I think about Madonna a lot.
Just last month, I had a dream where I was eating dinner with Ray Wise at the Waldorf-Astoria. I was looking very good in a suit, and we were discussing something that felt very important at the time (I can only assume it had something to do with Twin Peaks). When Madonna suddenly appeared out of nowhere to ask me for an autograph, I yelled at her for interrupting and made her cry.
I don’t know why my dream-self reacted that way, or why I was at the Waldorf-Astoria with Ray Wise, but my point is that Madonna’s presence in my dreams – however small – obviously suggests a deeply embedded subconscious obsession. Perhaps it is because we have some things in common:
1. We’re both Italian.
2. She has devoted her life to embodying and refining the Great American Pop Concept, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been enthralled by that very same idea.
3. She has sold a bajillion records, and I own, listen to, and thoroughly enjoy some of them on a fairly frequent, semi-regular basis.
Madonna is my mother, my sister, my muse, and my girlfriend. And I am completely aware that the Freudian implications of this are terrifying.
Which brings me to the main reason that Madonna owns so much real estate where my thoughts live: There is nothing more titillating to the eyes of a heterosexual lapsed-Catholic male with an unquenchable thirst for ear candy than a singing blonde girl from Brooklyn who is obsessed with making church dirty.
I think about Madonna a lot.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was when her latest album, MDNA, began with a good old-fashioned prayer:
“Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee
And I detest all my sins
Because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell.
But most of all because I love Thee,
And I want so badly to be good.”
That shit is hot.
Besides being awesome, it also serves as a very, very telling introduction to the fifty minutes of music that follows. On one level, it’s an unmistakable declaration of intent: Madonna is trotting out some old tricks here. Awesome, reliable old tricks. But on another, definitely-unintentional-but-impossible-to-ignore level, it reads as a perfect summation of New Millennium Madonna: She’s sorry for being old. She’s going to cover it up as best she can. She’s gonna try on a lotta different masks tonight; most of them are going to look kind of like Rihanna. She knows she should stop, but she doesn’t know how to, and she’s terrified to find out what might happen if she does. She wants so goddamn badly to be good.
I think about Madonna a lot.
Now, of course, Madonna doesn’t actually think this. Not consciously, anyway. But this is why she’s still so interesting: you know, you just fucking know, that there’s no way she can keep going like this and not be losing just a little bit of sleep at night, wondering if she actually does come across as silly and as sad as we all say she does. At this point, the fact that Madonna insists on still being Madonna makes her almost as much of a freak show as Michael Jackson was, but she just can’t be as blissfully unaware. Madonna is too smart. We know this. She’s been proving it over and over again for thirty fucking years. Nobody has ever made as big of a career in pop music as she has that is based so much on simply just being smarter than all of us.
MDNA is some Sunset Boulevard shit, folks. It’s essentially an accidental concept album about how awfully difficult it can be for an aging glamour gal to hold on to her dignity. It is decadent, it is glossy, and it is sometimes fun, but it is mostly sad. The worst moment is a song called “Gang Bang”, boldly placed in the second track spot. Dear lord, does it pain me. For one thing, it is a song called “Gang Bang” sung by a fifty-three year old woman. That’s the first problem. Then there’s the inexplicably thin, sterile, and cheap sounding production (an observation applicable to most of the material on this album, actually), a for-the-kids dubstep breakdown, and a slow-build climax that arrives with Madonna shouting “DRIVE BITCH, AND WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, DIE BITCH”. Then there’s the sound of a gun shot and she says, “If you’re gonna act like a bitch, you’re gonna die like a bitch.”
I imagine that the unique, brutal punch of embarrassment one feels upon hearing this is similar to the kind you might feel if you were to witness your aunt dance to Skrillex in front of a crowd made up of everybody you went to high school with as she frantically beckons to you, you specifically, and shrilly screams for you to come dance with her.
Thankfully, the album never again quite matches that apex of sadness. There’s some more “club” songs and some more cringe-inducing lyrics, but for the most part the album grinds by relatively inoffensively. I wasn’t kidding when I said there were some awesome, old-school moments here. She pulls another dirty-church move with “I’m a Sinner”, and throws some classic “ooh-la-la”s over big drums in “Superstar”. But nothing touches “Give Me All Your Luvin’”, far and away the best song here, and probably the best single Madonna’s had since “Ray Of Light”. It’s some serious “Open Your Heart”, “Material Girl”-level stuff. Well, maybe not quite, but almost. It’s also the rare self-mythologizing Madonna song, essentially a reminder that almost every woman on the pop charts owes her their careers. It’s a brilliant exercise in recapturing the flag. She even makes two of those women sing the hook – which is just a cheer for Madonna. Then, she trots them out on a painfully short leash, giving Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. only a precious handful of bars each before safely reining them back into their go-go cages. In the music video, Madonna even dresses the two of them up as cheerleaders for shit’s sake. This is what’s known as “sending a message”.
But this is exactly MDNA‘s greatest folly: ultimately, what the music says about the woman singing it is much more interesting than the actual music itself. One look at the producer list gives you a pretty good idea of what every song sounds like; the Benny Benassi-produced numbers sound exactly like they were produced by Benny Benassi, The Demolition Crew are of course the bastards responsible for “Gang Bang”, and the names you don’t recognize produced all the songs you won’t even hum once. The Martin Solveig tunes (“Give Me All Your Luvin’”, “Turn Up The Radio”, “I Don’t Give A”) are the best ones, as he seems to be the only producer on the payroll who gets that Madonna is only fun when she’s making music that at least kind of sounds like Madonna.
Maybe that’s why I yelled at Madonna in my dream. Yes, she was interrupting me while I was talking to somebody else (in the middle of a meal no less), which is inexcusably rude, but perhaps I was just frustrated. Maybe I expect too much of her. And if there’s one thing Madonna has taught us, it’s that expectations are stupid.
I will continue to think about Madonna. A lot.
© Justin Santelli, Music Vice
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