Also in Slate, Jody Rosen picks Madonna’s 10 essential songs.
On her 12th studio album, MDNA, Madonna confronts an unprecedented pop music dilemma: How does a woman on the other side of 50 make Madonna-music? By “Madonna-music,” I refer not just to the music of Madonna Louise Ciconne, born Aug. 16, 1958, but to the genre Madonna-music, a category that takes in all the other singing, hoofing, red-carpet-striding, tabloid-headline-grabbing, pan-media-multiplatform-global-dance-pop divas who have followed the originator. Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Shakira, Rihanna, Britney, Katy—they also play Madonna-music, and, if their luck holds, someday they too will be pan-media-multiplatform-global-dance-pop divas of a certain age.
As always, Madonna has gotten there first. She faces the challenge with a few trump cards in hand. For starters, there’s her body. The world’s most punishing yoga regime—supplemented, it’s reasonable to assume, with the top-of-the-line cosmetic surgery—has left Madonna, at 53, with a physique more fighting fit than a mixed-martial-arts champion half her age. And for Madonna, a toned body is more important than youth per se. Even when she was an ingénue, singing chirruping puppy-love songs with ribbons in her hair and bangles rattling, she had gravitas, the savvy and self-possession of a grande dame. Youth was never central to Madonna’s appeal; nor was beauty, or even sex. From “Like A Virgin” to “Justify My Love” to the current single “Give Me All Your Luvin,” Madonna’s message has always been power. That’s not something you age out of. If anything, it’s enhanced by whatever laugh lines your botoxologist leaves behind.
But Madonna has some handicaps, too. Traditionally, divas have stared down middle-age with ballads—with booming voices and crescendos stormy enough to lift the beard off of Father Time. Madonna doesn’t have the lung power for that. Her best ballads float rather than pummel, and ballads are a secondary enterprise anyway. Madonna lives and dies at the disco, a place that’s never been welcoming to old-timers. Dance-pop scorns the past and ignores the future, ruthlessly pursuing pleasure in the present tense. Living legends in other genres have it easier. These days, a rock god can glide comfortably into his dotage: coasting through cute nostalgia-trip records, raking in cash off back catalogs and reunion tours. (Then there’s always the critic-bait move: The Aging Rocker Reckons With His Mortality theme album.) But dance-pop divas have to live in the now, seeking out the newest beats, keeping pace with the latest trends. They have to compete.
On MDNA, Madonna takes a novel approach to the Madonna-music stakes: She underlines the fact that she’s Madonna. She lords her legend over her rivals with the album title—no vowels necessary!—and with cheeky nods to past glories. She opens the record by intoning “Oh my God, I’m heartily sorry for having offended Thee”—a campy Bad Catholic shtick that winks back at “Like a Prayer.” In “Give Me All Your Luvin,” she sings, “You can be my lucky star” while M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj chant her name cheerleader style. Can there be any doubt about the target here? In the years since her last release, Hard Candy (2008), Madonna has watched Lady Gaga seize her mantle—and, occasionally, borrow her tunes outright—taking Madonna-music, and Madonna-ism generally, to its logical end point and beyond. “There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna, bitch,” raps Minaj in “I Don’t Give A.”
At such moments, MDNA goes into a defensive crouch. Most of the time, though, Madonna looks past the competition. The result is an assured and inviting record, Madonna’s best since Music (2000). On the hip-hop-flavored Hard Candy, Madonna strained to keep current, but today’s Billboard charts are dominated by European club sounds that Madonna began messing with in the late 1990s—around the time Stefani Germanotta put away her My Little Pony and began playing Madonna records. Pop has circled back to Madonna, as it is prone to do, and she sounds at home.
She also sounds weird. On MDNA, Madonna serves up a handful of the four-on-the-floor Euro-disco songs that are currently de rigeur. But other songs take chances and hold surprises. Several tracks were produced by the British techno-wiz William Orbit, Madonna’s collaborator on Ray of Light (1997), and they are reminders of what an eccentric Madonna can be when she’s pushed. “Gang Bang” is a techno murder ballad, with Madonna hissing “Bang bang, shot ya dead” amid ricocheting whooshes and effects; “Love Spent” manages to marry bluegrass banjo picking with a burly dance beat. “Falling Free” dispenses with drums altogether, enveloping Madonna’s auto-tuned voice in sighing synths. It’s as starkly beautiful a song as she’s recorded.
That song has a valedictory tone (“We’re both free, we’re free to go”) that has raised some eyebrows. In Rolling Stone, Joe Levy called MDNA Madonna’s “divorce album,” and songs like “I Don’t Give A” don’t mince words: “Lawyers suck it up/ Didn’t have a prenup/ Make a film, write a song/ Gotta get my stockings on.” But Madonna-ologists seeking insight beyond gossip will be disappointed. The cover of MDNA shows Madonna standing behind a glass wall, a blurred figure in a scarlet dress. On the record, Madonna is even blurrier: The breakup ballad clichés and New Age mumbo-jumbo in her “divorce songs” do nothing to bring her into focus. Madonna is the most ubiquitous pop star of her time; she may also be the most remote. Now, as ever, she’s indistinct, aloof, unknowable.
Call that caginess or calculation, if you want, or ascribe it to Madonna’s lack of depth. I chalk it up to genre. Madonna has one of the most fearsome egos in history, but Madonna-music is generous and outward focused: Its aim is uplift, party propulsion, moving bodies on dance floors. Most divas are confessors, drama queens, self-mythologizers; Madonna’s preferred role is benevolent dictator. She’s most herself when commanding and cajoling, speaking in the second person, not the first: “Express yourself,” “Open your heart,” “C’mon, Vogue/ Let your body move to the music,” “Get into the groove,” “Turn up the radio.” She’s never been able to sing much, but she speaks, always, with the unshakeable voice of authority—and now, at 53, with the voice of experience. Who would you rather take marching orders from?