Even when Madonna is on top — as she has been this year with a masterful halftime show performance at the Super Bowl in February, and her latest album debuted at No. 1 a month later — she gets saddled with the same skepticism. A single question arises when discussing Madonna these days.
Is she still relevant?
Based on how weak and sometimes puerile her new record is, I’m finally inclined to say she is not. That’s not to diminish her legacy, which is mighty and looms over every pop star who has come in her wake, but the idea that Madonna is still a trailblazer has lost steam in recent years.
To wit: The first three words you hear from Madonna on “MDNA” set the tone for the rest of the album. “Oh, my God,” she says before relaying a prayer of sorts. She confesses she wanted to be a good girl, but, of course, this being Madonna, we all know that’s not going to happen.
In place of “Oh, my God,” she might as well have said “OMG,” the youthful shorthand you read on blogs and hear from anyone not old enough to buy booze. “MDNA” is blatantly hellbent on making the pop icon, who turned 54 a few weeks ago, sound fresh to new fans who weren’t around when her first singles hit hard in the early ’80s.
On “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” she gives us cheerleader chants from Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. There are desperate pleas to “turn up the radio.” “Gang Bang” is cartoonishly violent, built around a noirish narrative about killing a bad lover. “MDNA” is basically a Rihanna record made by Madonna.
In a career surging into its third decade, Madonna, who will play a sold-out TD Garden on Tuesday, is famous for gauging the zeitgeist. She has been the mother of reinvention, rivaled perhaps only by Cher. Her talent, more than just the music, is a potent mixture of business and cultural savvy. From the start, she has surrounded herself with forward-thinking producers and musicians who have helped nurture her vision.
It’s hard to say when Madonna started to lose her grip and pivoted from leader to follower. Some would argue 1998’s “Ray of Light,” with its mysticism and overtly personal themes, was her last truly remarkable album, but I maintain “Music” holds that distinction. It arrived in 2000 with the rare batch of songs that appealed to the head, heart, and feet.
After that, though, her next four studio albums landed with a thud, at least to these ears. “American Life,” from 2003, was supposed to be serious social commentary but ended up preachy and petulant. (Don’t get me started on that rap that rhymed “soy latte” with “double shottie.”) Two years later “Confessions on a Dance Floor” was, mercifully, a retreat to the disco beats that made her a star; it was safe but solid ground.
In 2008, she released “Hard Candy,” which included collaborations with Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, and Timbaland. The songs had an R&B edge but were still fizzy Europop confections that felt right in her wheelhouse. It was the first Madonna record that prominently featured guest artists out front, suggesting that maybe her own brand wasn’t enough anymore to give her platinum sales.
By contrast, “MDNA” misses the mark by positioning Madonna as a viable player in a pop market that routinely evolves. Typically Madonna has been ahead of those curves, but not this time. Coming a year after Adele’s tremendous ascent, Madonna’s latest dance-pop offerings sound out of step with what rules Top 40 radio now. In a bid to sound en vogue, she comes across as the cool mom who doesn’t realize those pelvic thrusts are embarrassing her kids in front of their friends.
Even Elton John, who’s been locked in a long-running feud with Madonna, recently weighed in on the album. “If Madonna had any common sense, she would have made a record like ‘Ray of Light’ and stayed away from the dance stuff and just been a great pop singer and make great pop records, which she does brilliantly,” he told an Australian TV show, before dismissing her as a “fairground stripper.”
Her Super Bowl performance, which featured cameos by LMFAO and Cee Lo Green, presented an interesting notion that’s not entirely true. She’s the queen of pop music, but she doesn’t want to be thought of as the den mother. Her disciples are exactly that. It’s telling that Madonna enlisted rapper-singers Minaj and M.I.A. — instead of, say, Katy Perry or Rihanna — to be a part of her Super Bowl show in addition to her new album. They’re nearly two decades her junior (Minaj almost three), but they’re also far enough removed from the dance music Madonna peddles.
Madonna has a fraught relationship with the younger pop stars who have encroached on her throne. She gave Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera her seal of approval with a lip-lock at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2003. But she’s had a more complicated relationship with Lady Gaga, who has come closest to her worldwide domination. They hammed it up with a mock catfight on a “Saturday Night Live” skit in 2009.
Since then, there seems to be some truth to their rivalry. When detractors accused Gaga’s “Born This Way” of ripping off Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” the Material Girl fanned the flames by calling the soundalike “reductive.” A not-so-coy moment on Madonna’s new tour put an even finer point on the matter. “Express Yourself” is mashed up with “Born This Way,” as if to reiterate the similarities, and then morphs into a newer Madonna song called “She’s Not Me.” Me-ow.
Instead of sharpening her claws, Madonna should take solace knowing that without her pioneering efforts, there would be no Lady Gaga. Maybe that’s why her latest album is such a letdown. It chases a sound that’s already been played out by other artists.
To borrow a few lines from “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” she should take her own advice: “Don’t play the stupid game/ Because I’m a different kind of girl/ Every record sounds the same/ You gotta step into my world.”