MDNA, Madonna’s twelfth studio album, is fascinating, even revelatory, for all the wrong reasons. It is Madonna’s most personal work, calculated right down to the third decimal point. A collection of grimaces and forced smiles, mixed with showy instances of elation, MDNA is a jumble of lows and just a few highs, an exasperating portrait of an artist seemingly in the midst of crisis.
Madonna’s terrific 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor is the obvious blueprint for about half of MDNA. Confessions was Madonna’s whiplash reaction to the disastrous reception she received for 2003’s grim American Life and its electro-folk sound. The luminous pop of her prime thoroughly expunged from Confessions’ dance beats, the album was presented as a unified DJ set of pre-remixed club music. Though sonically cold, its melodies were often gorgeous and woven into inventive song structures. The songs on MDNA that recall Confessions are just as frigid, only their melodies are bland and generic, unworthy of Madonna’s stature and legacy. For instance, the album’s nadir, the upfront trifecta of soulless thumpers “Girl Gone Wild,” “Gang Band,” and “I’m Addicted.”
At its meager best, MDNA heralds the return of the Madonna we’ve only fleetingly heard from in the years since Ray of Light, the artist who was once known as the Queen of Pop. These songs may be soufflés, light-as-air confections that required the intense care of a small army of chefs (see MDNA‘s production staff), but at least they’re palatable. “Turn Up the Radio,” “Falling Free,” and even “Give Me All Your Luvin’” feature the kind of bright pop that once gave Madonna the right to call her first singles album The Immaculate Collection. “Turn Up the Radio” recalls late-period knockouts like “Hung Up” and “Beautiful Stranger” with a simple formula: it’s the buoyant melody, stupid. The adult-contemporary ballad “Falling Free” is surprising only because it reminds us Madonna once regularly made stellar adult-contemporary ballads. “Give Me All Your Luvin’” is more troublesome, thanks to its grating pep-rally cheers and its throwaway showcases for M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj. (Minaj is better employed on “I Don’t Give A.” M.I.A. is just as wasted on bonus track “B-Day Song.”) But there’s no denying the energetic pull of the song’s chorus.
Madonna’s bitterness, first apparent on Ray of Light, which became increasingly prominent on American Life and Hard Candy, is utterly caustic and unavoidable on MDNA. The nuclear fallout of her divorce from douchebag director Guy Ritchie is evident throughout the album, most of all when she stains to be lighthearted. During MDNA’s fifty minutes, Madonna labors to convince us (and herself?) that the dance floor is a panacea for life’s ills. It took her less than five minutes to better prove the point on “Where’s the Party.”
On Ray of Light’s opener “Drowned World/ Substitute for Love,” Madonna lamented fame’s countless downsides with graceful balladry that turned into a stuttering, ferocious tantrum. The song’s anger, which her vocal made striking and palpable, was directed inward. Her career choices and mistakes were lessons to be learned, or at least accepted with a stoic nod. Time has apparently undone whatever wisdom she once had. MDNA’s “I Don’t Give A” is a petulant spoken-word bitch list of Madonna’s absurd daily and petty grievances, directed at Ritchie and the whole goddamn universe. It’s Madonna’s very own Subterranean Superstar Blues. When she sings “I’m going to be OK,” what she really means is “poor, poor me.” A far cry from Evita’s signature imperative.
Worse than just being a second-rate Madonna album, MDNA is a disheartening regression into decadence that cynically panders to her core audience of gay men (of which I’m included, I guess). The album’s title alone, featured prominently on “I’m Addicted,” further stomps on the well-worn trope that drug-fueled debauchery is shorthand for personal liberation. I’m not sure if I should feel insulted, or just sad. Madonna, now on the other side of fifty, tackles life as if she were Lindsay Lohan. It almost makes you miss her forays into pseudo-spirituality.
What are we talking about when we talk about Madonna in 2012? Is it her astonishing career, which has entered its fourth decade? What it means to be a pop star in midlife? A requiem for an artist’s once-unmatched cultural relevance? Sex? Drugs? The dance floor? Or, more to the point of this review, is it the quality of MDNA? I’d like to think the only pertinent question is the last one, but Madonna subsumes all of the above. Madonna is an outlier so far removed from the herd of popular music’s past, present, and (perhaps) future that she has become not just a measure, but the measure by which pop music must be judged. Sorry is the yardstick that falls so short of itself.