Imitating her imitators’ tears: Madonna’s MDNA holds up mirror to pop-stardom

“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”

In apparent mockery of Lady Gaga – both in costume and verse – Madonna disingenuously apologizes at the opening of her latest music video “Girl Gone Wild.”
©2012 Interscope Records

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.”

Lady Gaga Born This Way Madonna

Much like Lady Gaga ends “Born This Way” with a tearful nod to Madonna, Madonna ends “Girl Gone Wild” resembling Lady Gaga, but with tears to excess.
©2011 Interscope Records.

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.

Lady Gaga The Fame Monster Black Tears

Lady Gaga The Fame Monster 2009
©2009 Interscope Records

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.”

Madonna's Tears of Vogue Fame

“Madonna: Disco Tears”
Photo courtesy of Patricia Silva
Based on the original photography of Steven Meisel
©1991 Vogue Italia

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.



4 thoughts on “Imitating her imitators’ tears: Madonna’s MDNA holds up mirror to pop-stardom

  1. MDNA is pretty terrible from what I have heard so far. It is fairly irritating, it sounds like a cheap immitation of Katy Perry, Kesha, and Lady Gaga. It sounds just like everything else, except bad.

    • Thanks for the feedback! I was thinking about your points for a while now. After having the pleasure to finally listen to Perry’s Teenage Dream album, I had some thoughts more generally.

      I think Perry is of a different genre than Madonna, reminding me of a young Shania Twain––“Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” comes to mind when I hear Perry’s uptempo guitar refrains. Pop-Country ballades have never been Madonna’s forte. Not even Music captures Perry’s spritely spirit. It’s like comparing apples to oranges.

      I also think Perry and Ke$ha are appealing to younger audiences than Madonna–late teens versus mid-twenties. Even comparing Madonna to Mariah Carey, I think Madonna is quite aware that she is not talented in the R&B or rap departments. That’s why Madonna outsources this work to solos by M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj, filling in these gaps. This is legitimately one of her weaknesses.

      Finally, to Gaga’s credit, Gaga is able to piece together a variety of musical genres into a coherent album that flows and tells a story. I’m not sure Madonna is able to accomplish this with MDNA (like she was able to do with Confessions), but we will have to wait and see how she develops it further (particularly with her tour and future music videos).

      At the current time, however, Madonna isn’t making promotion of the album a huge priority, as her interview with Jimmy Fallon revealed. She doesn’t seem to care as much as she used to. Where is her indignation? Madonna’s age and ‘post-fame’ attitude are certainly showing. Perhaps she’s tired.

      Again though, that she still provides provocative content and compelling lamentations with MDNA makes Madonna’s latest work impressive.

  2. Also, if I am not mistaken. Mariah Carey’s career crushes Madonna’s in the American market. Mariah is also 12 years younger, and with 12 times the talent.

  3. Pingback: Eighteen months; fifteen hackneyed songs: Calvin Harris absent amidst album of collaborative singles | My Husband's Trophy

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