In the last few years, pop music saw the deaths of two of its greatest icons: Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Both ruled the 1980’s and 1990’s alongside Madonna who has released her 12th studio album last week, MDNA. It’s debuted at number 1 with huge sales (almost 350,000), and its first single “Give Me All Your Luvin'” was a top 10 hit (her 38th time in the top 10), which proves that at 53, almost 3 decades into her career, she’s still commercially relevant.
But the question remains: is she still musically relevant?
The answer from MDNA is decidedly mixed. While an improvement on her 2008 Hard Candy, her new set isn’t a definitive entry into her career – instead it’s a pretty standard album from an artist that naturally raises high expectations.
The problem with Madonna’s new sound may be that she’s just too famous now. She’s become somewhat of an institution, now – frozen in her superstardom. Like Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand and the late Jackson, she’s become so famous that few of her teams of producers and songwriters would edit some of her ideas, which resulted in this just-okay album.
The first single “Give Me All Your Luvin'” has Madge singing over some catchy dance beats while being supported by a school-yard chant chorus. Rappers Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. pop up – Minaj’s contribution is good, her goofy, cartoony delivery matching the kitschy pop of the song, while M.I.A.’s more laconic spitting drags a bit. Also given M.I.A.’s political views, it would’ve been nice to see her paired with Madonna on a weightier song.
The song’s second single “Girls Gone Wild” is another paint-by-numbers product – in an increasingly worrying trend, Madonna is trying to recast herself as 15 to 20 years younger. Referencing Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” the song is Madonna on auto-pilot. “Some Girls” is also very rote and could’ve been recorded by anyone, with its anthemic club beats.
Despite the disappointment of the two first singles, not all of the songs are bad. At its best, MDNA won’t recall Madonna at her best, but it does rank as some of the better dance pop heard right now. “I’m a Sinner” is similar to her early 2000’s hit “Beautiful Stranger” sounding somewhat mod and retro, with its bouncy beat and sing-a-long hook. “Love Spent” is another find, starting of with guitar-picking, before moving into dramatic synths and dance beats.
And even though Madonna’s forte is dance music, her ballads are standouts: “Falling Free” with its beautiful, spacy harp synths and sawing strings is an excellent vehicle for some surprisingly strong singing. Her Golden Globe winning “Masterpiece” is also very pretty – the lyrics are a bit jumbled with references to art to fit the theme of the song’s title, but it’s suitably elegant.
Despite its unevenness, MDNA does show just how indebted Lady Gaga, Minaj, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera are to Madonna. What is a bit depressing is how calcified Madonna’s sound has become. Age should not be an obstacle in her career, yet Madonna seems hell-bent on proving that she can “keep up” with the younger divas. In fact, if she just abandoned her pretense of youth and concentrated on making music that befits a brilliant, talented woman in her 50’s, it would be the younger singers who would be trying to “keep up.”