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Madonna MDNAThere are two broad schools of thought when it comes to Madonna in 2012. The first is that she’s continuing her inexorable slide into gruesome, desperately hit-chasing self-parody, a grotesque, humourless combination of Baby Jane Hudson and Amy Poeler’s ‘cool mom’ character from Mean Girls. The other is that, as a strong independent pop icon with thirty years of hits behind her, Madonna can dress and act in any way she damn well pleases actually.

I wish I could say I fell into the second camp. After all, I’ve long been a fan of the woman, and yet as a child of the 90s, the pretentious, humourless, easy to admire but difficult to love public face of Madonna is the only one I’ve ever really known. The problem now is that in recent years her tunes have struggled to compensate for her perceived lack of warmth. Listening to MDNA made me think about the trouble with pop narratives – what do you do when your retain your shelf life but run out of storylines?

The generally accepted version of events is that Madonna reached a peak of maturity with Ray of Light. Before that album she had been the bubbly ingénue, the queen of the world, the fucked up superstar and the Hollywood wife. What remained, it seemed was a dignified transition into cuddly (well, by Madonna standards…) elder stateswoman of pop circa her lovely but middle of the road hits from Something to Remember and her success with Evita. Then she threw a curveball by hooking up with William Orbit and delivering her the most complete, reflective and forward thinking album of her career. It wasn’t just a fantastic album about what it is to be famous beyond all imagining, by exploring more universal themes such as grief, motherhood and middle age it also made her seem more human than anything she’d done in years.

However, the further she moves away from Ray of Light – and while MDNA shares a producer in Orbit, it contains precious little of that album’s introspection – the more I think that perhaps it wasn’t so much an arrival as a diversion. In fact it was the successful but retrospectively underrated follow-up Music that arguably gave more of an insight into her psyche. Where Ray of Light was calm, spiritual and contempletative, Music combined carefree dance songs like the title track and Impressive Instant with bruised, defensive and at times a desperately sad album cuts. The closing two tracks are perhaps the most morbid songs she’s ever recorded.

American Life was thematically closer to Ray of Light than Music, but it sounded like the result of too much therapy and Kaballah, and came off self-absorbed and condescending. Its failure seems to have been a defining moment in Madonna’s career, save for isolated tracks she’s generally retreated from such personal fare on her subsequent recordings. Confessions was a successful nod to her gay fanbase and her disco roots. That it was considerably bigger in Europe than America probably prompted her collaborations with Timbaland, the Neptunes and Justin Timberlake. She scored her biggest US hit in years with 4 Minutes, but it was her weakest and least interesting album. I don’t think it’s ageism to suggest that a 51 year old woman should perhaps have thought better of informing her listeners that her sugar is raw before inviting them to “see my booty get down”.

What unifies her post-Ray of Light output – excluding American Life – is a lyrical fixation with movement. Clocks are always ticking, she’s always tired of waiting, the listener is constantly implored to ‘hurry up’ or ‘keep up’. These may be fairly standard dance cliché’s, but combined with the defiantly raunchy promotional photo’s that accompany her albums (the MDNA booklet consists largely of shots of her looking sultry and heavily airbrushed in her underwear, and the less said about the album cover for Hard Candy the better…), there’s a definite sense that Madonna’s attitude towards her advancing years is not the Zen acceptance preached on Ray of Light, but a pathological fear of slowing down.

That I’ve now written almost 700 words about MDNA without making any significant reference to the music contained therein is quite telling. It’s not the disaster I feared from the unpromising evidence of the pre-release singles (Give Me All Your Luvin is a grower, but Girls Gone Wild really is one of the worst things she has ever recorded), but it isn’t an unexpected success either. My abiding impression after initial listens was that it’s the most faceless thing she’s ever done. There are the expected controversial moments like the campy murder fantasy of Gang Bang and a couple of lyrical references to the breakdown of her marriage to Guy Ritchie, but the authority is missing. Even Hard Candy’s most embarrassing moments were unmistakably Madonna. If I heard a song like Superstar blind, I could easily assume it was by a c-list Eurodiva. It’s listenable, but I can’t see myself returning to it very often. Madonna has made great throwaway music throughout her career, but a good half of MDNA is downright disposable.

Where does she go from here then? With a lead single peaking at #37 in the UK and stalling at US radio (though the Superbowl promo at least gave her a record-extending top ten hit) and follow-up hits not looking likely, I imagine this will go down as Madonna’s least successful album to date, and a continuation of the commercial decline she’s been facing since Confessions in America and Hard Candy in Europe. Nobody with her drive or legacy will ever be a totally spent force, but having already played out every kind of comeback imaginable – from the artistic renaissance of Ray of Light to her triumphant return to the dance floor with Hung Up – Madonna may finally have reached the point where she can no longer live up to her own monumental accomplishments.

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