The title of Madonna’s new MDNA is working on several levels. There’s the association with MDMA, the already-passé drug of choice among the current crop of nü-ravers who have been steadily influencing the pop charts, and whom MDNA is clearly courting with shiny club-pop that’s begging to be plugged into the playlists of unimaginative DJs everywhere. The title also obviously references Madonna herself, appropriate for an album that spends considerable time reminding listeners of the Material Girl’s legacy: lyrical winks to “Lucky Star” and “Like A Virgin,” a song that essentially repurposes “Ray Of Light,” a Like A Prayer-evoking opening benediction. But the titular acronym can also be read through the lens of evolutionary science as referencing mitochondrial DNA—or rather, Madonna DNA. Though it’s almost certainly not meant to, this interpretation speaks to Madonna’s problematic place in the current pop-music landscape: After three decades of appropriating and propagating contemporary dance- and pop-music trends, Madonna in 2012 is now seeking inspiration from artists (and a fan base) who have never lived in a world where Madonna wasn’t pop royalty. Madonna is such a fundamental part of the genetic makeup of today’s pop music, is it even possible for her to break out of this recursive loop and move her music forward in any meaningful way?
It’s a delicate question that rides on the assumption of pop music as a young person’s game, and invites hacky dismissals rooted in ageism. Then again, it’s hard to overlook the absurdity of a 53-year-old mother of a teenager repeatedly referring to herself as a “girl” on MDNA. Pop is a hard genre to grow old in, arguably more so than rock ’n’ roll or hip-hop, and Madonna’s solution thus far has been to imitate rather than adapt, with generally non-embarrassing results. But the disconnect between Madonna on record and Madonna in person is becoming harder and harder to overlook. We want to believe that musicians would actually listen to the music they make, but it’s tough to imagine the Madonna of today wanting to spend significant time in the sorts of clubs she came up in, for reasons beyond professional obligation. And “obligation” isn’t a word that should be associated with party music—or music of any sort, really—but it’s a feeling that unfortunately permeates MDNA, an album that’s competent, but equally perfunctory.
Madonna herself seems absent from much of MDNA, aforementioned self-referencing aside. Her vocals often get electronically manipulated and buried under big, generic Euro-dance beats, and they step aside for frequent dubstep interludes. And while she’s never been hailed for her lyrical prowess, lazy couplets like “I just wanna get in my car / I wanna go fast and I gotta go far” and Mad Libs statements like “the temperature’s poundin’” (can it do that?) don’t suggest a lot of personal investment in the words she’s singing. Both of those lines come from “Turn Up The Radio,” which actually possesses a great hook underneath a pile of clichés that pulls down what could have been one of the album’s strongest tracks. That’s a problem that extends to most of MDNA, which is filled with okay songs that could have been good-to-great, if not for one or two ill-advised elements.
“I’m A Sinner,” the aforementioned “Ray Of Light” sound-alike, plugs along nicely for the first two and a half minutes, suggesting itself as one of the album’s best tracks—until it reaches a bridge in which Madonna rattles off a list of holy figures paired with the first rhyming word that comes to mind: “Jesus Christ hanging on the cross / died for our sins it’s such a loss”; “St. Christopher find my way / I’ll be coming home one day”; “St. Anthony lost and found / Thomas Aquinas stand your ground.” Similarly, “Gang Bang” starts out as a dark, trancey revenge fantasy that’s more interesting than most of what surrounds it. But the song doesn’t know when to stop. It drones on for five and a half minutes, through a finale in which Madonna screams “Drive, bitch! Now die, bitch!”, signing off with, “Now if you’re gonna act like a bitch, [gunshot noise], then you’re gonna die like a bitch.”
Then there’s her fuck-you to her ex, Guy Ritchie: “I Don’t Give A,” which exacerbates the sins of 2005’s “American Life” (in which Madonna infamously rapped about a “double shot-ay” in her soy latte), as she prattle-raps through boasts like “Workin’ out, shake my ass / I know how to multitask” and “Gotta call the babysitter / Tweetin’ on the elevator.” Then, as if to further heighten the song’s “OMG Mom, what are you doing” mortification level, Nicki Minaj steps in with the better of her two guest verses on MDNA (and one of her better features in a while).
The presence of the ubiquitous Minaj, who also joins M.I.A. on the wilted pom-pom of a lead single “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” (“L-U-V, Madonna! Y-O-U, you wanna!”) highlights the odd schism of MDNA, which posits Madonna as a luminary descending from the pop-music firmament to grace today’s musical trends with her legitimizing embrace, but often comes off like compulsory mark-hitting. But that’s pretty much par for the course when it comes to post-millennial Madonna, and the only real measure of an album’s success is how well she and her producers sell the charade. While MDNA’s grab-bag of playlist-friendly elements (courtesy of producers like Benny Benassi and Ray Of Light collaborator William Orbit) is too scattered to reach the level of 2005’s Stuart Price-helmed Confessions On A Dance Floor, there are enough moments of euphoria to keep MDNA from flatlining. Oddly, though, a pair of ballads, “Masterpiece” and especially the closer “Falling Free,” constitute some of the album’s best moments, with Madonna’s vocals finally seeming at peace with the electro washes surrounding them. They’re not flashy, boundary-pushing, or even especially modern-sounding songs, but they do feel like songs by Madonna rather than songs featuring Madonna. Given the album’s title and theme, such songs are too few and far between on MDNA.