Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why Madonna Keeps Losing Me with "MDNA"

Though she'd probably never admit it, Madonna is only human. And like the rest of us mere mortals, she's failed at a few things over the years (oh, those dreadful movies!). Holding my attention, however, has rarely been one of them.

It's not that she's boring me now, but I'm having a hard time getting through MDNA again. Every time I try to listen to Madonna's just-released 12th album, my mind starts to wander and my energy level flags, which means that this probably will not end up being my workout soundtrack for the next few months. I wonder what Elton John, Madonna's public enemy No. 1, has to say about this!

No, Madonna is probably incapable of being outright dull (despite its soporific properties, I'd still rather listen to MDNA than Beyoncé's 4 or Britney Spears' Femme Fatale), but for the first time since 2003's American Life, she's unable to hold my undivided attention. Even Hard Candy, as uneven as it was, had moments of such extreme brilliance that I found myself pressing repeat over and over. I once spent an entire hour running around Santiago, Chile, with nothing but "Heartbeat" blaring in my ears!

It wasn't supposed to be this way. A few weeks ago, ran a track-by-track rundown of MDNA's 12 songs and five bonus tracks, with several snippets thrown in. The minute (or so)-long previews sounded so great coming out my laptop speakers that March 26 couldn't arrive quickly enough. I was even ready to cut "Give Me All Your Luvin'" and "Girl Gone Wild" some slack. Though they didn't work as singles -- first Madonna singles should not sound like filler but like future classics that we won't be able to get out of our heads for months, if not forever -- perhaps they would sound more convincing in the context of the entire album.

Newsflash! They don't. Not even "Gang Bang," which in the snippet sounded like it might be the most exciting thing Madonna has done in years, loses my interest somewhere around the 1:30 mark. It's not that the songs themselves aren't well-produced and sturdily constructed. I love the twangy guitar riffs in "Love Spent" and that fuzzed-out funky bit 20 seconds into "I Don't Give A," though a musical diatribe apparently aimed at Guy Ritchie after all this time seems uber petty. But for the most part, the songs on MDNA just sort of lie there, going nowhere special. Maybe she should have released an album of 60-second teasers!

Part of the problem is lyrical. Too often, Madonna seems to be going purposely shallow, as if she wants to sound as young as she looks. (Indeed, in the "Girl Gone Wild" video, she looks like not a day has passed since the "Erotica" video in 1993!) But her decadence dance is unconvincing, especially since it's been nearly decades since Madonna the star has come across as anything even resembling a party girl. She doesn't sound menacing or threatening saying "Drive, bitch!" on "Gang Bang." She comes across more like a grandma who's trying too hard to prove that she can still run with the young guns and stay up past midnight.

At 53, she needs to be digging deeper than "Turn Up the Radio." (That anachronism right there -- Who even listens to the radio anymore? -- further betrays her vintage status.) On Hard Candy, "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" and "Closer" were standouts because she was really saying something. (Might I recommend an album-length collaboration with singer-songwriter Joe Henry, her brother-in-law, who co-wrote previous Madonna triumphs "Don't Tell Me," "Jump" and "Devil" as well as the MDNA closer "Falling Free"?) Yes, I can accept that even menopausal girls just wants to have fun (to steal the line of her one-time rival Cyndi Lauper, which Madonna does, too, on "Girl Gone Wild"), but let's leave singing about it to kids Katy Perry's age, shall we?

Maybe I was expecting too much from this Madonna reunion of sorts with William Orbit, who had a hand in producing a number of MDNA tracks. She delivered some of her best work (1998's Ray of Light) in collaboration with Orbit. But their time may have passed. Ray of Light now sounds like a relic of its era, and although their "Masterpiece," which first appeared in the closing credits of W.E., Madonna's second directorial effort, is a highlight on the album and one of the few tracks that I want to hear again (along with "I'm Addicted," a magnificent obsession that still lasts about one minute too long, and "I'm A Sinner," which is classic Madonna-Orbit in the musical vein of the great, durable "Beautiful Stranger"), it sounds like it belongs in the '90s.

I'm not sure what's going on between Madonna and Stuart Price, with whom she collaborated on her best album, 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor. Why does she seem to have deleted his number from her speed dial? Here's a guy who can take a repetitive loop and create high drama with it. Nothing much happened over the course of a song on Confessions, but Price's production created the illusion of building tension, like that loop was constantly changing, evolving. (It's a technique that has kept Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" in heavy rotation on my personal playlist for most of my life.)

I'm not ready to give up on MDNA just yet. Madonna music has grown on me before. Maybe one day the songs on MDNA will finally start to sink in, I'll doze off and wake up dancing.
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