It’s 2019, and a strong case could be made that Madonna has released the most compelling music video of any major American pure pop artist so far this year. On one hand, that shouldn’t be too controversial a statement. Madonna is a master of the form (indeed, she probably wouldn’t have become a global superstar without her compelling visuals). Her reflexes are still sharp, and the tricks of the trade she employs still bear fruit. In short, she very much knows what she’s doing.
On the other hand, her “Medellín” video, featuring Colombian star Maluma, isn’t going to be mistaken by anyone for her career best. Nor is it likely you could point to any objective measure as proof of its superiority. The project certainly isn’t going to be the most viewed music video of the week, and while the song is already at number one on Billboard‘s Latin Digital Song Sales chart, it may not reach her past heights. Madonna’s fans are extremely loyal (her tour ticket sales are still notoriously strong, and we likely won’t see her camp out in Vegas for some time), but they aren’t the type to put a YouTube video on repeat for hours at a time to inflate views, nor try to get people to download the song on Twitter with fake Starbucks promotions. They’re mostly adults. They have jobs. That’s how they afford those concert tickets.
Still, Madonna knows how to procure a fresh and unique visual. Spanish multimedia artists Diana Kunst & Mau Morgo directed the video, and their only previous exploits in the medium are two videos for Rosalia and one for A$AP Rocky and FKA Twigs. There’s also the fact that she knows what to do when a camera is on her. Go back through her video filmography and you’ll notice most of her videos include at least one setup where Madonna is secluded, usually just up against a random wall or background, and left to improvise through dance and general vamping (indeed, that’s the entire strategy behind at least a few of her more cheaply produced videos). Here, the vamping takes place with Maluma on a bed. She ends up licking his toes in a moment that didn’t seem preplanned. It’s weird, but it’s also classic Madonna. Even with all the stylistic flares, Madonna can still one-up any other aspect of the video just by being herself.
Whether through the bulging screen of an ’80s TV set or your MacBook Air, Madonna has a way of grabbing your eye through a screen and staring you down mischievously until you get the sense that this lady could do anything by the time the five-minute music video is up. Then she usually does it. That’s why she’s a star.
Compare that to this week’s other major pop music video, Taylor Swift’s Brendon Urie–assisted comeback “Me!”
The 29-year-old’s candy-colored video looks like it takes place inside whatever goes on inside children’s entertainer JoJo Siwa’s ponytailed head. It’s been compared to an already warmed-over Instagram aesthetic, and perhaps the nicest way to describe the video is that it’s the product of someone who heard La La Land was loosely inspired by the French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and then decided Jacques Demy’s classic should be rebooted as a Disney Channel Original Movie. It probably leaves anyone who has ever filed a tax return feeling limp. Some have even theorized that Swift is intentionally targeting YouTube’s powerful toddler demographic with the video. Hey, those view stats for “Baby Shark” are no joke.
Whatever the case, in just four minutes and eight seconds, the video manages to obscure any sense of authenticity, growing sophistication, or personal complications Swift had accrued. It’s not a reinvention. It’s a retreat.
Swift’s fellow millennial pop icons haven’t done much better in 2019. Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” and “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” were serviceable compared to her arguably superior songs, but certainly weren’t aesthetically classic. Former Fifth Harmony girls Normani and Lauren Jauregui show promise, but aren’t fully formed as solo artists just yet. Same for Ava Max. One wishes Ciara, ever a slept-on talent, got more money for her “Greatest Love” video.
If Lady Gaga, Rihanna, or Beyoncé had dropped music videos this year, perhaps we wouldn’t be having this conversation. To be sure, there are still lots of artists working outside of the mainstream concept of pop super stardom who have made great visuals this year (Solange’s PhotoBooth-shot “Binz” video is transfixing in its confidence and intimacy). And there’s also a whole of 2019 left.
Still, if Madonna invented the career framework for the modern pop star, she serves as useful ruler to compare others. It just doesn’t bode well for our general cultural evolution that she’s still the one leading the pack.