Billy Gray

Mama Don’t Reach

In Music on April 17, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Madonna’s latest album and fourth attempt at past prime legitimacy, is “MDNA.” The clubbing set will take the title as a riff on MDMA, the chemical ingredient in ecstasy. Madonna loyalists or  those tolerant of the disemvoweling aesthetic that also begot the STK steakhouse chain, will instantly make out the alarmingly jacked pop dame’s name. A D.N.A. riff slinks somewhere in the background, stealing credit from H.G.H. for its effect on Madonna’s sinewy arms.

But Madonna has never relied on album names to propel her infamy or record sales. (Fiona Apple, another reemerged pop curiosity of similarly chiseled limb and with a penchant for novella-length titles, still does.) Instead, there was the pre-fame nude photo scandal; the breakthrough V.M.A. stage humping; the tendentious Christian imagery; the lesbian dalliances (with Sandra Bernhard and, later and faker, Britney Spears, which at least makes you wonder if any other notable Sapphic can claim both those notches on her belt); the “sex” book, and its attendant serial oversharing on national television as Madonna, a genius in cloaking the art of the Big Three network shill in the cone bra of provocation, plugged her collection of B&W bondage photography. More recently, we’ve been subjected to Madonna’s foray into Kabala and Guy Ritchie. Ritchie reportedly got $75 million from the divorce. And he’s grist for the mill on “MDNA,” which, if it moves units despite an unprecedented 88% sales drop-off from its debut, means the British director will have defibrillated another creaky icon in the wake of his “Sherlock Holmes” reboot. “MDNA” ignores Madonna’s more threatening foes: Lady Gaga, Rihanna and the resurgence of wanly controversial dance music while Madonna worked out that settlement and shot “W.E.” It’s implicit in that designer drug homage (echoed with the compound’s proper initials intact throughout the album). And, sadly, in the Material Girl’s choice of M.I.A. (dead shortly after arrival in 2005) and Nicki Minaj as Super Bowl halftime show accomplices. But the respectable producers are old hat: Benny Benassi, Martin Solveig and William Orbit, collaborating with Madonna 15 years after her forward-thinking career-reviver “Ray of Light.”

Madonna’s choice of Orbit in ’98 was maybe the last sonically adventurous choices of her career. Now, it’s a retread. And even if it yields good results—and “good” is on the upper end of the critical spectrum—it shows that Madonna, whose music was always stolid relative to her frenzied style and persona reinventions, doesn’t have her finger in the wind anymore; she’s chasing the wind. Her late-‘90s foray into electronica coincided with the brief intrusion of electronic dance music into the Top 40. But that charge was led by Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy, none of them exactly avant-garde, but still more esoteric than the Gaga-Rihanna- club bangers that currently define the dance and pop mainstream.

Back to that sleekly produced halftime show. Madonna kept Sri Lankin Tamil Tiger aficionado M.I.A. on the periphery, ensuring that the she was the main event. But M.I.A. got the money shot as she flipped the bird to 120 million American viewers. As provocation, it paled in comparison to Janet Jackson’s clasped nipple slip. Still, the young, fallen iconoclast had outfoxed the master in the game of vaguely subversive self-promotion. It distracted from the generic electronic music and wobbly dancing, but thanks in part to MDNA, distraction has become pop music’s M.O.

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