Madonna’s “Girls Gone Wild” Induces Existential Dread, Cultural Bewilderment

Occasionally, a record will come into the Flavorpill office that’s so jaw-droppingly abysmal that it stops the entire room, a record that leaves everyone starting at the stereo and mouthing the words: “What fresh hell is this?” The last time this happened it was Chris Cornell’s Scream, but we have a new contender: the new Madonna single, which debuted in full on Vevo this morning and has since had this writer cowering in the corner and contemplating actual self-harm.

Here’s the thing with Madonna: like her or not, she’s made a career out of being very good at putting herself in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. So even with the distinctly underwhelming Hard Candy as preparation, it’s a shock to hear her produce a track that sounds so… so tired and so completely devoid of identity. Perhaps the MDNA title — a drug allusion that might have been mildly edgy in about 1988 — should have been another clue that Madonna’s days of being at the vanguard, as opposed to wheezing along in the pack, were long behind her.

Even so, “Girls Gone Wild” is dreadful. Head-scratchingly, cringe-inducingly, depressingly horrible. It’s like every pop music cliché of the last ten years rolled into three hellish minutes and 19 seconds, a gestalt roll call of influences from an artist who’s clearly lost any power of innovation she may have once possessed. It’s like its creator has sat down and decided exactly what she needs to do to create a chart-topper — what producer to work with, what persona to project, what lyrical angle to take.

And good grief, the lyrics. We often (rightly) criticize male musicians for refusing to grow up — so surely it’s about time Madonna lost her interminably dull Catholic-girl-gone-bad schtick? For all that she’s frequently held up as an example of a strong woman succeeding in a male-dominated industry, here Madonna has about as much to do with feminism as Rick Santorum does with broad-mindedness. The lyric to “Girls Gone Wild” is a list of tired lapsed-Catholic clichés that only serve to reinforce the idea that sex, drugs, and those 808 drums are somehow guilty pleasures, as opposed to just, y’know, pleasures. Healthy pleasures, even. “I know I shouldn’t act this way/ I know good girls don’t misbehave/ But I’m a bad girl anyway,” moans Madge over the middle-eight, as your correspondent slowly loses the will to live. Honestly, this sort of piffle is puerile enough coming from Gaga and Ke$ha, let alone a 53-year-old adult who a) should know better and b) should surely have more interesting things to say with the global stage that her career has granted her.

It’s not even clear that the cringe-inducing take on gender roles is the most objectionable thing about the whole sorry affair. There’s certainly some strong competition: the shameless Cyndi Lauper lyric lift (“Girls they just wanna have some fun,” indeed), the nonsensical straight-from-the-rhyming-dictionary line that follows (“Get fired up like a smoking gun”), the casual bit of brand-dropping in the second verse (“It must be the Tanqueray” — ker-ching!), and, of course, the omnipresent Auto-Tune. And then there’s the music, a Benny Bennassi production that’s perhaps the clearest example yet of what Simon Reynolds and Tom Ewing have called the tranceification of pop, setting Madonna’s vocals to a head-punching four-to-the-floor gurner that harkens back to the dark, dark days of Alice Deejay and Fragma.

“Girls Gone Wild” is a hugely effective piece of songwriting, sure — listen once and the melody will lodge in your head for days like some sort of ghastly hematophagic parasite. But it’s effective in the same way that McDonalds’ advertising is effective, a coldly calculating piece of work that feels more like a marketing strategy than a piece of art, a song that exists only to sell as many copies as possible. It has virtually nothing to say, and what it does have to say skitters along the border between the inane and the actually rather offensive. Which raises the question: why does it even exist? It’s not like Madonna needs the money. It’s not like she has anything to say, either.

It’s clear that “Girls Gone Wild” is not for snotty music critics. Which is fine. It’s pop music, after all. It doesn’t care whether Pitchfork likes it. But who is this aimed at? What’s it for? The obvious answer is that it’s aimed at the clubs, but even the sort of commercial trance artists who Madonna’s trying to channel here invested their music with some degree of soul and warmth. Not so this track. For all its alleged depiction of having “fun,” there’s nothing remotely joyous about this song — it’s laden with the grim energy of a club when you’ve dropped about seven pills and you really only want to go home, but you know you won’t be able to sleep, and there’s paranoia tickling at the edges of your consciousness and a feeling of dread, existential dread, rising blackly in your gut. It’s hedonism with the pleasure removed, a mechanical bump-and-grind that has nothing to do with humanity, and while that experience can certainly be compelling subject matter (see HTRK’s Work, work, work, for instance), it’s only so if there’s some degree of self-awareness involved.

There’s no such subtlety here, only a mega-rich dominatrix ranting at you to HAVE FUN GODDAMMIT while you cringe on the couch and wish she’d just go away. The horror, the horror.