It’s wild to think that Madonna has been a pop artist for over 30 years, considering how thoroughly we still don’t know who she is. She is a savvy businesswoman, of course, who’s commodified the breaking of sexual taboos to great capitalist success. She is a masterful performer, who can transform her concerts into classical Greek levels of scale through astonishingly nimble dance routines. She is a brilliant CEO, amassing a conglomerate of record label, clothing lines, sponsorships, production houses, movie chips and other ventures into a pile of money. She is a savvy cultural cherry-picker, able to recognize a trend just as it’s bubbling and mainstreaming it just as that trend crests. But as she’s “reinvented” herself over each of her 12 albums, discarding borrowed styles and colonized cultures as carelessly as she’s changed costumes, who is the real Madonna behind the curtain of producers, songwriters, and video treatments? Can a globally beloved superstar who has literally changed the face of pop music retain relevance in the age of the hyper-intimate internet?
“There are only so many decades she could do this before the formula curdled.”
MDNA doesn’t really provide any answers to those questions, but it certainly tries. In an abstract fashion, it’s a return to dance-pop form, in the genre where she feels most at home — and where she’s been hovering since about 2003, with the aggressive, scattered expat-statement album American Life. But, in keeping with her canny awareness of zeitgeist, she has enlisted former producers Martin Solveig and William Orbit to imbue her with a super-charged, scrubbed clean version of right-now’s radio-pop rave music, ranging from faceless techno (the painful “Girl Gone Wild”) to requisite dubstep interludes (on Nicki Minaj’s reprieve of a verse for “I Don’t Give A”) to a remix of lead single “Give Me All Your Luvin’” by LMFAO, which is properly Euro-fied and squeeged out but still ends up sounding vaguely like a “Party Rock” sequel, no doubt by directive from the savvy house mother herself. In case the intended big-tent dance party is not blunt-instrument enough for you, the album title is a play on MDMA, which is the scientific acronym for the party drug ecstasy. Hey, if Madonna is still popping mollies at 54, more power to her. At the very least, she seems to be paying attention to dance music’s deeper underground — as some have pointed out, the original mix of “Give Me All Your Luvin’” bears a striking resemblance to Brazilian bass artist Joao Brasil’s “L.O.V.E. Banana.”
But don’t worry about that: Brown youth power’s on her side, as the emperor’s new clothesiness of her Superbowl halftime performance showed us. Choosing Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., two of young pop music’s most formidable stars, to collaborate with her on MDNA’s first single was a wise move, guests she could have used to spice up a largely flat-note song and gain credibility with the younger set who weren’t even conceived when “Get into the Groove” dropped. But instead of evoking Madonna at her downtown coolest, the song peels back the layers of her ruse. Using Minaj and M.I.A. as cheerleaders and barely giving them four bars on which to floss, “Give Me All Your Luvin” is the nadir of Madge using black and brown cool to her own ends, in order to market it back to us. It’s a shame that she’s reduced herself to it, but then again, she’s always been the ultimate appropriator, variously taking on Latino, Indian, African-American, and Icelandic (by way of Björk) cultures when it seemed convenient, and molting from them when it was not. She even had a Flatbush, Brooklyn phase (watch for the Michael K. Williams cameo)! The point is, there are only so many decades she could do this before the formula curdled, and “Luvin” is it.
Beyond that, the album teeters between empty statements of empowerment on twerky synths and (believable) declarations of dancefloor love over whomping, bottle-service bass. “I’m Addicted,” a trancey electro-house song in which the main refrain is, “I’m addicted to your love,” into a sultry whispered cheerleader chant: “MDNA, MDNA, MDNA, MDNA.” Oh, brother. It’s a truly smarmy affair, and lessens only when she lets up on the gas and lets us meditate a bit on her ballads. “Falling Free” is the kind of pared down, contemplative track that’s been a staple of her catalog since “True Blue,” while the unassuming midtempo pop of “Masterpiece” alludes to some of the sweeter moments of “Like a Prayer” or “Bedtime Stories.” Each laments love but “Falling Free” is almost a Buddhist paean: Deep and pure our hearts alive/ and then I’m free, I’m free of mind/ When I let loose the need to know, and we’re both free, we’re free to go. And it’s in these tracks that we are brought back to earth, and catch a glimpse of who Madonna might be beneath the brazen cultural appropriation and armored demands to the dancefloor. Though she’s notoriously insecure about her voice, through the years she’s been at her strongest when letting her shaky voice convey emotion. When she’s not hiding behind a sheen of super-polished ProTools synths, we’re reminded of the humanness that has kept her in our hearts for three decades, and it puts the album in perspective: At the end of the day, the woman who would be everything is as flawed as we are.
MDNA is out March 26 via Interscope.