Pop star Madonna released a first look at her upcoming album and newest persona on social media on Sunday. They’re both called Madame X, and this time around she’s going for a secret agent vibe. In the teaser, over an excerpt from some of her upcoming music, Madonna appears in a variety of costumes that allude to past personae, from an eyepatch and tie ensemble that gives off Mistress Dita vibes to a “Music”-style cowboy hat. She also seems to be very concerned about leaving fingerprints: The video shows her using a vintage typewriter while wearing slippery black leather gloves and playing guitar—steel-stringed!—in lace gloves, complete with soon-to-be-shredded fingertips.
Madonna has reinvented herself so many times that virtually any collection of clothing you could put her in would include a few things that look like allusions to her past, but the voiceover suggests the pop star is working on a unified theory of her past alter egos. It turns out she was a spy all along!
I decided to call my record Madame X. Madame X is a secret agent traveling around the world. Changing identities. Bringing light to dark places. Madame X is a dancer. A professor. A head of state. An equestrian. A prisoner. A student. A mother. A child. A teacher. A nun. A singer. A saint. A whore. And a spy in the house of love. I’m Madame X.
Sunday’s Instagram tease is the first time Madonna has proclaimed herself Madame X, but she is only the latest in a long line of Mesdames X. Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau didn’t have a choice in the matter—John Singer Sargent named the painting—but Alexandre Bisson’s 1908 play by that name and its many, many adaptations meant that for a while, there was a new Madame X every few years. Bisson’s Madame X wasn’t much of an aspirational figure, though: She is thrown out of her home by her husband and separated from her young son after having an affair. Years later, her son—who doesn’t know her—becomes the Attorney General, then ends up being unknowingly assigned to prosecute her for a murder she committed to protect her son from scandal. But if Madame X the character was not exactly aspirational, Madame X the lead role was something everyone wanted. When melodrama was still a thing, the play was an astonishingly popular text to adapt for the screen: movies were made in 1910, 1916, 1918, 1920, 1929, 1931, 1937, 1948, 1952, 1955, 1956, 1966, and 1981—and that’s not even counting the stage or radio versions. Pre-Madonna Mesdames X include Oda Nielsen, Dorothy Donnelly, Emilia Márkus, Pauline Frederick, Ruth Chatterton, María Fernanda Ladrón de Guevara, Gladys George, Mara Russell-Tavernan, Gloria Romero, Lale Oraloglu, Kyveli, Lana Turner, and Tuesday Weld. Here’s how Lana Turner announced she was Madame X:
Madonna is also not the first Madame X in music, at least with some allowances for spelling. There was also Madam X, the hair metal band behind classic anthem slash adolescence survival guide, “High in High School.” The video starred a very young Peter Dinklage, years before Game of Thrones:
Judging from the music in Madonna’s post, her new album is probably not a sonic journey to the days of hair metal, nor will it be supported by a series of videos in which high school students are saved from boredom when Madonna crashes the classroom or dining room and teaches everyone—including the stuffy teacher or parent, possibly also played by Madonna—how to party. On the other hand, the new music sounds pretty good! No release date has been announced yet, but given Madame X’s chameleon-like talent for disguises, we should all keep a careful lookout.