There’s something to be said for knowing when to quit. For the last decade, Madonna has kept at it despite diminishing returns. At her career’s height (the period between True Blue and Erotica), Madonna occupied a place at the centre of popular culture while consistently skewering its values and mores. More recently, her work has become increasingly expedient – hit-seeking devoid of conviction (or even pleasure) – while her position in the culture has become increasingly marginal. She seems determined to run on at any cost, a depleted, disappointing version of her former self.
Witness “Girl Gone Wild”, the agenda-setting first song on her new album MDNA. Madonna has always been attracted to simile: “Like a Virgin”; “Like a Prayer”. In the past, it has allowed her to toy with images and identities without fully committing to any one of them: it opened up an ambiguous space where she could be both the cute ingénue and the woman who played with society’s fixation on sexual purity. Madonna employs another simile in the chorus of “Girl Gone Wild”: she’s not a girl gone wild but like a girl gone wild. This time, however, the device doesn’t open up interesting ambiguities but signals Madonna’s failure to commit to the album’s conceit – that this is Madonna cutting loose, that we can expect something sexy and cheap and a bit feral. It’s simile as cowardice, and it points to why so much of MDNA sounds perfunctory.
It used to be that each of Madonna’s albums was a sonic departure: it took a while to get used to how each one sounded. This was especially true of her work in the 1990s. The elegance of Shep Pettibone’s work on Erotica (the beats crisp and dominant, the reverb creating a wonderful sense of space between each element of the arrangement – the beats and the synths and the loping bass); William Orbit’s amniotic noises; Mirwais’ startling stereo separations and clattering, unpredictable beats – each was unprecedented in Madonna’s work, and each sounded like no other pop being made at the time. Madonna called an end to this period of innovation with the Abba sample that opened Confessions on a Dancefloor, and since then her music has either recalled her disco past (Confessions) or chased trends (hiring in The Neptunes and Timbaland for Hard Candy). MDNA continues this pattern: Madonna has gone for the four-four Eurodisco that Lady Gaga turbo-fitted for last year’s Born This Way (the main producers are Italian, French and English). As dance music, it’s quite functional: the energy level is much higher than it was on Confessions, abrasive synths zapping you into a state of arousal. But it’s also completely second-hand.
The album does have some engaging moments. Situated somewhere between Kanye West’s nutty digressions on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Eminem’s “Kim”, “Gang Bang” ends with rising horror-movie strings and Madonna repeatedly intoning, “Now drive, bitch. And while you’re at it, die, bitch.” It’s an entertaining what-the-fuck moment, recalling the gonzo sense of fun that Gwen Stefani brought to Love. Angel. Music. Baby. The video for first single “Give Me All Your Luvin'” has the same fun feeling – an insouciant Madonna causing havoc as she walks down the street, looking like she’s having a marvellous time. There’s the odd good line – “When did your name change from a word to a charm?” on “I’m Addicted”; the birthday demands on the bonus track “B-Day Song”.
But the overwhelming feeling on MDNA is that of carelessness and cynical pandering. The cameo appearances of Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. amount to little; they’re cheerleaders, included for a little hip cachet. “Superstar” – with its litany of famous men and Madonna’s (unintentionally) hilarious lack of conviction on the line “hopelessly attracted to you” – may well be the most trite song she’s ever recorded. Since American Life, Madonna has become increasingly sententious in her public pronouncements, all admonitory politics and false humility, as if her audience were disciples in need of a sermon. (The nadir of this was her song for charity “Hey You”, in which she comforts the poor and hungry by telling them their suffering does not exist.) This album should help to change that; in part it’s an act of image correction. This is throwaway music: it’s not meant to be anything but a cheap good time, merchandise to accompany her next concert tour. If this means trashing her body of work, so be it; the lyric “Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross/Died for our sins – it’s such a loss” (delivered, again, with a complete lack of affect) in “I’m a Sinner” short-changes the transgressive power of “Like a Prayer” even as the music rips off “Beautiful Stranger”. It’s a sort of cannibalism.
The one exception is “Love Spent”, a divorce song that suggests that emotion is as much a currency as money and reproaches her ex-husband for failing to value it properly, with an unlikely banjo hook and a bridge that gathers force as it leaps an octave. It even features some wordplay (“Frankly, if my name was Benjamin/we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in”) rather than her usual blandly functional lyrics.
It’s reminiscent of her last good album, American Life, in 2003. It was something of a lost opportunity: more frankly experimental than Music, her first collaboration with Mirwais, it seemed to point to a different sort of career – edgy semi-pop like Grimes. Instead, spooked by the album’s poor sales, Madonna pivoted to the empty disco nostalgia of Confessions. The military imagery and George W. Bush-baiting video were a feint: at its heart, American Life is about the hard work of marriage (“It’s easy to be lazy/and hard to go away from the crowd”), built around simple guitar and string figures and uncongenial synth noises, the dry vocals leaving Madonna sonically as well as emotionally exposed. The much-maligned Bond theme “Die Another Day” is a manifesto, Madonna determined to renew herself as an artist by finding new approaches and eschewing repetition (“I’m gonna avoid the cliché/I’m gonna to suspend my senses/I’m gonna delay my pleasure/I’m gonna close my body now”). Almost a decade later, perhaps I ought to give up on her. But even in her cultural and creative diminuendo, I still hope she might rise to the song’s challenge.