What an era in pop music to be Madonna, huh? Small voices with big attitudes (and shivery-smooth, house-inflected dance pop) are huge, while the predominance of hip-hop aesthetics, which her Madgesty could never quite make work for her, has waned -- or, even better, also shifted to electronic dance music's darker side. Gaga's got everyone in a theatrical, taboo-thwarting, gender-bendy, Wagnerian-drama-with-a-good-beat kind of mood (a mood she blatantly borrowed from Madonna, thus reinforcing the elder stateswoman's legacy and giving her something to complain about). In short, it's the perfect time for The Queen to re-ascend her throne, which she never quite lost, even if these days there's way more competition for it.
And if her new MDNA feels a bit more like a political campaign than a graceful, omnipotent reclaiming of divine power, well, that's not exactly Madonna's fault. Perfect timing or not, legacy or not, remaining culturally and commercially viable in the pop-music industry for 30 years is going to be tough. She wages that battle admirably here, but like all battles, it's not without its highs, its lows and its struggles -- sometimes all on the same track.
Take "Gang Bang," for instance. At the outset, it's a fairly fascinating exercise in noir dance pop, complete with creepy monotone vocals, an ominous bassline and a throbbing dubstep bridge, all of which seem like they might take Madge to darker, more interesting places (perhaps more M.I.A.-friendly places) than she's been before. And then the song just doesn't go there. The lyrics get obsessed with the narrative, spinning a bad movie plot or concept-album entry instead of simply a twisted metaphor. Musically, the track wears out its welcome, dragging on and on like an endless car trip while our host snarls, "Drive, bitch" over and over.
Her use of guests M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj is also disappointing, if not surprising. Madonna, always a master of harnessing exciting talent and keeping her finger on the pulse of current trends, uses what could have been a really interesting collaboration as an opportunity to colonize the new hot young things. She relegates them to virtual backup singers on "Give Me All Your Luvin'," which, unfortunately, feels more desperate than omnipotent.
But these are the issues Madonna is wrangling with: where does a still-vibrant but older queen fit into pop's youth-obsessed pantheon? MDNA tries out various possible answers: "Superstar" offers girlish bubblegum that sounds more like something someone Lourdes' age might write (if she knew who James Dean was). Then she switches gears, shifting into (ironic?) desperate-housewife mode and singing about babysitters and ex-wives on the cynical cougar strut of "I Don't Give A."
On some level, then, MDNA is driven by an identity crisis. And frankly, that crisis makes for some of Madonna's most interesting material ever. Musically, she's pushing herself. And if in the process there are a few missteps, there are also a lot of amazing leaps: "Love Spent," for instance, swirls together ABBA-esque disco with banjo licks, of all things. And while hearing Madge refer to herself as a girl is jarring, opening track "Girl Gone Wild" is pure dance-pop goodness that pulses with smoke-machine beats and twirling melody lines. The album also contains some of the prettiest, most mature vocals of her career: the lovely, vulnerable "Falling Free" showcases a Madonna who can actually sing (who knew!?).
It's that vulnerability, in fact, that makes MDNA such a compelling experiment. Madonna has made a career out of deferring definition and thwarting our every effort to "know" her with ice-queen roadblocks and masquerade balls. And while that larger-than-life, fabulously theatrical impenetrability is a big part of the reason we love her so much, it's also nice to catch a glimpse of the smaller, realer person behind the curtain.