I’m not going to write an in depth review because my brain is fried but Madonna really blew my expectations out of the water last night.
I was excited for the show when I bought the ticket and I love the album but I’ll be honest by the time it rolled around I was pretty meh about it. I’m so, so glad I went. She even got me up and dancing in the face of vertigo.
The staging and set pieces were great and all that (especially the obligatory religious section at the start) but *she* was just a joy to watch. I don’t think I ever expected see a Madonna tour where the highlights were just her singing on a stage with little else going on. Watching her skip around like a 15 year old to Like A Virgin or sit girlishly swinging one foot whilst singing Edith Piaf were things that just shouldn’t work – but they so, so did. Also, some genuinely wonderful live vocals. Who knew?
The new material felt solid amongst the hits and in many cases were stand out highlights. Madonna will not go quietly into heritage act status and it was great to see the crowd go genuinely wild for several of the Rebel Heart tracks.
Much will be made of her coming on late and having the power shut off on her and whilst I’m generally in the ‘just get onstage on time’ camp watching her come back on to perform Holiday with the lights up and no mic whilst the whole audience sang along was an A grade Pop Moment that I will cherish (pun intended) forever.
The last tour was fun in a big pop show way but this one for me was really special. Bitch made us wait but my god she was worth it.
Despite being a lifelong fan Madonna’s last two albums have been, if not terrible, at least a case of lowering expectations for me so I will freely admit that my hopes for her most recent release ‘Rebel Heart’ were not high. Perhaps that’s why on my first listen I came away with with a verdict of ‘ok, but nothing special’. However unlike it’s predecessor MDNA (you can read my review of it at the time here) Rebel Heart is a grower not a show-er. Where MDNA started as a force-yourself-to-listen-to-it-because-it’s-Madonna 6.5/10 for me (and, in all honesty, three years later has ended with me only being able to listen to a few tracks from it) Rebel Heart took just a few spins to become one of those albums that I can’t stop playing.
The biggest difference for me between this and MDNA is that it feels well crafted, well considered and cohesive. It also feels like an album made by an intelligent, functioning adult – by which I mean when there are saucy bits, bratty bits or sweary bits that make me guffaw out loud it feels finally like I am laughing with not at her again.
Along with the ‘outrageous’ it’s worth pointing out that the ‘heart’ in Rebel Heart is very much present too. In fact for me this is her first album since American Life to offer genuinely heartfelt emotion and vulnerability. MDNA and Hard candy both had flashes of it but always with a caveat or a wink. Here there are many moments I find moving without feeling shoe-horned in or like they occupy the place of the obligatory label-required ballad.
There are issues with the album – there are a few duff tracks (most of which are frustratingly lumped together at the start of the album) and most obviously, and sadly, her voice itself. She has in recent years lost much of the warmth, depth and tone to her vocal range that made it so beautiful and she now generally sounds rather shrill, thin and pitchy on most songs. There are flashes of what she is still capable of throughout the record but in most cases, on a technical level, it could be any of the big pop girls – and at times, arguably it would sound better if it were.
That said, what Rebel Heart does give us once again that has been missing for so long is a big, high voltage kick of the Madonna spirit – saucy, smart, irreverent, iconic, and frequently ironic. And for that reason alone it really could be no-one else. Where only a few years ago she seemed desperate and aimless I feel like she has thankfully found her feet again – her sense of humour and soul with it.
Rebel Heart is a very good record in it’s own right but also, almost more thrillingly, leaves me once more properly excited to see what she produces in the future. Something which I now confess (bless myself and genuflect) I thought was gone for good.
Track by track
1. Living For Love – 6/10
Why do I hardly ever like anyone’s first single? I find artists often have a habit of releasing underwhelmingly ‘safe’ tracks as lead singles only for there to be a wealth of more exciting material on the album. No-one seems to be immune to this from Bowie to Britney and Living for Love is another one of those for me. It’s not a terrible song and the backing vocals give it some enjoyable flourish but it’s at best a mid-range album track for me and no doubt I will come to love it much more as that than I do at the moment.
That said, I will probably never be able to listen to it without visualising *that* moment at the Brits :/
2. Devil Pray – 6/10
I feel like I should like this song more than I do as it’s reminiscent of some of my favourite songs on Music but it just doesn’t quite hit the spot somehow.
3. Ghosttown – 8/10
One of the few songs on the album where we get glorious chunks of thevoice we grew up loving. Melodic, melancholic and catchy in the right places.This is also set to be the second single, a great choice I think.
4. Unapologetic Bitch – 4/10
This is the only track on the album
that plumbs similar depths to MDNA for me and has the same icky ‘dancing with
the kidz’ vibe that put me off most of that album. Plus it’s a bit UB40.
5. Illuminati – 5/10
A fun and lyrically amusing track but
ultimately musically unsatisfying – should provide for some excellent tour
6. Bitch I’m Madonna – 10/10
To say this song is divisive among
fans would be an understatement but it’s one of the album highlights for me and
the only of the teaser tracks I played constantly before the album release. To
me this song is everything MDNA attempted but done properly – a brash, ballsy, banger
with a cheeky sense of humour. It, unlike similar tracks on MDNA, harnesses both
her current vocal range and her featured artist as highlights rather than hindrances.
Plus there is some excellent yelling. And Nicki does this ‘ooft’ noise that is
one of my favourite sounds of the year.
7. Hold Tight – 7/10
A pretty, melodic mid-tempo with an
anthemic chorus that for me achieves a similar feeling to Living For Love more successfully.
8. Joan Of Arc – 7/10
One of those rare moments like
Drowned World or Easy Ride where we are allowed to peek behind the curtain and
see that maybe she is actually ‘only human’ after all. A beautiful song that,
although it will likely never happen, I think could make a great late-campaign single.
9. Iconic – 9/10
One of the most addictive tracks on
the album for me. A massive, empowering stomper. This is also one of the songs
that signals the (almost impossible to describe) shift from dance pop that
feels like it’s struggling to be ‘cool’ to a sound which feels far more effortlessly
current as well as somewhat tougher and more confrontational.
10. HeartBreak City – 8/10
It’s great to hear genuine emotion in
her delivery again and this song has it in bags – bitter, sad, regretful and another
excellent mid-tempo, anthemic almost-ballad.
11. Body Shop – 10/10
The absolute stand out track on the
album for me. So totally unexpected and really quite unlike anything she’s done
before – though the closest reference points for me might be some moments of Erotica
or Music. Her voice sounds wonderful, wistful and intimate and I dream of ever getting
an entire album of songs of this level of ingenuity and sensuality from her
12. Holy Water – 8/10
One of those songs that seems utterly
awful until you realise halfway through that’s it’s completely won you over with
its stupidity and sleaze. Hilarious in all the right ways.
13. Inside Out – 8/10
One of my first favourite songs on
the album – catchy and melodic again with the shade of melancholy that runs
through most of Rebel Heart.
14. Wash All Over Me – 9/10
A beautiful and slightly funereal
ballad that somehow ends up feeling far more uplifting than it should. I can’t
help thinking it would make a wonderful mashup with Rain.
15. Best Night – 7/10
There are a clutch of songs on this album
that call to mind the Erotica album and on this track it seems to be a knowing
hat-tip on her part, particularly during the spoken section. A very well
crafted and more-ish album track.
16. Veni Vidi Vici – 9/10
I just can’t get enough of this song.
Being as lyrically self-referential as this can go either way but she pulls it
off and for some reason I actually find the chorus strangely moving. Absolutely
cannot wait to see this one live.
17. S.E.X. – 8/10
Madonna has spoken quite openly over the
last year or two about her horror at the media treatment of women in her age bracket
and most specifically the notion that they shouldn’t be sexual or sexualised. While this is a
complex issue that I don’t want to tangent into here I will say this – If you’re
going to be our ambassador for screwing after 50 Madge then this is how to do
it. Continuing the trend on this album of managing finally again to be sexual
in a way that reads as ‘adult’ rather than simply desperate or puerile, I feel
like she has at last struck the right balance of ‘fuck you’ and ‘fuck me’.
Let me caveat that by saying that there is a tendency to forget that she has
always been somewhat puerile (even on the aforementioned Erotica she served us
that unforgettable Colonel Sanders line) however in later years it has often
felt to me that she was trying to be shocking whilst in fact wimping out of
ever really going beyond playful or camp. All innuendo and no follow through if
you will. What I love about this song is that it actually is quite dirty. And it
sounds dirty. Yes, there is humour in it – but it’s definitely a sleaze jam
too. So now I’m thinking SEX book v2.0? That really would be fabulously shocking..
18. Messiah – 8/10
A swooning, slightly gothic unrequited-love
song with some of the better lyrics on the album.
19. Rebel Heart – 8/10
A lovely, catchy salve at the end of the album and another surprisingly
honest piece of self-reflection that leaves me feeling all kinds of warm and
fuzzy for our lady and her Rebel Heart.
.Overall score: 8/10 (and nudging towards an 8.5 as the days go by)
20 years ago tonight, the Erotica video premiered. Happy Birthday Dita.
Thanks Mutant Pop/Captain Obvious!
The last minute of Je t’aime makes up for the last 5 years as far as I’m concerned.
All photos in this post by Chrissi McAlpine 🙂
Before I review the show in earnest there are a few things I’d like to get out of the way first. I’ll do a track by track review after and if you just want a quick summary of my thoughts skip all the blah and go to the end 😉
“It’s the worst concert I’ve ever seen”
Nonsense. Either it’s the only concert you’ve ever seen or you’ve only been to the closing night of the Ziggy Stardust tour, the Bad tour and the Blonde Ambition Tour so far. What I’m saying is it might not be the best show you have ever seen or ever will see but saying it’s the worst is just pure hyperbole in my opinion.
“She doesn’t play The Hits”
I don’t hold any truck with the criticism coming from a lot of the media reviews that she isn’t playing enough back catalogue. This isn’t being billed as a greatest hits tour, she has an album out right now and the tour is in fact named after it so to expect the Celebration tour is foolish. Any artist that considers themselves still functioning will play a similar balance of new to old – unless you do what Bowie did when I saw him in 2003 and play a beast of a setlist that accomplishes both. But then he did end up having a heart attack two thirds of the way through that tour so maybe not. Whether the tracks from her current album are as good as they should be or hold up well enough live is a different matter, however saying that she shouldn’t be playing new songs is not really the issue to me.
The fact that the audience were generally going home unhappy with this balance last night (comments overheard ranged from ‘It’s a lot of money to pay to be disappointed’ to ‘I’ll know not to go and see Madonna again’) doesn’t surprise me though – partly because she hasn’t had a genuine hit from this album and partly because the audience last night was exactly the kind of drunk-to-oblivion hen-party horror show that really should have been at an 80s revival disco instead. It was without doubt the most annoying crowd I’ve ever been in – and I include 2 hours stood at the front of T in the Park during Black Grape in 1995 in that. So no, I’m not surprised they didn’t want to see a world music version of I’m A Sinner. But then again who does really?
One thing that was immediately apparent to me was that for all her trend chasing and Niki Minaj features at 34 and ¾ I was at the younger end of the average age bracket last night. It’s like trying to get a date – the more desperately you want it the more it turns people off. The Kids can smell it and they are staying away in droves. I’m absolutely convinced that if she relaxed on the ‘still relevant’ push she would actually pick up more younger fans – or at least ones in their 20s!
I do think there is also an element of people reading reviews in the Daily Fail or whatever and just going along with what they are told to think though. A lot of the comments I heard afterwards (‘the violence was unnecessary’, ‘she didn’t play the hits’) seemed to be verbatim regurgitations of the press reviews. And maybe that just means it’s a consensus of opinion but i guess I have a little less faith in people’s ability to form their own opinions 😉
“She lip synchs the whole show”
I was very pleasantly surprised by how little of the show appeared to be mimed – and all the better for it. There were a couple of numbers (Human nature I think stood out particularly) where she sounded a bit ropey but generally her voice was good – Papa Don’t Preach, Masterpiece, Express Yourself and Like a prayer all sounded particularly strong.
“She’s too old to be doing a pop show”
I genuinely, and again to my great surprise, was really not aware of the ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ issue apart from during he majorette section where a combination of an unflattering costume and dance routine did make her seem a bit wobbly and trussed up. Generally I just felt I was watching a pop star not a grandma. The question of whether she can keep up with the choreography is a funny one though. It’s really hard to explain but I was impressed at how well she managed consistent, high energy and quite complex routines but at the same time I was aware of it. It’s like that thing about how good design should be invisible and there was an element of feeling ‘god, she’s doing it so well for a woman her age’ rather than it just being effortless. I think taking it down just the tiniest notch would have erased this though because the parts of the show where she is moving less frantically felt absolutely perfect in that respect.
It became pretty apparent to me when the show started why she’s been coming on so late at a lot of venues. I had assumed it was just because she was fannying about doing the downward facing dog in her dressing room or whatever but the strict curfew at Murrayfield meant she came on just after 9pm in pretty much daylight and I have to say the reliance on huge video screens to form the basis of the set really didn’t work well in the light. She made a comment during the show about having to keep it moving or they were going to pull the plug on her and as it was she cut two songs from the set (the two I was most looking forward too grrrrrr) and I highly suspect this was because she was holding back starting until it got darker.
I was standing a little to the side at the front of the general admission area but due to the fact there was a VIP area and a golden circle then some space then the GA area I had a good view but was still really not that close to the stage and from where I was the first section of the show looked surprisingly flimsy and the stage quite empty. The motel set was particularly disappointing from a distance in the light. Everything looked so much better as it got darker though.
The stage as an object is massive but the actual stage area was surprisingly small, or seemed so from where I was. In general I think the screen-based sets would have looked amazing close up but were not so good from where I was in the crowd. I think the show will look fabulous on DVD and certainly the sets looked much more dynamic even on the live feeds but for some reason felt a little flat to me in person. Of course this could just be down to where I was standing but since I had a fairly good spot I can imagine it would have been much the same if you were anywhere in the main bulk of the crowds.
Down to the nitty gritty..
Opening section / Girl Gone Wild
I feel like this should have been really epic but it fell a little flat for me. It probably doesn’t help that I really don’t like this song much. I’m not sure if this was mimed or autotuned or what I but either way the pitch of her voice was really weird. The crowd seemed to enjoy it though and I’d say that out of the new songs it got the best reaction from those around me with a fair amount of singing along etc.
I’m basically the only Madonna fan that liked and bought this song. It’s just me, Madonna and Lil’ Wayne digging it. Putting it on the set list was typically obstinate of her but I enjoyed it so raspberries to the lot of you 😉
This was one of two set pieces I was most looking forward to seeing live (the other was cut ;_; ) but I didn’t enjoy it as much I was expecting for some reason. It’s hard to put my finger on because I do love the way it looked and it was definitely my favourite of the more elaborately staged numbers but I found it sort of dragged on a little or something. It might have been the light, I’m not sure, it just didn’t rock my boat.
Papa Don’t Preach
Massive cheer from the crowd. She sung it really well. Only complaint was it was too short.
This was an unexpected highlight for me. The audience seemed to get a bit bored because there was no ABBA sample and the song was reworked but I really enjoyed the way it sounded and the physical routine was one of my favourites in the show. The part where she walked the slackline barefoot was particularly lovely for some reason.
I Don’t Give A
Another unexpected highlight. One of my main fears was that this would be one of those Britney-type shows where there was so much spectacle going on because the performance at the center was vacant. I know that everyone loved her Superbowl performance but it left me pretty cold because it seemed she was heading in that direction. But having this number fairly early in the set last night really alleviated a lot of my concerns about her performance abilities because it was predominantly just her standing singing – and singing with bite, vigour and some actual emotion. The funny thing is I’m not that keen on the song but she really brought something to it live I hadn’t got from the album version. She sounded pissed off, but in a good way. If only she could let go a bit more in the studio and get some of that feeling on record.
Express Yourself / Give Me all Your Luvin’ / Born This Way / She’s Not Me
The majorette costume has to die. I hated the routine, the costumes and pretty much everything about this section apart from the vocals for Express Yourself which were fabulous. I actually loved Express Yourself I just wish she had worn something that didn’t make me feel nauseous while she sang it. GAYL was a remix which I actually enjoyed far more than the single version. It was also not, in fact the song of the same name by ZZ Top as my husband thought when I was telling him about the concert. That would have been amazing though.
I still think including the Born This Way excerpt was classless and unnecessary, even more so within the frame of the show, but it was mercifully short and while I did see one guy wearing a t-shirt with Gaga’s face and the word ‘BITCH’ written underneath I did also hear the audience around me singing along to BTW so who knows what it accomplished other than some column inches.
Turn Up The Radio
Uneventful and unmemorable. She had the front row singing into the mic which was cute but other than that I don’t really remember much about it. I do remember that it was preceded by a rather interesting, scratchy little intrlude that mixed up video clips from throughout her career. I remember thinking ‘ooh, what’s this leading towards’ and then hearing the chorus line of TUTR and thinking ‘oh, that. oh well.’ I actually like TUTR well enough and it’s my favourite of the fluff songs on MDNA but still, it’s hardly stellar material to follow up a recap of her career highlights with.
As a side note: who knows where her career – touring or otherwise – will go in the next few years but I do hope she takes stock a little before her next move. As enjoyable as the show was and as not-as-bad-as-the-singles-make-it-seem as MDNA is there has been a lot (too much to go into here on a review of the tour) wrong with her approach to her career recently and I sincerely hope that she is not beaten but emboldened by the criticism. No Fear not No Care.
Open Your Heart
This was a weird one because I really enjoyed it but it went down like a lead balloon with the crowd around me. It was reworked completely with those Basque fellas whose name I can’t remember and I thought it was really interesting. A crowd pleaser it was not though. I could have done without the dancing at the end but she does love a bit of ‘ethnic’ street dancing does our Madge.
This was another highlight for me. The song has really grown on me recently and excepting the opening clunker the lyrics are lovely. I found the performance quite moving and very well sung. I’d love to see her do a theatre tour of this kind of stuff but it will never happen.
Very enjoyable classic performance of Vogue. Exactly what you would expect from it but in a good way.
Candy Shop / Erotica / Human nature
This was my favourite section of the show despite the fact that I can’t stand Candy Shop on record. The choreography was paced just right and the set up fell on the right side of sexy – at times moving, at times humorous. Human Nature was visually particularly good and probably the only part of the show that gave me food for thought or stimulated emotions beyond the purely visceral. I’m absolutely gutted that she cut Like A Virgin (which would have fallen after this set) although if she was going to cut something I guess the audience that was there would probably not have been that receptive to the version of it she is doing on the tour so maybe it was the best choice in that sense. You can see what I missed here.
I’m A Sinner
I thought she looked really beautiful during this section – the slightly hippy look has always suited her so much. The song itself was a bit of a snooze for me though.
Like A prayer
Similar to Vouge this was a strong, classic performance that did nothing more than you would expect but nothing less than you would hope. The crowd loved it and she sounded fantastic.
I felt this was a bit of an anti climax for a closing number although she certainly gave it her all. I geuss Celebration is the new Holiday though and I never liked that much either 😉
All in all I enjoyed it and I’m glad that I went. The bits I expected to wow me (the big visual set pieces) didn’t really but the thing I was most fearful of (her core performance) was actually really good. I know I was quite out of step with the crowd around me in terms of the bits I enjoyed most so obviously it’s just my opinion but I would love to see her focus on less high energy but more performance led numbers – which she has done plenty of on previous tours so this isn’t a ‘she’s old’ thing just a personal preference. That also doesn’t need to mean sitting on a stool for an hour and a half just more routines like Human Nature and less like GMAYL.
Overall I’d say it’s a 7/10 for me – but since I nearly didn’t go because I was so worried about it being terrible that’s a score that’s made me really happy.
I’ve been revisiting MDNA over the last week or so having not really listened to it at all since it was released. Generally I won’t put in the effort to go back to an album I haven’t connected with but partly because I have given in and am going to the tour this weekend and partly because I’ve had the nagging suspicion there was a much better album lurking in there than it appears I decided to give it another go. I’ve been working on this little redux playlist and I think I’ve finally hit the sweet spot.
A lot of albums these days have problems with weak bonus tracks cluttering up otherwise sturdy albums but I have to say that with MDNA the bonus tracks are far from being the problem – in fact it’s the singles that drag it down most for me. The running order also exhausts me with far too many of the flimsy or psuedo-ballsy songs up top leaving the songs I rate most obscured or so far down the tracklist that I’ve given up by then.
Whittling the album down to these 11 tracks has made all the difference and I feel like there is a pretty strong little record there after all. No, still not her best but in this format certainly stronger than Hard Candy and arguably Confessions too.
There are a few songs that I’ve left on here (most notably Turn Up The Radio, Gang Bang and I Don’t Give A) that still bother me for various reasons but in this context I can enjoy far more.
In my mind I am currently living in a parallel universe where this was the album, the singles were I’m Addicted > Love Spent > Anything apart from GMAYL, GGW or Birthday Song and the artwork looked more like this:
and less like this:
In that unviverse MDNA is really rather good actually.
I’ve got a lot of problem’s with Madonna right now but her hands aren’t one of them. Despite that they are the subject of this no doubt nauseatingly long think-piece.
I’m not going to talk about her laissez-faire approach to her recent musical output, her terrible lead single or her dubious forays into gym franchises. I’m going to talk about her hands.
Why the hands? Why not the exposed nipple? That’s what everyone else is talking about right? Or the cheek implants? Or the bum-flash? Or the sexy tour-dancing with her 20-something boyfriend? Or whether she’s too old to dress like a majorette? Or that mash-up?
I’m going to talk about her hands because they are a microcosm of all that and more. Madonna’s hands sum up all our fucked up issues with the aging process in one fell swoop. Yuk! Granny hands! Madonna’s losing it! What an old hag! In fact that picture is so nasty that the person I’m hotlinking it from has even named it madonna-old-lady-hands.jpg LOL She’s so past it now. Why doesn’t she just give up and leave it to Gaga and RiRi and Katy??!
How about this:
I mean, it’s pretty pathetic how she is soooo blatantly trying to cover up her ugly old lady hands with those nasty leather gloves. And fingerless gloves?? On a 53 year old?? It’s so juvenile and unbecoming. She needs to get a grip and stop trying to dress like a teenager! Leave the rock-chick look to Lola!!
Do you see what we did there?
Over on the left that’s a rock. Over on the right is a hard place. That unpleasant little space in the middle? That’s Madonna’s hands.
As a woman aging in the public eye you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Personally the ‘granny hands’ don’t bother me a jot and it’s worrying about completely natural things like that which end up with the desperate attempts at disguising it.
Not even Madonna can stop time and we can’t have it all ways at once. It’s not fair to bitch about her surgery and the signs of aging at the same time. It’s not fair to blame her for the gloves when we recoil in horror at the sight of what lies below.
Some people would rather she continues down the surgery route and fights her age as much as she can. They are usually the same people who enjoy the idea that her faking a vacuous nubility that she never really inhabited the first time around (baton twirling! pom poms!) is liberating for women who want to ‘stay young’. They are the glove people.
Some people feel she should act her age, be more responsible in front of her children, stop flashing her boobs in public. Age ‘gracefully’. They are the hands people, right?
You would think so, but from what I can tell no-one seems to be the hands people. The age-gracefully people still have a utopian notion that she will somehow do this without a wrinkle on her brow. Only she’ll be doing it in a twin-set. Kind of like Evita but without Jimmy Nail.
Because when we see wrinkles and veins and liver spots appear on someone like Madonna it scares the shit out of us because we are staring right into the face of our own horrid mortality.
When asked in an interview in 1998 what she thought people saw when they look at her she said simply “they see themselves”. And we do. We see an heroic, perfect, insurmountable, archetype of who we could/should/would be perhaps but she has always been and always will be a mirror to our collective social mores.
I, personally, disagree with the people who are all-out, knowingly and enthusiastically for the surgical approach but it doesn’t bother me as much as the rest of us thinking that she/we can do both at once. You can get away with that for a while perhaps. A little bottox here, a slight alteration there. But there will always come a time where you have to pick between the age or the surgery because the more obvious the age gets so will the surgery have to too.
We just can’t seem to get our heads around the simple, glaring truth:
WE ALL GET OLD IN THE END.
That’s why those candid photos of her in her underwear that everyone uses as the full stop on any discussion of Madonna’s current sexual attractiveness will never bother me as much as the puffy cheek photos and the way her face barely moves any more. One is a fit 50 something woman (photographed off guard) in her underwear, the other is a woman fighting her age desperately and unsuccessfully. One is the hands and the other is the gloves.
And if you can’t see the connection between how we as a society react to the hands and why Madonna, of all people, has ended up in the gloves then I’m not going to draw you a map.
Congratulations world, we broke her. And enjoy it while you can because you will be wearing those gloves yourself sometime soon no doubt.
This piece isn’t really about Madonna of course (which is precisely why I don’t want to talk about the underwhelming album or the religious connotations of her show or whatever) but she is an unparalleled cultural barometer when it comes to how we view our own vanity, sexuality and self esteem.
Lets, please, learn to love Madonna’s hands?
“Are you a top or a bottom when you sleep with women?” I ask.
“I’m still trying to figure that one out.”
“How about heterosexually? Top or bottom?”
She dips her head back in the water. “Heterosexually I’m a full-out bottom.”
“You’re probably a bossy bottom,” I guess.
“No,” she says. “That’s Madonna. That’s the difference between us… .
I’ve been trying to write this review for about a week now and here’s the thing – I still can’t work out if MDNA is a better album than it appears to be or a worse one. Let me try to explain..
In her early years Madonna was a master at that great pop art of making songs about not very much feel like they were about quite a lot – Borderline, Open Your Heart and Crazy For You all being perfect examples of songs with a gravitas far exceeding the lyrical content. From Ray Of Light through Music and American Life she started writing far more lyrically complex songs and emerged as a near-perfect crystallisation of ‘smart pop’. Great tunes and a mature depth often absent in the Top 40. Since then she has, with varying degrees of success, been engaged in an olympian sprint in the opposite direction – the coveted crown of Club Queen in her mind’s eye and a lyrical focus largely of the ‘get up and dance’ variety. Like some patronising parent I have so far indulged it as a mostly enjoyable but hopefully passing phase.
And now here we are with MDNA. If in her early days she was good at conjuring more substance out of her material than it naturally contained MDNA feels like an odd exercise in the reverse. Once you scratch beneath the surface these songs contain easily some of her most explicitly personal lyrics – Lord knows Guy Ritchie’s ears must be permanently burning these days. Some are undeniably brilliant (‘all of Falling Free for starters’), some clunkers (‘Frankly, if my name was Benjamin’) and some so awful they become brilliant (‘Baby Jesus on the stairs’).
And yet somehow it all feels so.. impersonal..
It’s often noted that post-Evita her vocals have become increasingly clipped and over-pronounced – perhaps this new voice can’t commit fully enough to the sound of MDNA? Perhaps it just not ‘her’. There is certainly some kind of disconnect going on here. Strangely, I find myself thinking about Kylie a lot listening to this album. I can’t help suspecting that several of the tracks on MDNA would fare better with her breathy, electro-purr wrapped around them. So many of her songs are equally (or even more) weak/forgettable but often pull it off in that odd slutty-but-classy way that Kylie has been curiously pulling off things that she shouldn’t for the last couple of decades. That said, her vocals are hardly centerpiece stuff either – frequently nasal and equally over-pronounced. I find myself comparing it to other recent dance-pop but the less said about chart rivals Katy and Rihanna’s vocals the better (I’m not entirely convinced that Britney actually *is* human any more) so I don’t know that vocal delivery is the problem I’m having with MDNA. Or at least not the only one.
Musically it certainly feels like a case of style over substance which may well be a greater part of it. There are shades of Music and American Life, the expected how-very-2011 dubstep breakdowns and a few (far less expected) moments of celtic influence. The production is good and almost every song starts promisingly but crucially most seem to go nowhere – there are few strong hooks and I find it hard to remember many of the tunes once I stop listening to them. The bubblegum songs (Girl Gone Wild, Give Me All Your Luvin’, B-Day Song) are pretty awful and beaten out of the water by most of the nonsense banging around the charts over the last year or two. Unfortunately the ‘proper’ songs generally leave me wanting more too. There is plenty of sassy spite – Gang Bang, I don’t Give A and Some Girls are all full of superbly nasty, tough lyrics and big punchy fuck-you beats but it’s a violence that lacks plausibility. Even when telling us to ‘die bitch’ it’s a cartoonish lip curl rather than a bloodied fist.
There’s nothing ‘bad’ about MDNA – on the whole it feels like a very credible stab at credible dance-pop and it’s consistent where most pop albums (including a few of her own) are horrifically patchy – but at the same time it leaves me mostly unmoved either emotionally or sonically.
There is a cynicism to the creation of this album – the musical trend boxes that are ticked, the Nicki Minaj / M.I.A guest features, the constant references musically and lyrically to previous Madonna moments – that is both obvious and exhausting. Amusingly, one of the few songs on the album that I find genuinely engaging is about money. I know I have a personal tendency to root for the underdog (it’s no accident that I have an uncomfortable relationship with ego boosting rapper-bling-speak) but I can’t be the only one who feels a sense of relief by the time Falling Free and I Fucked Up come on. After having it pounded into me over and over again that ‘There’s only one queen and that’s Madonna’ (thanks Nicki) I’m glad to be reminded that she is a fallible human being too. Even then I Fucked Up is delivered with an ironic (favourite Madonna word) caveat at the end.
I’m not particularly interested in Madonna’s personal life beyond how it influences or appears in her work but with an artist as evocative and with a level of fame as unparalleled as hers it becomes impossible to talk about a new Madonna record with talking about Madonna. How does she look? What are the videos like? The album art? This might seem irrelevant but it’s not – it’s absolutely integral to her career and I would be doing her a great disservice to pretend otherwise.
So, it occurs to me while consuming the visuals for this era – and in particular the video for Girl Gone Wild – that the notion that she has been primarily concerned over the years with sex is only partially correct. Madonna has never had the raw sexuality of Debbie Harry or Susanna Hoffs but what she did so, so well was present a frequent dissection of sexual politics – an almost academic appraisal of cultural approaches to sex and sexuality. If it was sexy it was reaching us as much through the brain as through the groin. It’s no surprise to me that Madonna would want to continue to be sexual, even aggressively so, at this point in her career but what I see now, visually, is the smoke and mirrors of pop-sex with all the brain removed. It’s amazing how unsexy Madonna is when there is no brain work to do. In the words of Jarvis Cocker ‘you’re so perfect you don’t interest me at all’.
The Give Me All Your Luvin’ video is undoubtedly her best video in a long, long time and it’s witty and smart. But like her superbowl performance it’s a series of quips and re-affirming gestures designed to again remind us why Madonna is the Queen and little more.
Oh, ok then..
The elephant in the room of this review is of course her age. Lets not beat about the bush – no other pop artist has ever been in the position she is. She has a very real stab at being the first POP star to transition past her 40s without becoming a niche, greatest hits or Vegas parody artist. It’s what I’ve always wanted for her and I’ve long nurtured the seed of hope that she would be the one to lick the incalculable challenge of being an older woman in an industry obsessed with youth and beauty. Will she manage? Quite possibly yes, but it would seem not in the way I had hoped. It’s all gone a bit Death Becomes Her. I’ll be brief here because it’s a subject that I could write an entire blog post about on it’s own but I’ll take those much-mocked ropey, veiny old arms, crows feet and sags over a badly molded Barbie face (or photoshop smudge) and vacant expression any day. People are loving it of course but it’s breaking my heart that she’s going to win the battle by losing the war. When will we get another shot at this opportunity? 30, 40 years from now if any of our current bright young things are still around? On a human level I totally understand – I can only begin to imagine the pressure on her. I empathise entirely but it still makes me sad. It’s a bitter irony (that word again) that the most moving, human aspect of this campaign so far has been her fight against nature itself.
Girl Gone Wild artwork
Pontificating aside, here’s my ratings:
Girl Gone Wild: 5/10
Rather horrible and generic. The inexcusable Act Of Contrition retread aside I actually (controversially) prefer this to the lead single but, admittedly, that’s a bit like saying I prefer Body Of Evidence to The Next Big Thing.
Gang Bang – 7/10
Soooo much potential. Starts off brilliantly and ends well but there’s a bit too much ‘ho hum’ in the middle for my liking. I feel like this *should* be my favourite track on the album and every time I listen to it I’m disappointed it’s not.
I’m Addicted – 6/10
Passes by pleasantly enough but absolutely will not stick with me afterwards.
Turn Up The Radio – 7/10
Enjoyably vapid and contains one of the few memorable choruses on the album. If she really, really had to release a ‘fun’ single then this should have been it.
Give Me All Your Luvin’ – 3/10
The spelling of Luvin’ tells you everything you need to know about this song. Horrible. N.O Thanks. Don’t Wanna.
Some Girls – 7/10
I feel much the same about this as Gang Bang although to my eternal surprise I think this is *slightly* better.
Superstar – 6/10
Cute and probably a grower.
I don’t Give A – 6/10 (but 10/10 for the last, totally epic 50 seconds)
For some reason not entirely clear to me the ah-ah-ah-ah bits always remind me of the music in Tim Burton’s Willy Wonky.
I’m A Sinner – 7/10
Starts off tantalisingly Frozen then goes all Girl Gone Wild by the chorus. One of several songs on MDNA that sound a lot like Beautiful Stranger – a Madonna song I’ve, unhappily, never been that fond of.
Love Spent – 10/10
My favourite song on the album by a country mile. This will be the one that makes it out of my MDNA playlist and gets hardcore listening. It’s neither the most lyrically sophisticated or the the ‘toughest’ song on the album but it all comes together beautifully. Even/especially when it gets a bit Riverdance in the middle.
Masterpiece – 7/10
A pretty enough melody but a shadow of her great ballads. And for my money Madonna has often been at her best on ballads an down / mid-tempo songs.
Falling Free – 8/10
I don’t like this quite as much as most people seem to but it’s still very, very good. I also suspect it might sneak up to a 10 over time. The last minute of it is absolutely beautiful.
Beautiful Killer – 6/10
Another song I suspect may be a grower.
I fucked Up – 9/10
The other of two songs on the album that grabbed me straight away and one of the few that I think sit comfortably next to my favourite songs from across her career. It’s not perfect and like almost everything on MDNA it does noodle on a bit but I love, love, love it anyway.
B-Day Song – 4/10
Marginally better than Give Me All Your Luvin’ which has a similar retro feel but definitely a skip-track for me all the same.
Best Friend – 5/10
Another pleasant but weak song that won’t really stick with me.
The final word
MDNA is either a slightly weak, rather vain exercise in self aggrandisement mascarding as a much better, cooler, beast of an album or a pretty decent stab at current adult pop that unfortunately tends to come off a little cheaper in places than desired. I’m going to plump for the latter because ultimately I don’t want to see the woman fail.
Not a classic but not a turkey either, and if it seems lke this is a tough review it’s because Nicki is right – she is the fucking Queen. And I want more from her. I want her to make me *think* and *feel* not just dance and give her all my
$$ luvin’. But to do that her heart needs to be in it 100%, not just her wallet and and her production crew.
*or not 😉
Overall Rating: 6.5/10
Highlights: Love Spent, Falling Free, I Fucked Up
Lowlights: Give Me All Your Luvin’, Girl Gone Wild, B-Day Song
I could watch this over every day for the rest of my life and never get bored of it.