Monday, April 16, 2012

"MDNA" - Madonna's Postmodernist Pop Project

Madonna is arguably the patron saint, if not the founder, of modern pop music. Without her, none of the pop music on the radio today would exist, and it's undeniable that her career has exemplified success in the music business, to a degree perhaps rivaled only by the Beatles. But the Beatles didn't last as long as Madonna has; in fact, it's hard to think of a comparably major musician who stuck around playing in the big leagues long enough to operate in a landscape molded so enormously on her own influence. As Madonna advances through her sixth decade, and, of course, because she is *gasp* a woman, pundits, public figures, and music critics -  most of them men - have circled the waters like sharks for well over a decade now, eager to speculate on and revel in the Queen of Pop's fall from the throne whenever she drops a new studio album. Though far from perfect, her latest LP MDNA is the 53-year-old performer's strongest argument in defense of her continued reign since 2000's Music, even if much of the argument is a bit more sophisticated than pop fans (and critics) are used to.

Madonna Postmodern Pop MDNA

Since Music, Madonna has become more focused in her approach to her audience and who that audience is, playing to the niche of solid Madonna fans rather than aiming as much at the general public. Even so, she has found mainstream success - "Hung Up," the lead single from her most compact genre project Confessions on a Dance Floor, is one of her best-selling singles ever. It's true that American Life and Hard Candy were somewhat of a mess, but when Madonna announced that she would be collaborating with Ray of Light producer William Orbit and hot up-and-coming producer Martin Solveig on MDNA, her first studio album in four years, hopes for another Confessions-like set were justifiably high.

MDNA is not another Confessions... - it lacks the latter's consistency, its carefree casualness, lyrical simplicity, and icy confidence. These aren't necessarily criticisms, as Madonna hasn't given reason to believe that creating a companion to Confessions... was ever her intention. But because MDNA doesn't announce itself as a coherent product of a certain genre (or one that consciously defies generic classification), it lends itself to comparisons with Confessions... because so much of MDNA involves the same stylistic norms of dance music.

Confessions... didn't attempt to break any new ground, which is part of the reason it's not a difficult album to enjoy if you've already accepted the formalities of dance music. MDNA doesn't bombastically break new ground either, the way Britney Spears' dubstep breakdown stunt did. Still, there are parts of MDNA that strike the ear as unfamiliar, and occasionally unsettling. They're not leaps like Ray of Light, Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds or the Black Eyed Peas' The E.N.D. (The Energy Never Dies), but rather extensions of the stylistic and musical exploration that has come before. The bubbling opening sounds on "I'm Addicted" are just another variation of the bouncing electronic arcade sounds that have pervaded dance and pop for the past few years. The stuttering electronic chords that zoom from left to right throughout deluxe track "Best Friend" are novel enough to catch the ear but not alien enough to boggle the mind. The most inventive track on MDNA, "Gang Bang," plays with song structure, lyrical content, and vocal performance, and is disorienting enough to make the brutal bass-busting beat seem more innovative than it is.

These moments are sprinkled lightly throughout MDNA, certainly not driving or defining its overall sound. The majority of the album consists of sounds that are familiar in dance and pop music (some more exciting than others), or, interestingly, sounds that specifically echo Madonna's own previous work. It's interesting that so many critics took issue with the latter, which they described as being "dated," proof that 53-year-old Madge is simply too over the hill to make relevant music in 2012, rather than the less inspired examples of the former, which really constitute the album's low points. Benny and Alle Benassi's "Girl Gone Wild" is a prime example: the beat never wows nor builds, never goes anywhere, and it's not interesting enough to forego such pop formula techniques in favor of steady, hypnotic techno. Nor are the lyrics, banal dance-floor verbiage of the type that works in a secondary role to engaging beats or production, as with much current dance/pop, but not when the production forces them to pick up the slack. The percussion and ho-hum accompaniment to "Superstar" are even less effective behind the song's yawn-inducing, cliche-ridden lyrics, and the song is a total waste of space.

The Madonna evocations on the album range from brief references within songs to entire tracks, such as deluxe track "Beautiful Killer" and the Golden Globe-winning "Masterpiece." However, these moments serve an intentional purpose, and that purpose is a markedly postmodern one. This is where MDNA gets interesting - if one looks at the numerous elements of the album as examples of postmodern pop, it raises the suggestion that Madonna, a forward-looking player of the modernist pop era, has become not just a participant in postmodern pop, but an early pioneer of the movement. Of course, this isn't entirely surprising, as Madonna has in a way been something of a pop postmodernist throughout her career, only the era in which she performed wasn't prepared to hear postmodern ideals, much less adopt them.

Those looking to apply postmodernist theory to MDNA will find plenty of evidence to support their intentions.
  • Mastery of pastiche: 90s throwbacks "Masterpiece" and "Beautiful Killer;" the 90s hip-hop/pop sound of "I Don't Give A"
  • Belief that art not only exists in itself but can have cultural relevance: The Super Bowl tie-in on the music video for "Give Me All Your Luvin'"
  • Conflation of high and low cult: full orchestrations performed by live instruments on several tracks; religious dialogue
  • Musical references/quotations: "You can be my lucky star;" "Would you like to try?" ("Give Me All Your Luvin,'" after "Lucky Star," "Future Lovers"); "Forgive me" ("Girl Gone Wild," after "Sorry")
  • Disdain for rigid structural unity/social norms: the lyrical rebelliousness of "Girl Gone Wild" & "I'm a Sinner;" the structural explorations of "Gang Bang" and "B-day Song"
  • Self-referential art: References listed above; "Beautiful Killer" (after "Beautiful Stranger"); "Masterpiece;" "I'm a Sinner" contextually referencing "Like a Prayer;" the music video for "Girl Gone Wild" (after the videos for "Vogue" and "Justify My Love"); Nicki Minaj's rap on "I Don't Give A"
  • Deliberate inclusion of the audience/consumer: the premise of "Give Me All Your Luvin'"
One of the tracks most stuffed with postmodernist elements is "Give Me All Your Luvin'," the much maligned lead single. It's important to note that the song's video premiered at the same time as the single itself, a la "Bad Romance," so by design the record involves the visual element as much as the musical. In the video, a radiant Madonna cavorts around town, aided by a team of faceless football players who do everything from diving into puddles to keep her feet dry to throwing themselves in front of an assassin's bullets. Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. front a squad of creepy, Jessie J-looking masked cheerleaders, smugly gloating about Madonna's awesomeness. The football motif, of course, refers to Madonna's performance at the Super Bowl halftime (cultural relevance), and since she pulled off a widely praised performance, the idea of her as ruler of even the macho world of pro football stands to scrutiny.

Other postmodern points include the reference to her song "Lucky Star;" the chant of "L-U-V Madonna!" (self-referential); the anti-establishment chorus ("Don't play the stupid game/Cause I'm a different kind of girl/Every record sounds the same"); and a lyrical reference to her song "Future Lovers" ("Would you like to try?"). The three artists also appear in blonde Marilyn Monroe wigs on the bridge (pastiche). The juxtaposition of Madonna with the football world is based on reality, yes, but the disparate nature of the collaboration is played up in the video, in the way postmodern pop music conflates "high" and "low" culture, and what's additionally interesting is how, in this equation, Madonna represents the "high," whereas pop music is typically considered the "low" element.

With the amount of postmodern pop facets spread throughout MDNA, it's hard to simply dismiss the album as "dated." MDNA is by no means perfect, or even uniformly good, and the mediocre work at play on some tracks is unacceptable for an established ruler like Madonna. Younger listeners unfamiliar with Madonna except as interpreted by Lady Gaga undoubtedly will accuse her of copying Gaga and other stars whose very existence is arguably a tribute to the path Madonna largely helped lay, and while they may be mistaken, that doesn't change the fact that they won't be buying Madonna's records. There is plenty of ageism at play in much of the criticism about MDNA; when a capsule review makes derisive note of her age before dismissing the album as dated or desperate posturing, beware.

Then there is the fact that discussions of postmodernist theory in reference to pop music is quite new (I distinguish pop music from music in general; critics have been talking about postmodern music since the early 80s). Aside from casual mentions of postmodern thought in pop music here and there, the rubric for applying the theory to pop music I offered last year in a post about Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" is one of the first attempts to codify or concentrate on some proposed definition of the theory in pop music terms. There certainly aren't more than a handful of pop music writers who seem to understand pop music any more than the average consumer (some of them even less), and why their critical opinions should be considered expert is a mystery.

It would be thoroughly understandable for someone not to care for MDNA, or to find it flawed; however, it's actually difficult to devise a persuasive, legitimate critical argument that hold that MDNA is of less-than-average quality, and arguments that the album is "dated" have been rebutted herein and elsewhere. There are, of course, other ways to go about analyzing, criticizing and experiencing MDNA than vetting its postmodernity: the album is Madonna's most explicitly personal, exploring her feelings about her divorce from director Guy Ritchie in remarkable detail - an angle well worth exploring, as Rolling Stone did. Alternately, MDNA can be examined in terms of sound and style: a co-production of two major producers with presumably infinite resources and maximum incentive to turn out top work is ripe for critical discussion.

Or, at least for the general public, as a friend asked me, "why can't it just be an album of good, entertaining music?" As Madonna has often reminded us, a main purpose of pop music is to entertain, and bring people together, bourgeoisie and rebel alike. Nowhere has that been so apparent as at Madonna's Super Bowl show, seen by 114 million viewers of every imaginable musical taste. 114 million. In that sense, MDNA had enormous success before it was even released; its stellar first-week sales (359,000 in the US) further denoted a victory for Madonna's latest project (never mind the second-week drop).

What has always separated Madonna from hit factories like Mariah Carey or Rihanna is the extra thought, time, effort and experimentation she, and often she herself, puts into her records, not simply performing pop music but actively attempting, over time, to push pop forward. MDNA is a good, not great, album, but it is her most academically interesting since Ray of Light. Aside from the small and not always successful ways MDNA attempts to appear ahead of the pack instead of behind the times, the subtextual theoretical smorgasbord Madonna has provided is the most convincing evidence of her continued relevance in the pop music realm, even though, yes, she is 53 years old. Like it or not, Madonna is the most influential pop music artist of the contemporary era, and as long as she continues to participate in it this actively, no sniffing about her age or dismissive remarks about being "dated" can be taken seriously as criticism - yet. In pop music, for the time being, there's only one queen, and that's still Madonna.

MDNA is available now on iTunes and Amazon.
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