Madonna is an artist best known for her chameleon-like qualities. As a shape-shifter within the pop landscape, her decades in the public eye have been a kaleidoscope of different personas, styles and artistic choices. She’s been lauded and criticized ad nauseam for her ability to push people’s buttons, often to successful effect: There’s a reason there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the “Cultural impact of Madonna.” If there’s one thing Madonna isn’t, it’s boring
If there’s one thing Madonna is, however, it’s shockingly out of touch. “World of Madame X,” the artist’s short documentary release detailing her latest album, Madame X, is an overindulgent exercise in excess, a renewed grasp at relevancy from the artist. Rather than being a measured look at her new work or even an interesting retrospective of her multifaceted career, this 23-minute vignette is a testament to how decades at the top of an industry can lead to artistic complacency. After multiple attempts over the years at pushing the bounds of the pop music landscape, Madonna at this point is pushing herself in circles, to cringeworthy effect.
Released in June, Madame X is Madonna’s 14th album and is a testament to her affinity for taking on new traits and characters within her work. In both the film and the various music videos that accompany the album, she assumes multiple personas to suit her different moods. The character of Madame X, then, becomes a catch-all for these changing identities. Under the greater auspices of “bringing light to new places,” Madame X is, in Madonna’s words, “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” and, finally, “a spy in the house of love.”
The Madame X moniker actually has an interesting background; the documentary details how it was given to the artist by Martha Graham, with whom she studied dance in the 1970s and who deemed Madonna ever-changing and unknowable. However, in Madonna’s current interpretation, the idea becomes an exceptionally grandiose way to frame what is a fairly basic pop album — one that is also largely augmented by its features, which include artists such as Maluma, Anitta and Quavo (whom she refers to in the film as “one of the Migos”).
The film was largely shot in Lisbon, Portugal, a central source of inspiration for the singer’s latest release. As Madonna narrates, she moved to the city in order to be a “soccer mom.” Here, her latest record was “born,” influenced by the city’s various musical traditions — among them fado and Cape Verdean styles such as morna and funaná. But throughout the film, this influence feels less like a serious inspiration and more like another means for Madonna to reinvent herself in a parasitic way.
Structurally, director Nuno Xico’s main contribution to the film is his creation of more empty drama in the Madame X world. Xico does little more than interpolate shots of Madonna dancing and making music with other musicians and dancers with clips of the artist in various costumes and fabricated interiors. There is no narrative here beyond a topical trotting-through of the album’s track list and Madonna’s loose interpretations of her songs. The various Portuguese, Angolan and Cape Verdean artists she includes are given little screen time beyond scenes depicting them as Madonna’s vessels of inspiration.
In a similarly off-key fashion, Madonna briefly addresses some of the loose political themes of the album, including (extremely broadly) gun control and fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and of women. Though these sentiments themselves are commendable, there’s nothing concrete behind them, making them feel tacked-on and disingenuous.
At one point, Madonna herself addresses appropriation, though in a roundabout sort of way. She claims: “Art belongs to everyone. It’s not a question of appropriating what other people do and taking it as your own. For me, it’s an homage to all the music I’ve listened to.” However, this take is a stretch considering she is literally taking these various styles of music as her own and has been doing so since the beginning of her career.
This film could have been an opportunity for the artist to critically think about her role in the music world, but it falls flat in this regard. It also feels strange that this documentary, with its focus on the role of Portugal and Portuguese artists in her new work, doesn’t address the fact that her presence in the country has been marred with controversy.
Madonna’s experience in Portugal is an apt metaphor for the “World of Madame X” project as a whole. Much like Madonna’s titular alter ego, this film gives little weight to the nuances of taking on new personas and sounds in the scope of the artist’s work. Rather, Madonna is simply doing what Madonna wants to do, with little thought given to relevancy, appropriation or her role as an artist.