madonna choose life in a literal sense, learning from grief instead of wallowing in it. “Hung Up” is a celebration of endurance, both physical and professional. The reverse chronology of “God Control” has the effect of bringing the dead back to life. Each of these videos exemplifies a philosophy that Madonna lays out in the second verse of “Ghosttown”: “This world has turned to dust / All we’ve got left is love / Might as well start with us / Singing a new song, something to build on.” Among her many talents is an impressive ability to turn hardships into chart-toppers, to sing and dance her way out of the dark. That’s why it feels apt that she recites Ezekiel 25:17 in Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman” video. Ariana explained the feature by arguing that Madonna made it possible for her to “make a song like that,” but it’s also true that Sweetener (2018) was conceived in the aftermath of an unthinkable tragedy. On “Get Well Soon” from the album, Ariana sings, “So deal with it, don’t try to get by it / Ain’t no time to deny it / So we had to sit down and just write it.” Regardless of whether it was done intentionally, in reaching out to Madonna, she’d enlisted an artist who’s long had a knack for making art as a way of “pickin’ it up.”
Madonna has now lived more than twice as long as her mother. And as the Ciccone child who was given her name — to say nothing of the Biblical connotations of that name — it’s clear that she’s always felt a responsibility to live the life that her mother never got to. The fact that Madonna Sr.’s story is so unfortunately tied to her mortality makes Madonna Jr. all the more interested not just in survival but in immortality. She often suggests as much in the context of her creative output, as she did in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone: “In some respects I will never die. Because art is immortal. What we leave behind and what we create — the energy that we put out into the world is eternal.” The logic goes that whatever happens to Madonna “the human being made of flesh and blood,” nothing can touch Madonna the icon. As she told Vice while promoting Rebel Heart, “I want to live forever and I’m going to.”
If you enjoyed this essay, you might also enjoy my newsletter.