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In Defense Of MDNA – How To Salvage The Year’s Best Pop Album

May 23, 2012
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What if Madonna recorded the best pop album of the year and nobody came?  That’s the problem facing yesteryear’s Queen Of Pop as her latest release MDNA is coming down the charts faster than Lindsay Lohan on a Monday morning.

2012 was meant to be Madonnas year.  Not only did she deliver a truly dynamite Superbowl Halftime Show but also managed to release not only her most interesting album since 2003’s American Life but her most creatively satisfying one since the turn of the millenium Music.

So, where did it all go wrong?

Well, for starters..

THE MEDIOCRE FIRST SINGLE

Look – there is no way to deny it.  Give Me All Your Luvin’ is the most underwhelming first single of Madonna’s career.  Less catchy than the derivative 4 Minutes To Save The World and far less interesting than the (at times) embarrassingly shambolic American Life, it was just kind of, well, there.  The worst part is, on it’s own merits as a track, it’s actually quite fun.  But it had no business being a single, no matter how many Buzz Female Rappers Du Jour you throw over it’s grossly overstuffed middle eight.  Turn Up The Radio, I’m Addicted and even, in it’s own offbeat way, Gang Bang ALL would have made great lead singles instead, particularly the former.  The video looked really cheap too.  Great concept, but it looked rushed and underproduced, like something Girls Aloud would have churned out circa single release #3..

THE GODAWFUL SECOND SINGLE

Say what you want about Give Me All Your Luvin’, but at least it had a real sense of fun.  Girl Gone Wild sounded like it was recorded in the backseat of a car inbetween meetings on a stomach full of Xanax.  Even Blackout-era Britney sounded more engaged with her material and she wasn’t even conscious for the recording of most of it.  Credit where credit is due for the fantastic clip (especially because it relied more on performance than a ridick budget), but Madonna’s years of being able to top a chart solely with a controversial video are further behind her than her sponsorship deal with Pepsi Co.

 

THE COMPLETE AND UTTER LACK OF PROMOTIONAL APPEARANCES

Sure, there was the fifteen minute Superbowl performance, which was pretty ace and managed that rare feat of making Madonna look like she was genuinely enjoying herself (which, on stage, she hasn’t since really pulled off since her Blonde Ambition glory days).  But was that pretty much it?  I mean, I’m as glad as anyone she joined Twitter, but that does not an album promotion make, no matter how big you used to be.  Girl Gone Wild could have particularly benefitted from one or two killer live performances as it’s a song that really needs attention and a couple of listens to click.  But no – none, nada.  If you want people to play your CD instead of use it as some egregiously gay coaster you need to give them a reason to..

ALL THE DESPERATE NON-STOP COUNTER-CULTURE COURTING DRUG REFERENCES

It’s one thing to come up with a sly reference to the chemical soul of the dance scene (the albums title is a small stroke of genius), but it’s another to start spouting out inner circle drug slang terms to hoards of festival goers like a Grandma who has just discovered Google.  I mean, this is a woman who will barely touch processed foods, let alone spend her spare time listening to Metronomy doing ‘shrooms (even if they were the organic kind).  Asking a bunch of festival goers if they’d “seen Molly” just came across as desperate and, if there’s something that the cool kids hate, it’s desperation, especially coming from the blue rinse set.

THE SEQUENCING

Oh, Good Lord – THE SEQUENCING.  I swear this tracklist was put together by drunkenly pulling names out of a hat.  Seriously – a Now 62 compilation has a better start to finish flow.  The thing is, there is a cohesive set of songs here (with one or two glaring exceptions), but by ordering them the way it was released it just sounds like a mish-mash of songs slapped together and devalues the whole project.  First, Girl Gone Wild deflates the whole thing before it’s barely begun and then the whole Some Girls/I Don’t Give A midsection causes the listener to either lose interest or wander off in search of Excederin before getting to some of the real gems at the end.  And don’t even get us started on leaving some of the best songs as bonus tracks.  Beautiful Killer and Best Friend are two of the creative highlights off the album and really help ground the project as a whole.  This is what it SHOULD run like :-

01 – GANG BANG

AMAHZING.  Seriously, this song is a stroke of genius.  If this album existed for the sole purposes of Madonna taking to the studio like the cast of Kill Bill on Vinyl, it would be a perfectly justifiable exercise.  It’s one of the most cinematic things she’s ever done, a completely visceral thrilling audio experience that sets the tone for the album perfectly with it’s twin motifs of violence and dark atmospheric dance music.

02 – I’M ADDICTED

If Gang Bang sets up the albums statement of intent, then I’m Addicted is the set in one gloriously, drugged out nutshell.  4 and a 1/2 minutes of deliriously dense, jittery synths, drug references, rich vocals and a giant club ready chorus.  The last minute where Madonna starts chanting “M-D-N-A-M-D-N-A-M-D-N-A” over and over again like a cheerleader in the throes of ecstasy is easily the albums best moment.

03 – TURN UP THE RADIO

The fact there is an alternate reality out there where this was the albums first single and it sold a bazillion copies just kills me.  How this wasn’t the first single is beyond everything in the realm of logic, reason and good old common sense.  It’s a fantastic song.  It’s warm (which is something both the album and the megastar in general are severely lacking), it’s catchy and it’s PERFECT for American commercial radio right now.  Its been compared to having the same joyous, propulsive energy of Hung Up but it’s beyond even that.  It could have been her new Ray Of Light – it’s just pure joy.

 

04 – LOVE SPENT

Everyone harps on about the Banjo Intro but, honestly, the whole thing is more Don’t Tell Me than Dolly Parton.  One of the best and most unexpectedly catchy moments on the album, it’s also a great example of how a woman who has basically made a living showing us literally what she looks like inside can make a piece of relatable and lyrically engaging pop.

05 – I FUCKED UP

I went back and forth about including this in the main album and not as a bonus track.  First up, it needs a stronger, re-recorded vocal – it’s a little flat in the first few verses – and it needs to get to the sped up middle bit a bit quicker, but it’s still a great example of the kind of introspective, honest challenging pop a superstar of a certain age should be making.

06 – I DON’T GIVE A..

You know, if you took the rap out of this (or at least made it about something less Real Popstars Of New York specific), this could have been a fantastic first single.  Nicki Minaj delievers a blistering rap at the end here – basically everything she didn’t do on Give Me All Your Luvin’ – and manages to fit the song perfectly this time round.  Running on a riff straight out of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, it’s the kind of anthem that the Superbowl would have eaten up with a giant inflatable spoon.

07 – GIRL GONE WILD

Now, this is a weird one.  As a single, it’s one of the worst of Madonna’s career.  As an album opener, it’s just as weak.  But as a stand alone song without either of those twin pressures?  It’s actually quite a good track.  It still sounds like Madonna less wrote the track than handed Benny Benassi a copy of Britney’s Till The World Ends and requested something similar, but it’s catchy and it sounds fucking fantastic through headphones.  The video was top notch as well – it’s just a shame that she sounds so bloody, well, bored throughout the whole thing – judging by the vocals, the wildest thing this girl has done is read the phone book end to end.

08 – SOME GIRLS

In the spirit of full disclosure, we’ve never really forgiven this for not just being a cover of the Rachel Stevens Pop Extravaganza of the same name, but still, it’s a perfectly serviceable tune.  Well, without the ‘tune’ part.  But, with the same clipped, military air raid siren kind of sound that Beyonce loves to torpedo every other album campaigns with, it’s a great sounding song with the right amount of sass and ‘tude, even if the singer herself is about thirty years shy of being able to refer to herself as a ‘Girl’.

09 – I’M A SINNER

Another track that, with a different lyric, could have been a big hit.  Not that we’re complaining as it’s such a perfectly ‘Madonna’ song and is a nice evolution of Beautiful Stranger without ever sounding, dare we say it, reductive.  The Vogue-esque name check of religious figures in the middle eight is mild genius too..

10 – BEAUTIFUL KILLER

How this never made the album is a mystery for the ages.  “Can’t really talk with a gun in my mouth – maybe that’s what you been dreaming about?” is one of the best lyrics on the album, not to mention one of the catchiest hooks.  Wasted as a bonus track when it thematically and sonically fits the album like a glove and, like Love Spent, manages that rare feat of making radio-friendly pop that doesn’t sound out of place being spouted by the Curious Case Of Madonna Button.

11 – BEST FRIEND

Now this?  This is perfect.  A moody, skittering dissection of her divorce that comes around just when this album was in danger of turning into her very own version of the Kylie Minogue ‘X” debacle (aka the “Everybody knows I just spent two years battling cancer but I’m making an album of shiny bland pop songs that never once acknowledge the personal hell that has been playing out in every tabloid ever” album).  So – why was it relegated to bonus track status (and, even then, only in certain countries)?  The best we can guess is that it hit too close to home.  It’s never an uncomfortable listen and actually manages to both be clearly very personal but still relatable to a casual listener.

12 – FALLING FREE

Just gorgeous.  The closest thing here to her modern day pop culture zenith Ray Of Light album, it’s a gloriously ambient piano and string led ballad that is both sparse and stirring and ends the album on a quiet, reflective and ultimately hopeful note.

(BONUS TRACKS)

13 – MASTERPIECE

A nice enough ballad that has no place on the album lyrically or musically.  Can be filed next to Pia Zadora in any ‘How Easy It Is To Buy A Golden Globe’ List.

14 – SUPERSTAR

A sunny but trite little ditty that is so lightweight that it floats out of your brain the second it finishes.  It doesn’t even really warrant being a Bonus Track TBH.

15 – THE BDAY SONG

Probably the most divisive track on the whole collection, but it’s also one of the most unaffected and fun.  Coming off like a Shangri-Las meets True Blue era Madonna crossover, we could have easily stuck this on the main album, but evidently we’re in the minority with that one.

16 – GIVE ME ALL YOUR LUVIN’

And then there’s this.  To be honest, much in the same way Girl Gone Wild works well as just an album track, this works much better when not viewed as a single, let alone a first single, let alone the First Single That Basically Sunk A Whole Entire Album Campaign.  It’s a good song.  Not great, but good.  Kind of like Incredible was the sole shining ray of fun on the Hard Candy debacle, this carries itself with the same, relaxed bubblegum energy.  The “L-U-V MADONNA” bit is great as well.  But if nothing else stood out from spending literally minutes upon minutes (well, an hour) trying to effectively resequence this album, it was the fact that this track fits absolutely nowhere on it.  It’s fun, but it doesn’t belong here.  It makes you wish it had have been able to be tacked on and released as the single of the soundtrack to some random movie as a kind of stop-gap between projects, to remind everyone that Madonna is still making music and is still a total pop MILF.  To be honest – MIA was the best thing about this whole track.  There.  I said it.

 

(apols for some of those clips being a little pitch-altered, but they were the best of a bad lot on youtube.  which, even for promotional purposes, is no excuse for not forking out a few bucks for a fantastic album.)

So yeah.  At least that’s a start.  Although you can’t help but feeling La Ciccone is less interesting in marketing an album these days than she is in getting some new tunes to fill out the upcoming Stadium Tour and, really, who can really blame her.  It’d just be nice every now and then if she could appear to care about the music she makes as much as she expects her fans to.  Now, if she could just hurry up and release Turn Up The Radio with a clip that is better than Miles Away, Get Together or Jump, we’d be inclined to forgive her.

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 15, 2012 6:54 am

    Thanks for this post. Considering that MDNA is in constant play in my household, it’s been a mystery why the album hasn’t perform (much) better on the charts. This is my favorite album of hers since Music, and it has so many good songs… You do raise valid points to explain the underwhelming commercial performance… I agree with the the sequencing of the songs and the promotion, including the choice of singles. But It bothers me that people and the media are saying the album is mediocre based on how much it has sold, when, only weeks ago, it was getting good reviews, a significant number of which were actually glowing reviews. But the sequencing doesn’t help… I had friends who initially dismissed MDNA based on a couple of casual listens, only to rediscover the good songs after I pointed them out to them. And don’t even get me started with the bonus tracks… I am a big fan of Masterpiece, but it simply doesn’t go with the other MDNA songs. I feel the same about GAYL… And best friend and beautiful killer are absolute gems that have no place being relegated to bonus tracks… My only change to your sequencing would be to make this a 13 track album and include Superstar. I love Madonna’s voice in this track, the warmth and charm it has, and the use of electric guitars (this is a true rock-pop track). I’d place it maybe between Some Girls and I’m a Sinner. This is weird, but Superstar has been the 3rd most best seller MDNA song on Itunes. Could it be the recent Bravo ad that used the track?

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