There’s something depressing about Madonna’s latest video for “Girl Gone Wild”. For one, it’s the exact same concept as “Vogue”, which is now 22 years old, and for some reason Americans consider it provocative. How is that even possible? Not only did she perform at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show (a night which charted the highest ratings in American television history), but in the age of Jersey Shore, 1000 Ways to Die, 16 and Pregnant, Toddlers & Tiaras, and TMZ, the Queen of Pop – ahem, the same royalty who’s even published children’s books – is hardly “too raunchy.” Let’s not even get started on the half a billion videos processed through YouTube on a daily basis.
Perhaps that explains why Madge feels the need to hammer in the idea that she’s still a bad girl. What most might consider established truths in the Madonna mythos has become renewable information on her 12th studio album, MDNA. ”Girls they just wanna have some fun,” she sings, echoing Cyndi Lauper on “Girl Gone Wild”, later stating that her “inhibition’s gone away.” Sound familiar? It’s a retread of almost everything she’s said before in the past 30 years, and though ultimately catchy, it lacks any subtlety or nuance to make you feel this is doing anything but reaching.
This sort of plasticity continues throughout the album. The pandering shock ‘n’ pizazz of “Gang Bang” melds dubstep with a femme fatale spoken-word vignette that might have others rethinking their slams against Lana Del Rey. “If you’re gonna act like a bitch, then you’re gonna die like a bitch,” Madonna exclaims over digitized warbles and, ugh, race car samples. The whole thing might have worked if the dubstep didn’t feel so catered and she actually added more theatrics. On “Superstar”, she works with a rhyme scheme that’s beyond infantile and lyrics seemingly stripped from a fifth grader’s notebook at the history fair (e.g. “You’re Abe Lincoln because you fight for what’s right”). Later on, the phony sentiments reach a startling peak on “I’m a Sinner”, a track so obvious that it’s baffling her producers didn’t stop her at first glance of the song’s title. Whereas she used to craft dizzying spectacles that were both insightful and emotional, she lays it all out here, bolds the key terms, and highlights the fluff.
What’s puzzling is that producer William Orbit lent a hand on these particular tracks. Having previously worked with Madonna, most notably on 1998’s dynamite Ray of Light, the man’s familiar with her strengths and weaknesses, and on MDNA, he proves it. While the aforementioned three of his six tracks suffer remarkably, the other half consists of the album’s most solid inclusions. ”Love Spent” segues banjo-plucking with 8-bit instrumentation that catapults an emotional confession revolving around a romance fractured by fortune. It’s a fitting anthem for Madonna and one that seamlessly blends into the sparkling decadence of “Masterpiece”. Lifted off the soundtrack of her recent directorial effort, W.E., the track swings back to her early ’90s days (think 1995’s Something to Remember). The last of the three is closing track “Falling Free”, an indelibly poignant track that adds flesh to a fairly robotic album. Coming off a divorce to Guy Ritchie, it’s these three tracks – especially the closer – that truly feel as if she’s speaking candidly.
It’s only then that she hits the heart. Now, this was a feat she exercised with ease once before, but something she’s struggled with over the past decade. On MDNA, she almost skips the cardiac attention completely, and it’s likely because she masks herself with so much clutter. She forces herself into these aural experiments, as if she feels compelled to stay relevant by dabbling with present-day talent and genres. Why else would she throw in haphazard appearances by M.I.A. or Nicki Minaj on her boisterous first single “Give Me All Your Luvin'”? Or attempt to rap on a messy track like the Martin Solveig-produced “I Don’t Give A”? These follies only discount her credibility, opening her up to discourse on whether she still claims the throne. To counter, her genre husband Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, once put these moves to action back in the late ’80s and especially in the early ’90s by marrying his style to new jack swing, Eddie Van Halen, Slash, and even Michael Jordan (well, on video at least), but he never took backseat. The collaborations always felt whole, fresh, and necessary. By comparison here, Madonna’s work alongside the Benassi Bros. on the electrified “I’m Addicted” is the only unique match up that storms out unscathed.
It’s not hard to figure out why Madonna’s kept such strong focus on her collaborators. Since she’s hit the scene, she’s dealt with a string of admirers, detractors, and imitators. In today’s era of pop, she’s surrounded by a rogue’s gallery of juggernauts, who are all admittedly doing far more with their sound than she is. That’s okay, though, because that was always bound to happen. Rather than try to top them, however, she should put her energy into her strengths instead of parading around marquee names and treading through genres that, most of the time, she’s late to reach. (Having said that, her delicious tinkering with disco on 2005’s Confessions on the Dance Floor remains an absolute joy.) Maybe it’s just the nepotism that explains this way of thinking. After all, she does have the aggressive Nicki Minaj growling, “There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna, bitch.” Regardless of the endorsement, it might behoove her to start thinking of her successor.
Then again, Elizabeth I never named hers, either.
Essential Tracks: “Falling Free”, “I’m Addicted”, “Masterpiece”, and “Love Spent”
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard.