3/10 The career achievements of the “Queen of Pop” demand respect. Fair play to her, Madonna Ciccone has conquered the world with her brand, her audacity and complete disregard for outside opinion pretty much guaranteeing that her legacy is secure. Her fans have served her magnificently over the years, always more than eager to defiantly marshal proceedings and in some cases deserving of OBEs for loyal service to their monarch. In these strange new times, though, where YouTube hits and Facebook ‘Like’s now define success, the question of such an icon’s place in the “reductive” (her word) modern pop machine is uncontrollably thrown under the microscope with every new contender for her throne that emerges, and lays the gauntlet for the originator to once again attempt to stay a generation ahead to maintain their status.
As an icon ages and reaches the autumn of their career, they typically either make a point of reaching a plateau and bow out gracefully by giving fans never-ending farewell tours that cement the benchmark pop they gave to the world (see Tina Turner or Cher), or they single-mindedly produce outsider work that perhaps only now they are skilled enough to explore (see Prince and Kate Bush). Although Madonna may be ticking the same age box as Cher, Prince and Kate on application forms these days, it’s interesting to note that they (and even Tina at seventy-two years of age, or the arguably twice as outrageous sixty-three year old Grace Jones) never seem to get as slaughtered as Madonna does in the media. Ageism in pop – particularly for women – is a sticky, prickly and often grossly unfair subject, and Ciccone is right to not let it subdue her, but you do sometimes wish that she didn’t go quite so far out of her way to not do herself any favours. Cue the facepalm-worthy title she’s bestowed upon this, her twelfth studio album, and a tracklist that’s spotted with try-hard song names like ‘Gang Bang’, ‘Girl Gone Wild’ and ‘I Don’t Give A…’.
Such youth-marketed minutiae can be easily overlooked; it’s the songs that need to talk the talk. But as MDNA‘s lead single ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’ proved at this year’s SuperBowl halftime show, when shoehorned into a medley of defining classics like ‘Like A Prayer’ and ‘Vogue’, Madonna 2012 can barely muster a one-sided conversation. Since 2005′s intentionally glossy, hollow, shape-throwing fluff Confessions On A Dancefloor, Ciccone’s attempts at fusing dance music with pop have played it safe. But what she fails to see is that the pair seldom work well together as a commodity; pop’s relationship with dance is usually neatly tucked in as a footnote or shaped into a separate remix entity to cater for an entirely different market. Madonna has essentially been churning out what sound like remixes without the original pop versions to give them the meat or bones they need to live long and prosper. It’s fair to say that there can’t be many Madonna fans who actually prefer ‘Revolver’ over ‘Frozen’, or ‘Jump’ over ‘Human Nature’, and just imagine ‘Hung Up’ without that nifty ABBA sample.
Irritating self-affirmations, stale production and laughable cheerleading that flies embarrassingly wide of the mark aside, ’Give Me All Your Luvin’ may be the nearest attempt to pure pop that Madonna has produced in years but this only makes it stick out on MDNA like the proverbial sore thumb. It’s not surprising that it proved to be her lowest-charting lead single since her debut, ‘Everybody’, thirty years ago, barely scraping the UK top forty. Something clearly isn’t right. And while Nicki Minaj packs a neat punch with her lightning-speed rap, the hyped inclusion of M.I.A. proves a wasted opportunity as she’s crowbarred in for barely four bars of forgettable ghetto spiel. Current single and album opener ‘Girl Gone Wild’ kicks things off on an all too familiar note with its Confessions…-like template of a spoken-word preface about repentance followed by a soggy house beat and typically naff lyrics. “I got that burnin’ hot desi-i-i-re / it’s coming right down through the wi-i-i-re / here it comes when I hear them 808 drums,” Madonna delivers in a heavily processed voice, but the strange promise of said drums is passed over for no-thrills house-by-numbers courtesy of Benny Benassi. And here we have already pretty much summarised the bulk of what MDNA has to offer: stale house production, wincing lyrics and a voice so manipulated it might as well be Britney Spears standing in for her.
Though tragically not a cover of Black Lace’s cheeky ode to group sex, ’Gang Bang’ does maintain MDNA‘s stock in treated vocals over yet another staple house track. Designed to set tongues wagging over its talk of shooting a lover in the head – clearly, we are meant to infer this as a pot shot at Guy Ritchie, even four years and one album (2008′s Hard Candy) after their divorce – the real conversation we should be having interestingly brings us back to the issue of Madonna’s treatment by the press. While Ciccone has more than earned the right to enjoy herself, is a fifty-plus year old whose finger has arguably been slipping off the pulse for the best part of a decade really the best ambassador for house music, with her tiresome mantra of “DJ play my favourite song” and childish rhyming couplets with all the genuine shock value of a surprise sandwich? Let’s be perfectly up front about this. The cries of ageism, while certainly not unwarranted from some unkind corners of the press, are obscuring a larger issue here: the issue that Madonna seems to have no reservations about insulting her fans’ intelligence in order to milk the current shape of music commerce. Her widely publicised 360° deal with Live Nation, made back in 2007, finally comes into effect with MDNA, and with that inevitably comes a shift in priorities: witness the sale of tickets for the accompanying tour before the album’s tracklist had even been confirmed. Has Madonna really come to the point where albums are now churned out mainly as an excuse to tour extortionately and produce terrible movies? It’s hard to escape the feeling that only a fraction of the thought that has gone into MDNA was spent on the actual music.
A touch of Peaches-esque minimal electro tries to steer ‘I’m Addicted’ into a slightly more promising direction, before cranking up the house synths for a big hands-in-the-air chorus and chanted “M-D-N-A-M-D-N-A” finale. While it’s perhaps the closest Madonna has come to a ‘proper’ crossover house tune and will go down well as a set-closer at her shows, again, on record it really could be by anyone and ultimately feels a little cold. ‘Turn Up The Radio’ goes for a more melodic pop approach amid it’s thickly-produced foundations, but falls short of enough inspiration to stand on its own merit. While ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Superstar’ plainly nosedive into pure filler, it’s ‘I Don’t Give A…’ that throws one of MDNA‘s worst curveballs. It seems unlikely that anyone actually wanted Madonna to revisit her rapping ‘skills’ after the Mini-Cooper/super-duper summum bonum of ‘American Life’, but here she is doing her best to spit out lines like “You were so mad at me / who’s got custody / lawyers / suck it up / didn’t have a prenup”. Her voice here has been digitised to such an extent that it actually detracts from the content, but it’s probably a blessing that technology has intervened to disguise the unnecessary lows Madonna is apparently prepared to sink to in order to “keep it real”. Nicki Minaj returns midway for slightly more substantial airtime but while her competent and quirky delivery makes for a welcome distraction, the line “Yo Madonna, may I just say you more original than dada” (sounding suspiciously like Gaga was clearly no accident). And just when you think things can’t get any worse, the awful cedes to the ridiculous as the song’s finale busts out a Lloyd-Webber-style pop-opera coda. Why? Who the hell knows.
For ‘I’m A Sinner’, Madonna might as well have pointed a gun at William Orbit’s head with strict instructions to recreate 1999′s ‘Beautiful Stranger’, with less enjoyable results. ‘Love Spent’ makes for an inoffensive but predictable chunk of clunky, light filler, but with the added oddity of a banjo melody jarring randomly in and out. The limp, mid-tempo ballad ‘Masterpiece’ from the W.E. soundtrack is tucked into the tracklist as things draw to a close. It may have won her a Golden Globe but within the context of MDNA as a whole its sluggish electro-drum loop and synth production simply passes by forgettably. ‘Falling Free’, however, gives Orbit a chance to redeem himself with a tranquil attempt to recreate a swan song as soothing and sincere as Ray Of Light‘s ‘Mer Girl’. Despite the welcome addition of some strings and pretty chimes, Madonna’s vocals fall short, sounding thin and unsettled, and with no clear structure emerging the track ultimately fails to stitch any of its great (albeit recycled) ideas convincingly together. That’s another of MDNA‘s problems in a nutshell. Worse than the lazily recycled ideas, embarrassingly executed echoes of past triumphs and dated house production is that there is simply no common thread to tie the album’s more random moments together – something even Hard Candy just about managed.
Madonna fans can be a notoriously intimidating bunch, whose rose-tinted glasses rarely see wrong in anything she puts her name to. But where once upon a time the music that fuelled the fanaticism was flawless, peerless pop packaged by a savvy businesswoman who knew how to cover all bases and stay well ahead of the pack, these days if all she wants is to simply make money while keeping her crown she’d perhaps be better off following in the footsteps of Cher and Céline Dion and packing for a three-year stint in Las Vegas. Madonna set the benchmark for pop back in the day, so why should her loyal fans settle for considerably “reductive” offcuts now just to see her live? She well may live to regret ever throwing around that R-word if she continues down this road. Her fans deserve far better on all counts. Far, far better.