She is the undisputed queen of the pop reinvention, and Madonna’s latest incarnation as a Latin-inspired cowgirl bride on horseback is pleasingly off-the-wall.
The flashy video for her new single ‘Medellín’ (which features Colombian reggaeton star Maluma on vocals) is understandably grabbing all the headlines, but underneath the bluster lurks a remarkably subtle and simple pop song, a neat method for Madonna to introduce us to the next phase of her chameleonic career.
So, please brace yourself for an uncomfortable truth: Madonna’s singing voice is technically quite unremarkable.
This has, despite a career packed with culturally indelible hits, always been the case. As such, it has always been necessary for her vocal parts to remain both simple and comfortable. Crucially, it seems that Madonna herself has understood this, and taken appropriate action. She has quietened herself.
On previous hits, she would pretty much just bowl straight through the whole song without thinking too much about volume control. ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Like A Virgin’, ‘Ray Of Light’, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’: all of these are effectively sung at an almost constant volume, even when the arrangements around her voice grow and shrink.
So on ‘Medellín’, even during the song’s chorus when you might expect her to sing up a bit, it’s refreshing to hear Madge’s voice remain coy, even incidental, just another colour in the song’s palette. She even whispers the 'cha-cha-cha' dance instructions.
It’s actually left to Madonna’s co-star, Maluma, to provide a lot of the vocal interest. His half-sung, half-spoken contributions display more technique than Madonna’s, but the two of them have obviously agreed that, on this occasion, less is more. There are no histrionics, no clattering vocal runs or overworked melismas, just simple motifs and melodies, sung quite sensibly.
His interstitial chatting is whispered, just like Madonna’s counting, and he only rarely raises the volume of his voice any higher than that. Similarly, his rhythmically machine-like delivery is characterfully plain, restrained and actually rather graceful.
Here’s an oft-repeated maxim of the perfect pop composition: the simpler the song, the catchier it is. If that’s the case, then ‘Medellín’ is, on paper at least, potentially one of the catchiest pop songs ever written.
There are just three (count ‘em) recognisable chords in the whole song: A flat major, G flat major, F flat minor. And while they’re not the most pleasant or comfortable for a pianist, that there are literally only three of them effectively puts the song on the same level of nightmarish catchiness as ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.
Pair that simplicity with Madonna’s surprisingly sensitive vocals and you have a far quieter pop song that you might expect for a highly-anticipated megastar return, a mood piece that has more in common with a Philip Glass miniature than it does with the souped-up reggaeton of ‘Despacito’.
Just when it seemed that the resurgence of Latin-flavoured pop music had peaked with Justin Bieber’s omnipresent remix of the Luis Fonsi original, it took an artist of Madonna’s experience to prove that, in the mainstream, there is still more to be done with this generic niche.
If Madonna’s latest reinvention of herself continues to display this much sensitivity, it could be one of her most interesting incarnations yet.