Two very Madonna-like events have occurred this year that have managed to highlight to me the reality of how she now views pop music and marketing. The first event (or, more precisely, non-event) was M.I.A’s flipping the bird during the Superbowl half-time show. I won’t defend it but it struck me as odd how much it upset Madonna, given that, twenty years ago, it’d be the exact type of stunt she’d pull off with the same disregard for good old American values. Her passing it off as ‘immature’ seemed as dated as the act itself but one really suspects the fumes were to deflect any harm to potential album sales. The other event—far more predetermined—was her publicity stunt of joining Twitter for one day…the day before her twelfth studio album, MDNA, was to be released.
The implications are clear: wherever the fans are—online or off—Madonna wants to carefully (and manipulatively) get invited to the party, be the cool older sister or bestie/hag as long as you’re buying her album. If that sounds harsh then consider just how many more fifty-year old pop stars are out there doing a hip/hop album (Hard Candy) or still dressing in cheer-leader outfits (video for lead single Give Me All your Luvin’).
She’s not content to just merely being younger on MDNA but, to be exact, she wants to be a younger version of herself, just not as risqué or musically daring. Instead, she wants to reference her past to connect to some current hot mess, trendy yet world weary at the same time. MDNA’s existence thus serves as nothing more than an excuse to dig through so much necromancy that even all the guest raps here are mini odes to her aged awesomeness. If its predecessor--Hard Candy—was a ridiculous move to embrace hip/hop, then this is the inevitable peeling away at her fabulous flesh in the hope of finding something that once was that can be again.
Whatever that ‘thing’ is, rest assured she hasn’t found it on MDNA because Madonna is best when she’s originating or highlighting a new trend, not whorishly copying something any pop diva worth her buck isn’t already doing. She is blithely unaware that her branding something or approval isn’t necessary to make it popular or listenable anymore. To make things worse, what she’s seeking to market is herself as relevant for a fourth decade in music. To accomplish this she’s teamed up with old pal William Orbit and invited Martin Solveig, Benny Benassi, Nicki Minaj and M.I.A for the ride.
MDNA starts off with Girl Gone Wild, a song that repeats the phrase ‘bad girl’ and ‘burning up’—two previous Madonna titles from better albums. The mid-section works but the corny lyrics throw off any serious artistic intent. If her aim was to just mimic the ridiculous vanity phase Rihanna’s career seems stuck at then she’s succeeded but that itself makes the track embarrassing on so many levels. The Lady Gaga-aping music video is shameless gay-bait, as if reminding homosexuals just who had their interests for so many decades and who now demands back their rapt attention. The tragedy of this situation is further compounded when one considers that the woman whose career Gaga draws from most is Madonna herself. Gang Bang sounds more truly avante garde—which surprises me because that isn’t a word I usually associate with Orbit—but, by the end, when she shouts out ‘drive bitch’, the whole this lusciously comes together. Nothing they worked previously on the overhyped Ray of Light album sounded as fierce but I guess she needed some therapy talk after divorcing Guy Ritchie. A real standout, Gang Bang is one of the last great singles I’ve heard from her in a while where she is pure evil-sounding. I’m Addicted is another highlight, a full out rave number where she slyly—and brilliantly—manages to spell out the album’s title mixed with the drug MDMA (Ecstasy) towards the end. I bet you hadn’t realized until now but will be sure to listen out for it because I pointed it out.
The much maligned Give Me All your Luvin’ isn’t totally irredeemable but it is Madonna’s parts that are the worst because of the bland lyricism (‘every record sounds the same/ you gotta step inside my world’). Nicki Minaj shines brightly on it while M.I.A gets the briefest of moments and elicits the sole risky moment on the track. How M.I.A ends up among all this froth will be examined when her own new album gets released later in the year but already the knives are out so no good will come of it, mark my words. Some Girls is egoism full blast but as she peels away one astounding Madonna-ism to unearth another, she finds special moments within it (‘some girls have an attitude/ fake tits and a nasty mood’) but eventually the cloying nature of her utter ripping off begins to bore. The other standout however is I Don’t Give A, which really is American Life Pt. 2 but here again Nicki Minaj steals her thunder with a wicked reggae-ish vibe that grooves for days. It’s so good that even Madonna rapping works (‘wake up ex-wife/ this is your life/ gotta sign the contract/gotta get my money back’). It functions not only as a bitch slap at Ritchie but to her haters that constantly dismiss her music and ageism.
Most of the other tracks elevate the level of problems on MDNA from “regular” to “worrying” however. Masterpiece, a bland effort lyrically and vocally, veers dangerously into the wretched adult contemporary genre that’s been all but banished since Michael Bolton’s last record. Falling Free fares better—indeed the mid-section is briefly interesting—but even with violins Madonna merely sits back within its five minute frame, content not to do much. The less said about Superstar the better. Alas, the horrible I Fucked Up and Bday Song, with its sing-along nursery rhyme and acoustic guitars are included on the deluxe version of the album. If Madonna’s aim is to recapture youth then these tracks go too young… they’re pre-teen stuff, and I don’t mean that in any good way. As you listen closely to Bday Song though, there is a second voice singing along. I suspected who it was before I scanned the credits, as if willing myself not to believe but there was M.I.A’s presence on the farce, masquerading as an actual creative duet. It is the sound of two bored, rich pop stars past their musical integrity and now only doing it part-time. Madonna has wisely kept this track for the deluxe edition but its creation is in itself perplexing. As is the perpetual blandness she continues to regurgitate as lyrics to match her still formidable pop production.