Madonna announced the name her new album today – along with a new alter-ego: both are called Madame X. In a minute-long video teasing the record, Madonna fleshes out her character. If you feel like you’re struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance, spare a thought for the Madame who is apparently “a secret agent, traveling around the world, changing identities, fighting for freedom, bringing light to dark places. She is a dancer, a pressor, a head state, a housekeeper, an equestrian, a prisoner, a student, a mother, a child, a teacher, a nun, a singer, a saint, a whore.” It’s a lot to fit in.
Madonna is not the first to conjure the image a mysterious women with the anonymous name. The title Madame X first gained notoriety in 1884 when John Sargent painted a portrait Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, an American socialite living in Paris. When the final painting, A Portrait Madame X, was displayed, the low cut Gautreau’s dress was seen as scandalous. Parisians turned their noses up at the smut, and it only became a classic after later exhibitions in New York.
Since then the title Madame X has popped up repeatedly in popular culture, mostly famously as an Alexandre Bisson play about a mother whose son is taken from her after it is discovered she is having an extramarital affair. It was also the name cryptology computer used by the US army and a glam metal band.
In the 21st century though, the name has been almost entirely associated with the British DJ Madam (no “e”) X, whose real name is Crissi Vassilakis. Vassilakis has become an important figure in underground dance music over the past five years, founding the influential Kaizen record label.
She says she found the announcement “kinda lame” because she’s spent “eight years building my brand and empire” but hopes it might lead to curious Madonna fans discovering her.
It’s not clear which iteration Madame X inspired Madonna – her publicist didn’t respond to request for comment – but Vassilakis says she was taken by Sargent’s painting and its subject: “I liked the idea this American expat who became famous in Paris for her infidelities and scandals”.
A number artists have expressed displeasure at Madonna’s pilfering an underground artist’s name, including, somewhat ironically, The Black Madonna – a celebrated house DJ from Kentucky, who tweeted at Madam X: “I’m very sorry but also very sure that literally whatever you do next will be better and more widely received than whatever this is. I love Madge but naw.”
Madonna has always taken ideas and sounds from underground music, from “vogueing” in the queer New York ballroom culture the 1980s to the experimental electronic production William Orbit that characterised her record Ray Of Light. She has previously flirted with alter-egos, too: on her Erotica album she assumed the role Mistress Dita, a dominatrix inspired by the German actress Dita Parlo.
What seems certain is that this moment will also pass. Madonna has always disposed identities just as quickly as she’s picked them up and Vassilakis acknowledges one day she’ll get her name back: “Madonna’s the queen reincarnation, so this is just a phase.”