Aside from Michael Jackson, perhaps, I’d say no, not really. Madonna has managed to reinvent herself time and time again without ever coming across as a phony. Nearly everything she’s done as a musician has been iconic, and very little of what she’s done has been terrible. (But we’re not discussing her cinematic endeavors here — that would be cruel.) So when the Queen of Pop releases a new album, I take notice.
And now it’s here.
Unlike with most pop stars, who tend to circle around a singular gimmick for their entire careers, you expect something fresh and distinct from Madonna each and every time. Each album tends to have its own flavor — even her last, Hard Candy, though that flavor was “yuck!” I wouldn’t say her attempt to go for a more urban sound was misguided, but it certainly was poorly executed — mostly thanks to the Neptunes. Now, I’m not sure what went wrong there, but nearly every one of their seven tracks on that album is a career low for Madonna. “Candy Shop”? “She’s Not Me”? “Spanish Lesson”? Dismal. Timbaland and Justin Timberlake fared a bit better, but overall the stakes are high after Hard Candy lowered the bar so. Another ho-hum record from Madonna may not exactly have ended her, but even die-hard fans might start to wonder if she’d lost it had MDNA been another misfire.
But we needn’t have worried. MDNA is a solid Madonna album, as well as a solid dance album overall. In her own discography, it’s most akin to 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor, one of my favorites, with a similar ratio of dance tracks to ballads. Unlike Confessions, though, which established an identity with that instantly-iconic cover art — harkening back to disco for a devil-may-care retro dance party — MDNA doesn’t have quite such an obvious throughline. Madonna albums tend to have motifs of some kind, often both sonically and the accompanying visuals. Music had that electronic cowgirl vibe, Ray Of Light the Eastern religion connections, American Life the in-your-face anti-Material Girl-ism. MDNA seems more content to just present an album’s worth of good music without really pushing any envelopes or buttons — something of a rarity for Madge, really.
Take “Give Me All Your Luvin,'” which on its own might seem a tad “reductive” given its cheerleader-y chanting and intentionally poor spelling, prompting us to wonder — who does she think she is now, Avril Lavigne? A whole album’s worth of this silliness would have been overkill, but in the context of the rest of MDNA, the track merely comes across as playful and frivolous — it doesn’t try too hard. As the lead single, it merely announced Madonna’s presence with an “I’m back, bitches, and I fucking love myself!” sentiment that, frankly, we can pretty much all agree with. We do L-U-V Madonna, don’t we? She knows it, we know it, there’s no use playing coy. She just come out and said it — this album is worth getting excited for.
And then there was “Girl Gone Wild,” a slightly more problematic single because it had even less personality. As a club song, it’s perfectly fine but unremarkable, and that’s when we started to worry. Were these honestly the strongest tracks from MDNA? The ones Madonna felt would best sell this album? Then out came the video, and suddenly, it all clicked.
Even moreso than her own greatest hits collection Celebration, MDNA is a celebration of all things Madonna. (Hence the many references to her past works, which you can read about in my “MDNA By The Numbers” post for Idolator.) It’s not that she’s evoking her past so much musically — well, maybe here and there, with some of that William Orbit business — but she’s definitely basking in all the same themes that made her a star in the first place. There’s sex, there’s aggression, there’s religion, and there’s self-reflection. In fact, you might find that there’s a track on MDNA to remind you of every phase of Madonna’s career.
Is “Give Me All Your Luvin'” not a bit of a throwback to those early, carefree hits like “Dress You Up” and “Holiday”? It’s simple, it’s catchy, it’s girly, it’s youthful, it’s fun. (Ditto “B-Day Song.”) Meanwhile, “I Fucked Up” is the kind of nakedly emotional midtempo song you might find on True Blue (with a less explicit title, perhaps). “I’m A Sinner” makes pop out of religion a la “Like A Prayer,” and the “Girl Gone Wild” intro certainly invokes that song before launching into a more “Express Yourself”-like sentiment. “Superstar” falls in line with “Cherish” in tone while also reminding us of “Vogue” by invoking icons like James Dean, before “Gang Bang” and “Some Girls” move us into the controversial, pissed off Madonna we know and love from the Erotica era (here, using aggression and violence more than sex — but same difference). “I’m Addicted” transports us to a trippy place not unlike “Bedtime Story,” and maybe “Masterpiece” gives us a little Something To Remember? “Falling Free” clearly takes us back to Ray Of Light; “Beautiful Killer” gives us a slightly more threatening take on “Beautiful Stranger.” Then “Turn Up The Radio” becomes the same sort of “hey, isn’t music great?” track that “Music” was. For American Life, of course, the “21st century problems” rap on “I Don’t Give A” is a clear successor. And while many MDNA songs could easily have found a home on Confessions On A Dance Floor, I’m going to say “Love Spent” belongs there most of all, kind of like the woman in “Hung Up” finally got her shit together and realized the dude wasn’t gonna call her back ever.
So which track reminds us of Hard Candy? Maybe none of them, maybe “Best Friend.” But the less said about that, the better.
Now, of course, this isn’t an exact science, and I doubt it was as calculated as all that. My point is, this is less of a cohesive statement on its own, more Madonna’s overall tribute to herself, whether intentional or not. The album is just a few vowels away from being self-titled, after all. What more proof do you need? The “Human Nature”/”Justify My Love”/”Vogue” etc. redux of the “Girl Gone Wild” video? I rest my case.
Of course, we have no idea what Madonna will do next, but MDNA plays like she wanted to solidify her place in today’s pop music world with a reminder of all the great things she’s done. (And they truly are great.) It’s an album that reaffirms her legacy and declares to those less familiar with her catalog: “This is who I am.” Likening herself to MDMA (it makes you happy! it makes you want to dance!) is no happy accident. If you needed to give someone a crash course in all things Madonna but could only use one album, which would you choose? (No, cheater, you can’t pick The Immaculate Collection.) I’d pick MDNA, because it’s like a remix of her entire career.
Aside from that, what sets MDNA apart from the equally dance-friendly Confessions On A Dance Floor? Well, it’s angrier. Confessions was light and peppy, even hopeful. An album by a woman who seemed content with herself. MDNA, by contrast, is reasonably dark and dissatisfied (though still upbeat). L-U-V aside, Madonna seems more down on herself than usual, more conflicted about being bad (even though she ultimately concludes that she “likes it that way” on multiple tracks). When viewed in context of the other songs, “I Don’t Give A” and “Some Girls” seem less like genuine confidence boosters and more like a woman in denial, giving us all sorts of mixed messages. Madonna alternates between all-consuming devotion to her fella (“I’m Addicted,” “Masterpiece,” “Superstar”) and a total “fuck you” to him and everyone else in the world. Whoa, mood swings! How very MDMA. (And if you want to really read into it, that cover art also depicts an opaque, fractured portrait of its subject.) You know what? I’m not convinced that the Madonna presented on MDNA is psychologically stable.
But — she’s a lot of fun to party with! As she always has been, always will be. MDNA doesn’t take many risks or push the Material Girl in such a new sonic direction as so many of her past albums have. The most provocative is the gritty “Gang Bang,” and I can imagine an alternative universe where this entire album was such a thumping downer. (But then it might have to be named after, I dunno, crystal meth or something.) That’s tempting, but why complain? Mixed-up Madonna is still better than just about other diva out there. MDNA is a highly listenable effort, and even moreso when you start thinking about it as a self-tribute album. In my estimation, the strongest tracks are “Gang Bang,” “Some Girls,” “I Don’t Give A,” and “Superstar” (which I’d elect as the next single).
Not that Madonna needs my input. The bitch clearly knows what she’s doing.