Madonna may be the Queen of Pop, but she’s also the Queen of Publicity. She’s an incredible PR woman – personally responsible for making herself the most famous woman in the world a whole fifteen years before the advent of the Internet. And she hasn’t lost that touch. As the release of her 12th studio album MDNA (2012) advanced, she secured the high profile half-time show at the U.S. Superbowl, and enlisted a host of modern stars to complement her (Nicki Minaj, M.I.A, LMFAO, Cee Lo Green). A Madonna album is never going to flop – not by regular standards anyway – but Madonna still goes to all lengths to make sure it’s a hit. Even MDNA’s suggestive title was most likely designed to cause discussion.
When you’re a Madonna mega fan (like I am), you wait with baited breath; because even though an album arrives with more hype than the baby Jesus, you fear the material might not be up to scratch. Could this be the one where she finally lets the crown slip? It appears MDNA will pass the test this time, but only just…
The album gets off to a great start with ‘Girl Gone Wild’ – Benny Benassi’s production is irresistible, and Madonna’s own brand of pop is at its best. It’s got memorable riffs, it’s fun, and it’s as big as a rave in an oversized forest. Along with tracks like ‘Addicted’, she has definitely got some stomping club tracks here, which are really brilliant. ‘Gang Bang’ goes strangely experimental – and to give Madge some credit, it’s very much like something edgy that Lady Gaga might crack out, to general applause. She’s desperate for a Tarantino directed video for this track – which seems logical considering the theme – but it’s something he’ll probably turn down.
It’s hard to pin down what MDNA is doing musically. The album’s first hit ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’ is a different calibre to most of the other tracks, but it’s groovy guitars do indicate the only musical theme that runs through the rest of the record. There’s a lot of Confessions era Madonna – even nods to Music (2000) and American Life (2003). Her good old lyrics about sinning and repenting run right the way back to the early 1980s, and are so tried and tested, I don’t even register them anymore. I will give her kudos for writing frankly about her divorce from Guy Ritchie (I Fucked Up; Love Spent; Best Friend), but MDNA is not the product of a woman freed from the shackles of a negative marriage. It’s trying to be somewhere between her profound record Like A Prayer (1989) – dealing with her divorce from Sean Penn; and her middle aged renaissance that was Confessions On A Dance Floor (2005); though if anything, it’s usually their lesser tracks that it resembles. Madonna hasn’t really found a new direction – she’s dusting off some old ones, and not always her best.
For me, the main highlight of this album is ‘Masterpiece’ – the song she wrote for her film W.E. which won her the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The arrangement is beautiful, the lyrics are perfectly crafted, and at the end of the day I can’t resist a good old extended metaphor. Vocally, Madonna is sure of herself, and it’s the kind of mid tempo guitar ballad that has always stood out in her albums of recent years (‘Nothing Fails’, ‘Miles Away’). It’s one of the few tracks I’ve returned to again and again, and in a nudge towards her continued relevance, it’s a song that could easily slot into the Lana Del Rey album.
I think MDNA’s biggest crime is that it’s nondescript. It doesn’t pack a punch either positive or negative. At least with previously dodgy albums like Erotica (1992) and American Life (2003), Madonna had a strong conviction about what she was doing, and they became cult favourites in the absence of a major commercial response. But MDNA is in a band of its own – and people will neither rave about it, discuss it for its controversy, nor wonder if it’s so bad that it might actually be really profound. It’s in the middle. It’s bland. And for Madonna, that’s not a good place to be.
No one is going to dethrone Madonna over this album, but it won’t feature on the radar of her career when it comes to a retrospective. Sadly, I do have a ranked tier for my Madonna albums, and I’m not quite sure exactly where I’m putting this one yet (perhaps that’s for a whole other blog post), but I can confirm I’ll be putting it below American Life. Enough said.
Madonna is taking the MDNA Tour around the world this summer.