Album: Madonna, "MDNA" (Interscope)
Throughout her now ancient career (how ancient? More than two billion people have been born since "Like a Virgin," or roughly two percent of everyone who has ever lived on this planet), one thing remains constant: Madonna will change.
It's practically written into her standard contract riders: specified required number of quickchange costume events plus mind-breaking genre flips. Like snowflakes or Bill Cosby's sweaters (hello again, 1980s!), no Madonna album is allowed to resemble the one that came before it aside from certain inevitable consequences involving legal names and the marketing whims of multinational corporations. It's a construct that's served her well, and helped guarantee that people in 2012 are still talking about a performer who probably peaked 20 years ago as if she was riding the cutting edge -- even when the most adventurous thing she probably does these days is go out in the mornings for yoga class and a gluten-free scone.
But Madonna is hardly breaking new ground on her latest effort "MDNA." A chameleonic performer cut from the same DNA as David Bowie, her reach has historically proven to be exceeded only by her willingness to take chances and fail; it's this process of putting herself out on that ledge, each time a little further than the time before, that has made her consistently interesting if not always brilliant, or at least not often enough. But with its hoary insistence on designer electronic music producers and other expensively decorated furnishings, "MDNA" lacks the headroom for personal growth stories.
It feels, in fact, like Madonna trying to keep up with trends she no longer cares about. If it's Gaga she's after, one wonders why she bothers -- Gaga is an agent of change only in that she frequently wears different Gaga-type hats, or appears in public entangled in a contraption that only Gaga would get herself involved with. There's no feeling for the ledge where Lady Gaga is concerned -- a derivative performer, she merely walks out a rough outline of where her betters, including Madge, have trundled before, then waves her arms for attention. Rather than ignore her and continue being Madonna, which is demonstrably a superior business to be in, Madonna appears to view such creatures -- not just Gaga but Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., who are enlisted, possibly at gunpoint, for sidekick duty here -- as threats which need to be addressed head-on.
It's this sense of Madonna reacting to things that feels uncharacteristic and alien, even unnecessary. Leadoff track "Girl Gone Wild" is a tarted-up rehash of Madge's Catholic Period ("Oh my God, I'm heartily sorry having offended thee," she intones, po-faced, over the opening synth swell -- "I want so badly to be good," she pledges, before launching into a tune that appears, on the face of it, to be about getting freaky at the club); worse, it's following a rabbit down a Gaga-shaped hole. "I'm very outrageous," she seems to be telling us, to which the only proper response after a generation spent getting to know Madonna is: Yeah? And?
"Gang Bang" is a slight improvement, a propulsive number powered by Benny Bennasi electro skronk, but it also feels like a Benny Bennasi track featuring guest vocals by Madonna. Where she used to own the land her houses were built on, she now mostly rents. The sense of "keeping up" does not subside, either, with the song's "provocative" ending a signal that Madge has finally arrived in the Thug Lyfe era just as everyone else seems to be leaving it.
More tunes like "I'm Addicted" and "MDNA" would have begun to make sense. Like most of the album, it's a stomping dancefloor shaker, but unlike most of the stuff here, one can imagine this actually getting played on real dance floors. "Some girls like to get their freak on," she insists on "Some Girls," which is most assuredly not the Rolling Stones classic but instead another flag labeled "out of control" that Madonna decided was best waved while marching like a robot. The synth-pop feels oppressive at this point, almost airless, lacking any sense of real life or dirt. In other words, the loose-limbed disco-funk of a "Vogue" or "Express Yourself" is out of the question now. The possibility of life going outside the lines or sideways is simply not a weapon in the 2012 Madonna arsenal.
Then there's "Turn Up the Radio," wherein Madonna copies Gaga's "Born This Way," which was an explicit cop of "Express Yourself." One wonders where this ends. Gaga probably wouldn't see the point of responding, which might be the saddest part. One of these would have been enough, but "I'm a Sinner" feels similarly self-cannibalistic; essentially it's a pastiche, a medley of Madonna Through the Years that will mostly remind listeners that they could save time and frustration just by listening to the originals instead.
"MDNA" also serves to remind listeners that other people make the music that Madonna makes. In her prime, she simply was her songs; now she's somebody else's current project. It is almost impossible to listen to any cut on "MDNA" and not think about who made it happen, who is singing backing vocals, what sort of electronic instruments these people are using, the bpm count on the training wheels trance down in the groove; anything, really, except the person who is singing. She's become afraid to fail. For a tightrope walker, this is a condition known as "retirement." For Madonna, it merely assures that she will continue to regularly pump out lackluster studio work between bouts of high-energy, big money international touring. But in the recording studio her presence will continue to diminish until she can barely be seen over the array of mics and drum risers.
And that's the greatest trick the devil ever played: making us think Madonna was just another backup singer.