Bruce Springsteen and Madonna have new albums out — and that’s nice for the millions who still love Bruce Springsteen and Madonna. What about the other billions of sentient listeners out there? These two deities of American song are currently scheduled to live forever, but in the 21st century their new music feels culty and peripheral. Turns out, even for superstars drawing breath at the highest levels, certain pop-laws just can’t be violated. Mass culture always becomes subculture. Like a ripple in the water, the center becomes the fringe.
Springsteen and Madonna are wise enough to know this, so instead of trying to win new congregants, they sing to the faithful. It isn’t quite “fan service,” or whatever you want to call the dark art of appeasement. Instead, they’ve each created albums that don’t seem aware of just how strange they are. His is called “Western Stars,” and it’s crowded with sweeping strings and cartoon tumbleweeds. Hers is called “Madame X,” and it’s jammed with motley rhythms and confused virtue. His goes down way too easy — especially when he sings about trains, horses and “a chain-link fence rusting away.” Hers goes down way too hard — especially when she sings about wokeness, Supreme hoodies and “positive vibes.”
For both Bruce and Madonna, all this strange work sounds strenuous, probably because they each have such massive legacies to uphold. Madonna once gave shape to pop’s future (Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, etc.) while Springsteen once gave shape to rock’s past (Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, etc.). Their blazing comet tails crossed on MTV back in 1984, when they were each setting the zeitgeist to melody with indelible hits (“Like a Virgin,” “Born in the U.S.A.”). But whereas those songs seemed to bloom into the world out of absolute necessity, the ditties on “Madame X” and “Western Stars” seem content to exist quietly inside their own terrariums.
Both albums start auspiciously enough. Madonna recounts a beautiful drug-dream over a soothing reggaeton pulse: “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.” Meantime, off in the Western sunset, Springsteen sings a friendly melody from the perspective of a happy hitchhiker: “Maps don’t do much for me, friend/ I follow the weather and the wind.” Both songs allude to vast horizons, and the vastness makes for weirdness. Before long, Madonna is swapping awkward rhymes with Quavo of Migos while Bruce is singing along with a string orchestra that he seems to have recruited from a bank commercial.
Obviously, Springsteen and Madonna are both serious pros, hardened and shrewd enough to anticipate the skepticism of passersby. So, on his album’s title track, Springsteen sings from the perspective of a washed-up Hollywood cowboy who gets spotted in a bar as the actor from “that commercial with the credit card.” And on “Looking for Mercy,” Madonna finds herself speaking directly to God, but perhaps the villains of social media, too: “Please don’t criticize/ Please, please sympathize.”
These two could — should? — take these new songbooks straight to Las Vegas, a city where no one criticizes and all major credit cards are accepted. It’s a land of make-believe and make-money where pop stars can stack unfathomable fortunes performing the most-legible, least-disciplined versions of themselves. The big, hammy hook of Springsteen’s “There Goes My Miracle” would go over like crazy in Vegas. Same for Madonna’s “Dark Ballet,” during which our hero’s vocoded voice sings about witch-burning to a melody plucked from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.”
They don’t need the money of Las Vegas, but they could use the shelter. Madonna and Bruce have always been real people with real ears pitched to the real world, but on “Western Stars” and “Madame X,” both suffer from varying degrees of tone-deafness. Springsteen has made a Western-themed album about men struggling to reclaim their dignity in an America that’s slowly fading away. His message for our changing world: Don’t forget about men! As for Madonna, during “Killers That Are Partying,” she makes herself the hero of a song about solidarity: “I will be gay if the gay are burned/ I’ll be Africa if Africa is shut down/ I will be poor if the poor are humiliated/ I’ll be a child if the children are exploited.” And then, “I know what I am, and I know what I’m not.” Is it possible for one of the most famous human beings on the planet to comprehend their incomprehensible privilege?
They think they are part of our reality but they just can’t be. He’s Bruce Springsteen. She’s Madonna. All of the music that they’ve each made over the past 30 years carries at least some of this latent sadness.
And nowadays, Bruce and Madonna sound saddest when they really show us their voices. We hear them best whenever they float a bright note on a long breath. They sound exposed, vulnerable, more like human beings than bronze busts. But how it all lands ultimately depends on what kind of human being you are. Nonbelievers might hear important people making unimportant music. The devout might hear proof that nobody really knows the right way through this life.