Nothing addictive about MDNA

MDNA might stand for "most definitely not awesome."

Since my first listen on Monday, I have been dying to kvetch about Madonna’s new album MDNA. I’ve been listening all week, and I am having a hard time with it.

Don’t let the title or the parental warning label fool you. There is nothing subversive or edgy about this album.

The allusion to party drug MDMA made me hope this would at least be a solid dance album, a Confessions on the Dance Floor mark II.


I think of two things now when I listen to her new stuff:
1.) What would it be like recording this song? Would it be embarrassing to be in the studio? Before all the production, is the song just empty and meaningless and dumb?

2.) What would Kylie do? How would Kylie Minogue have done this song? Would she have done it?

For most of this album, Madonna fails or comes close to failing.

At first I hated the first two singles, “Give Me All Your Luvin'” and “Girl Gone Wild,” but they got stuck in my head, and they grew on me. Generally I think the album’s mindless, bubblegum pop tracks work the best. At least they have the advantage of being danceable.

I think it’s funny that she’s still so hung up on the Act of Contrition, which she quotes at the beginning of “Girl.” At least it shows some thematic consistency throughout her career. Or maybe it’s just a broken record that I’m hearing.

And the nod to Cyndi Lauper — her proclamation of “Girls, they just want to have some fun” — simultaneously tickles and annoys me.

The ballads work, too, more or less. At least they showcase what has developed into actually a lovely, controlled — sometimes too controlled — voice. Her tone tends to go a little too light, too airy and girly (listen to “Turn up the Radio” and “Give Me All Your Luvin’“). I desperately miss the husky, throaty days of “Like a Prayer.” That was some honest, real emotion.

Then there are moments on the album where Madonna tries to get a little more thoughtful, and in those moments the album totally fails. Songs like “I Fucked Up” and “Best Friend” are clearly meant to be among the more deep and meaningful attempts, but they’re actually just crap. (“I’m sorry/Je suis désolé.” High school French. Oh, how sophisticated.) They are unpracticed, unlistenable middle-school poetry. This is the stuff that makes you cringe when you look back a year later.

Gang Bang” starts out with promise, but it quickly descends into idiocy and ends in embarrassment. It could have been a breakthrough track, but it’s weirdly violent without any context or story. It’s nothing more than a string of cliches and nonsense about a gun and driving and “if you’re gonna act like a bitch, you’re gonna die like a bitch.” Uhm, ok, Madonna.

It brings to mind the beautiful and weird kidnapped-grandma-on-the-run video for “What it Feels Like for a Girl,” but it’s nowhere near as slick. Ironically, that video was directed by her ex-husband Guy Ritchie, the object of all the supposed anger being unveiled on this album.

Most of the songs are riddled with cliches: “like a drug,” “fits like a glove.” Tracks “Superstar” and “Bday Song” are painfully insipid, both musically and lyrically. I feel no compulsion to listen to either of them again.

Throughout the album I’m astonished by the crippling lack of imagination in her lyrics. The rhymes are worn out and tortured and offer nothing surprising. How many times is she going to rhyme “girl” and “world”? (Indeed, how many times is she going to refer to herself as a girl?) It gives me the feeling like I’ve heard it all before — mostly because I have.

Notable exceptions are “Turn up the Radio,” “I’m a Sinner” (though I could do without the litany of saints at the end), and “Falling Free.” These are thoughtful, interesting, and still fun.

This album is not at all innovative musically either — not in the way “Ray or Light” and “Music” were (in their time), though you can tell it wants to be. Even “American Life” had its share of clunkers, but I can at least respect her spirit of experimentation. This album just feels lazy to me. Sterile. Boring, empty and emotionless.

The first song that feels like it’s going anywhere interesting is “I Don’t Give A.” It picks up the themes of manic modern life where the song “American Life” left off. The Nicki Minaj guest vocal is a nice addition. But at the end, the self-worshiping “the only queen is Madonna” comes off as a tacky add-on.

I almost completely love “Love Spent,” with the exception of the “if my name were Benjamin” line. Apart from that lame rhyme (and maybe the clunky-sounding line about opening a joint account — ok, let’s just replace that whole verse), this song shows some skillful song craft. The banjo is unexpected, provocative. In fact the “acoustic” version is better than the regular album version and will replace it in my rotation.

The ballad “Masterpiece” is beautiful — or desperately wants to be — but that opening line kills me. “If you were the Mona Lisa, you’d be hanging in the Louvre” is merely a fact. It doesn’t express anything figurative or poetic about the person she’s singing to. It’s like singing “If you were a stop sign, you’d be a red octagon.”

She would be better off saying something like “If you were a painting, you’d be the Mona Lisa,” because that at least expresses something qualitative.

Also: “I’m right by your side like a thief in the night”? A thief in the night is there and gone without being seen. So: I’m right by your side … like someone who’s not there? Maybe that’s what she means. And that could be interesting. But it feels more like she’s just stretching for a rhyme.

Lately with her, as I think through each song I do like, there’s something in each case that stops me from loving it completely. I like the song … but. There’s always a but. I’m very hard to please when it comes to Madonna, because she is capable of such greatness. I have no patience for mediocrity from her anymore, and she has no excuse.

After my first listen through the album, I was just mad at her. Actually angry. What a waste. I’m so embarrassed for her. I used to worship this woman. The second listen softened me a little bit, and I was able to pick out some likes and dislikes. It may continue to grow on me, but I decided a while ago that life is too short to waste time trying to convince myself that I like a Madonna album.

1 Response to “Nothing addictive about MDNA”

  1. April 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Madonna is the original Lady Gaga! She is the mother of the mother of all little monsters.

    – Steve,
    Assistant at NewYorkerApts.com
    (NYC’s new site for apartments & roommates)

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