Madonna should have made a breakup album. Not some dreamy, melodramatic teen-pop breakup album, but a record by a middle-aged mother about the failure of her marriage. You can tell that she wanted to. Every once in a while on MDNA, a very specific lyric about opening a joint account or not signing a prenup cuts through the big, cheesy beats and reminds us that there is a real human being behind these songs. But it doesn’t happen enough, because Madonna is afraid to make a record for adults. If she did, she’d have to admit to being one.
It isn’t just that most of the songs on MDNA are vapid, Madonna-on-autopilot stuff. Sure, there’s plenty to complain about there: the Catholic confession (“I want so badly to be good”) that opens the album, the conflation of fame and money and love, the same equation of dancing and freedom that she’s been selling us for almost 30 years. “I’m Addicted” likens a lover to ecstasy, as though there’s something revolutionary about comparing a romance to a drug problem.
What’s frustrating is that Madonna doesn’t seem to know what to do with these grown-up feelings she’s having. Instead of discovering a new sound that fits this new phase in her life, she’s constructed MDNA according to the formula she pioneered in the ’80s: a whole lot of floor-pounding dance songs, with a few syrupy ballads drizzled in for variety. Subject matter doesn’t even seem to dictate whether she’s going for a banger or a sobber. “I Don’t Give A” (which features an invigorating Nicki Minaj verse that makes it the best track on the album) is a sort of electronic-percussive “We Didn’t Start the Fire” that includes the lyrics, “You were so mad at me, who’s got custody?”
Moments like these raise the question of who, exactly, Madonna is trying to reach these days. I can’t see an album of club music with Ke$ha-lite/’80s-Madonna-redux lyrics and songs with titles like “Gang Bang” testing particularly well among her peers. At the same time, do 18-year-old kids want to swap sweat on the dance floor to songs about divorce settlements?
This inability to reconcile youth and adulthood has actually drawn attention to the very issue Madonna spends so much energy — both in the gym and in the studio — trying to avoid: her age. She’s a 53-year-old female pop star in a business that doesn’t have many active, culturally relevant elderstateswomen. There are plenty of other women musicians her age and older, but most of them stay as far from the Top 40 as possible. There are the nostalgia acts, from Aretha Franklin to Stevie Nicks, who are coasting by on songs they recorded decades ago, whether they’re making new records or not. There are the groundbreaking rockers who have moved outside the mainstream or into new media; Patti Smith is a more prolific author than songwriter these days, and Joan Jett occasionally releases her own music on the indie label she runs. Cher hasn’t put out a new album since 2001 (although she’s supposedly recording one now). At 45, Janet Jackson has been more famous in the past decade for her Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” than for her music. Whitney Houston is dead, and even if she were still alive, the chances of her making a meaningful comeback would have been slim. Mariah Carey (42) and Kylie Minogue (43) appear to be the closest big-deal mainstream female pop musicians to Madonna in age, and she’s got a decade on both of them.
Madonna is so old in lady-pop-star years that she already went through what you could call a “mature period” a decade and a half ago, on 1998’s Ray of Light, which happened to come out a few months before her 40th birthday. A collaboration with William Orbit, who also produced half the songs on MDNA, the album sounded contemporary at a time when big-beat artists like The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim had just crossed over to the US mainstream. But what made Ray of Light Madonna’s last great album was the growth and curiosity it showed, fusing mysticism with revelry in a sort of dance-floor spirituality that truly sounded reverent. Unremarkable as it looks written out, the refrain, “And I feel like I just got home,” still gives me chills.
By the turn of the millennium, on Music, Madonna had returned to the material world (at least in her artistic life), strutting around in girl-pimp furs and cowboy hats. Outside of a brief, bizarre attempt at writing the Great American Album, it’s been all leotards and riding crops and songs that sound like they’re meant to accompany the wearing of leotards and riding crops since then. She’s put out a few good singles in the 21st century, but the general consensus seems to be that her reign as trend-setting hitmaker is over.
It’s easy to see why she feels the need to hammer home her desirability. Tina Fey has written that “[t]he definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is: a woman who keeps talking after nobody wants to fuck her anymore,” and for Madonna, who’s built a career on sex and subversion, this harsh reality must be especially daunting. But by clinging to the club coquette/boy toy schtick of her early career, she’s coming dangerously close to joining her elders in nostalgia-act territory.
It isn’t that she needs to put sexuality aside in her post-menopausal years, or even that I feel especially conflicted about her enthusiasm for extreme exercise and plastic surgery — that, sadly, is just plain survival. The problem is that when you strike all the same poses at 53 as you did at 25, you’re going to look a little bit more desperate every year. As Cintra Wilson writes in the collection Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop, “These days, all the sex in Madonna seems predatory and praying-mantis-like — she’s in it for the young blood; it’s an age-reversal injection, like Botox or vitamin B-12.”
But all hope is not lost. That’s the good news about MDNA – as tone-deaf and puzzling as the album is, those jarring moments when we hear about Guy Ritchie and the couple’s kids and their estate in the English countryside and their divorce are signs that Madonna wants to grow. She has things to say about life as she’s living it now, and this album is a wobbly first step in the direction of saying them. She’s just going to have to figure out how to do it, and maybe loosen that praying-mantis-like grip on the 18-t0-24-year-old demographic along the way. It’s going to take courage to sit out a few dances, to own her 53-year-old identity, and to become pop’s most famous elder stateswoman. But if there’s one thing Madonna has never lacked, it’s courage.