I’ve been in a bit of a groove lately reading about badly behaved women. I have to admit I didn’t really know much about Madonna the person. I grew up in the 80s and 90s so of course I knew her music. Like a Virgin was released when I was nine years old, and I know I was familiar with Madonna at least by then. I know this because one day I asked my big sister, “What’s a virgin?” She scowled and asked me who told me that word. And when I said, “you know, like in that song” she softened, and came up with what, in hindsight, was a great answer to a nine-year-old. “Oh. A virgin is someone who’s new to something.” It would only be a few more years before I sorted out new to what exactly.

One thing I enjoy about biographies is that you almost can’t read one without sort of falling in love with the subject. This connects to something very deep and beautiful about humanity, this idea that we can’t help but love someone more the more we come to understand them. If only we didn’t need to study them first. If only we could have more faith in one another. More trust of one another. Anselm of Canterbury famously said credo ut intelligam, “I believe so that I may understand.” If only. But I’ve lost track of what I’m talking about. Madonna.

I grew up in Indiana to mostly liberal parents in the heart of conservative America, and in the thick of the AIDS crisis. Which is to say Madonna was, for the most part, a villain in the cultural mind of my surroundings. And I’m a bit of a prude, so her provocateur nature made me uncomfortable in my younger years. Only later in life did I come to admire her. I remember believing her film, Truth or Dare was some mysterious and dangerous thing. I watched it last week, and it is honestly tame, and very good. (I’m told at the time what made it so provocative was a quick scene of two men kissing, which was something most Americans had never seen in any form, let alone in a movie. How times change.)

At any rate, I’ve gained a new appreciation not just for the woman, but for her unapologetic provocation, and for her music too. She was determined, unrelenting, and challenging, and the world needed her. And to my taste, her most recent album, Madame X is a mad work of genius. I can’t get enough of it. And two weeks ago I’d somehow never heard any of it.

Norman Mailer called Madonna, “a pint-sized [Italian woman] with a heart built out of the cast-iron balls of a hundred peasant ancestors.” He also called her “the greatest living female artist” (and he meant “artist” not “music artist”). I came away from this thorough biography feeling like he may be on to something. I wasn’t clued into her music enough to realize how inventive she is. As I read, I listened. It really is remarkable how thoroughly she has re-invented her music time and again. And I think this is key to her longevity (that and a steadfast refusal to go gently…) A media big-whig put it this way:

She’s incapable of doing anything that’s not interesting. If she’s in a photograph, it’s interesting. If she sings a song, it’s interesting. Her videos—all interesting. Barry Diller, CEO of Fox

Most biographies end with a death, and in a sense this one did too. As her age finally catches up with her, it becomes clear she’ll never really perform again, at least not in the way that made her so special. It left me feeling a little sad. But more than anything, reading about her life made me respect her.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from Extreme Occident on the album Madam X. It says it better than I can.

The thing that hurt the most

Was that I wasn’t lost

I wasn’t lost

No, I wasn’t lost

It was a different feeling

A mix of lucidity and craziness

But I wasn’t lost, believe me

I was right