Originally Published in The Badger Herald, March 27, 2012
“The ‘Queen’ is back, the ‘Queen’ is back!”
Since the February release of Madonna (Madonna Louise Ciccone)’s first single “Give Me All Your Luvin,’” Madonna fans have been plastering the internet with this proclamation. But the biggest question is “Since when was Madonna ever ‘gone?’”
Today marks the release of Madonna’s 12th studio album, titled MDNA. After a four-year wait, listeners can relax: This album, unlike Hard Candy (2008), meets the standards set by Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005).
Barbra Streisand aside, Madonna is the prototypical example of the most successful professional working in the American music industry. Earning a Guinness World Record, Madonna has sold over 300 million albums. Her work spans three-and-a-half decades, and her image is — as she once jokingly said to her daughter — “timeless.”
MDNA is distinct within Madonna’s portfolio for its unique take on what it means to be a reactionary. Madonna doesn’t just stab at things to be political, but also to be self-reflexive. It is Madonna’s irony that makes MDNA so entertaining and a delight to listen to.
Audiences often remark that the focus of Madonna’s attention is, unfairly, Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta). The album does, in part, respond to Lady Gaga’s Born this Way (2011). But it does more.
©2011 Interscope Records.
Lady Gaga’s opening lines are the target of Madonna’s satire: “[A]s the eternal mother hovered in the multiverse, another more terrifying birth took place/ The birth of evil … Rotating in agony between two ultimate forces, the pendulum of choice began its dance/ It seems easy, you imagine, to gravitate instantly and unwaveringly towards good/ But she wondered: ‘How can I protect something so perfect without evil?’”
The feud over artistic originality between Madonna and Lady Gaga is as overstated as each artist’s self-professed Catholic guilt. Fans have pitted themselves into camps, ceaselessly arguing over which woman holds the rights to various iconography: Do the cone-shaped brassieres in “Express Yourself” belong to Madonna, or are Lady Gaga’s machine gun breasts in “Alejandro” violent enough to distinguish themselves?
Is such a debate useful or even possible? Madonna plays with this idea throughout the album.
The most obvious example of idea piracy is in Madonna’s song and music video “Girl Gone Wild.” Madonna references iconic Lady Gaga moments. However, she does so on a grossly exaggerated scale:
“bare-assed gay” vampires, “black inkblots” of farewell tears and “hula hoop” gyrating while in chains.
The sex appeal in which Lady Gaga finds her persona is ruined. Madonna’s icy sarcasm at its best.
©2012 Boy Toy, Inc.
Like Gaga, Madonna refers to light and dark, God and the afterlife. Yet Madonna’s tone of voice and apathy to the tension between good and bad betray her sarcasm: “Oh my God/ I’m heartily sorry for having offended thee/ And I detest all my sins/ Because I dread the loss of heaven and the pain of hell/ But most of all because I love Thee/ And I want so badly to be good.”
The album is a collection of images and sounds. Madonna collaborates with well-known electro-magnets: Grammy-winning producer William Orbit, distinctive DJ Benny Benassi and playful singer Mika (Michael Holbrook Penniman). They stamp the album with unremitting synthesizer beats and trance instrumentals. Gunshots and porn conga rhythms grace Madonna’s sultry trashiness in the track “Gang Bang.”
More jubilant are the pop truisms of the upbeat tracks “Turn Up the Radio” and “Superstar.” The latter track contains a distinctively sugarcoated refrain: “I’m your biggest fan, it’s true/ Hopelessly attracted to you/ You can have the keys to my car/ I’ll play you a song on my guitar/ Ooh la la, you’re my superstar.” Very 1990s. If it weren’t Madonna, we might think she’s being serious.
Superficiality is not the only quality reflected in MDNA. Madonna’s Golden-Globe-winning song “Masterpiece” helps close the album. It reminds us that Madonna has depth and can be vulnerable. Subtly though. A counterpart to Lady Gaga’s raw honesty, the two share a tortured sadness.
Throughout, MDNA returns to examinations of imitation. Lady Gaga is not Madonna’s only target. MDNA globalizes its critique of artistic ownership by shameless and excessive borrowing from well-known stars: Kylie Minogue’s quicksilver high-heeled dancers, M.I.A (Maya Arulpragasam)’s baggy t-shirt and Wayfarer-sunglasses combo, Beyoncé Knowles’s windswept hair. A reinterpretation of The Rolling Stones’s “Some Girls.” Madonna even channels Rihanna Fenty’s Good Girl Gone Bad (2007) seductiveness when she whispers “I want so badly to be good.”
The “Queen” lives between albums through the stagecraft of the artists she references. Whether or not it was Madonna’s intention, MDNA highlights the fallacies of claiming exclusive ownership over ideas. The irony that anyone with talent can assemble an arbitrary collection of them into something that works leaves behind a little sting.
- Madonna ‘MDNA’ remix album announced (digitalspy.co.uk)
- Ben Harvey: LISTEN: Madonna’s Brother Opens Up To ‘The Six Pack’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Video: Madonna Grinds With Jimmy Fallon, Performs Provocatively, and Talks Motherhood For MDNA (popsugar.com)