Come August, Madonna will be fifty years old, yet nothing will change. She will continue the pop success that started in the eighties, blossomed by the nineties, and became a genre itself by the millennium. She will still be stunning audiences worldwide with impressive, retro and new wave dance moves. And moreover, she will still be the epitome of the mainstream, female sexual prowess. Just by judging on the last two album covers, 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor and this year’s Hard Candy, the former Brooklyn bad girl is still a pin up for males (some females) at all ages. How do I know all this? Because I’m one of them. In fact, a bruised up, sweaty image of Madonna graces my MacBook screen at this very moment, but that’s besides the point.
Where were we?
Oh yes, Hard Candy. The new album, her eleventh in an impressive discography, is a bit on the youthful side. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s not very intriguing either. It’s a pretty well known fact that Madonna is known for re-inventing herself, over and over again. Hell, in 2004, she dubbed her globe trotting excursion, the Re-Invention Tour. If it’s not unfolding her sexuality, it’s the style and manner her music is presented. With the throwback tunes of her last album, Confessions on a Dance Floor, it was only inevitable that she would cull in some modern twists, which is exactly what she’s done.
Hard Candy is not a Madonna album, but more of a collaboration featuring Madonna, which is unfortunate, considering she plans an actual collaboration disc for later on this year. Instead of being the focal point of the music, much of the album’s key tracks are sprinkled with the pop icon, leaving much of the work to producer Timbaland or Justin Timberlake. When she’s not shining, they are, hoisting the newfound British babe above and beyond her limitations, which to be honest, are pretty limiting. She’s strolled the cultural route (True Blue, Evita), gone down the righteous path (Like A Prayer), experimented with new wave and techno (Ray of Light), and revealed more than we’d ever thought could be revealed (Erotica). Oh, she dabbled in country too (Music). So, in a sense, she’d be treading water without the two mega producers of today.
That being said, Hard Candy reflects on this idea. Not only is Madonna second to the guy who, according to Rivers Cuomo, “knows the way to reach the top of the charts,” but she’s hidden in much of it. “4 Minutes”, the current “chart topping” single, is so cluttered with loops, hooks, and beats, that it doesn’t even need to be a Madonna song anymore. What’s even worse is that it sounds like everything else that’s in the club, meaning, it’s a safety net. The good news is that it’s probably one of the weaker tracks off the album.
Even if the sexual innuendo is similar to Christina Aguilera’s “Candyman”, opening track “Candy Shop” shakes and moves in every way a first track should. When she sings, “Get up outta your seat, come on over to the dancefloor”, anyone would be a fool not to follow suit. The sharp, crisp production that is moreover glossy here than atmospheric is a good indication of things to come. “Give It 2 Me” could be construed as a throwback to Madonna’s more industrial-pop of the early ’90’s, complete with lines like “Gimme the bass line, and I’ll shake it”, but there are ties to its modernity (e.g. a bridge in which she repeatedly chirps, “Get stupid”) that prevent it from being too nostalgic.
Back to back songs, “Heartbeat” and “Miles Away”, are genuine examples of what this collaboration did right. Madonna’s vocals are in the foreground, loud and catchy, and the beats breathe all the right air for the pop diva to use for her advantage (which should be its only purpose, really). The former is a bitter, angst driven melody that recalls late ’90’s dance grooves, with only less cheese and more superiority in songwriting. The latter is a far reaching, introspective, emotionally arching love song that rides a groove that begins with a looped acoustic guitar and never stops building. It’s inarguably the catchiest song, built on the foundation of a lyric that’s so memorable in it’s melody, when she sings, “So far away, you’re so far away.” Despite its simplicity, at least the song is bearable and commits to some sense of emotion. Let’s not forget the last album’s disastrous attempts at lyrics, such as the juvenile “I Love New York.”
For its errors, Hard Candy is a consistent effort, which is a task that’s harder and harder these days for someone in the pop genre, especially an artist that never stops reaching higher. There are some missteps: the obnoxious, tone piercing “Incredible”, the forgettable cameo from Kanye West in “The Beat Goes On” (hey, at least its always a surprise on every listen), and the overreaching cultural aspirations in the ultimately lame and boring “Spanish Lesson”. Like my dead beat soccer coach used to tell us, after losing the proverbial big game, “They can’t all be winners, eh?”
If one things for sure, Madonna is still as poignant as she ever will be, bringing her familiar face back to where she’s always belonged: the dance club. And surely, the collaboration between her and Timbaland/Timberlake will arouse suspicions of a mega tour, not to mention the countless uninspired club remixes to follow. In the end, Hard Candy is just the type of sound and album that Madonna needs to survive in an evolving, non-stop, technology-savvy music business, without sacrificing much of what makes her exemplary in the first place. It could be worse, she could be alluding to her genitals with a clever catch phrase a la “My Humps.”
God help us when that happens.