Judgement Day: Pop Heaven or Hell? Madonna – MDNA

In the spirit of Her Madgesty’s penchant for re-invention, I’ve decided to change the format of my regular Judgement Day: Heaven or Hell album reviews and try out a new approach with my rather late review of much abuzzed #1 album MDNA. Enjoy! – Dean

Despite their complete domination of the pop charts over the last few years, it’s really not easy being a pop starlet.

In today’s musical climate female pop artists are endlessly pitted against one-another in fanbase and media-created feuds. They are often criticized for acting “too old” when they’re younger and “too young” when they’re older. They are subjected to endless public scrutiny for their appearance and resort to extreme measures to stay young and beautiful. In recent years we’ve entered a derivative era in popular culture where we continue to reference and remake our own very recent past. Despite this being the trend, many artists are constantly accused of “ripping off” songs, costumes, and choreography from one another and basically damned if they do/damned if they don’t.

Leading up to the release of MDNA on March 23rd, there was a lot of speculation and concern from fans and music lovers at large. Madonna’s last release, 2008’s Hard Candy was widely panned as some of her weakest material to date. While the album contained a few shining gems, it was a far cry from the woman who brought us the bold and ballsy brilliance of 1992’s Erotica and the stunning introspection of 2008’s Ray of Light. Early buzz about MDNA suggested the album would be based in hip-hop and after confirmation of collaborators like Nicki Minaj many expected a sound that would feel like Hard Candy pt. 2.

Fortunately for all of us, we were completely wrong. In fact, MDNA manages to be some of Madonna’s freshest and most exciting material in years.

Often heralded as the one that the others always are stealing from (see criticism of Christina Aguilera’s “Bionic” campaign and everything Lady Gaga has done), Madonna generally chooses not to comment on these claims in much detail but utilises the process of creating MDNA to make the ultimate statement about her influence on today’s pop stars by “stealing” from her own legacy. It’s an album that is largely self-referrential and directly references several iconic parts of her career. An intended multiple entendre, here we encounter one possible meaning of the album’s title: MDNA referring to the very components that have made Madonna a living legend; her musical D.N.A.

From all aspects of Madge’s career: not too many stones are left unturned. The album opens with second single “Girl Gone Wild” which begins with an ode to Like a Prayer. In “Gang Bang” we find the re-appearance of Dita from Erotica (she’ll be your mistress tonight) who brings back the ‘tude from “Bye Bye Baby” in an album and career highlight. Some songs merely echo previous eras; (i.e. “I’m a Sinner” has a certain “Beautiful Stranger” about it) and there are songs that use bits of classic lyrics to link themselves to the past, even name-dropping classic hit titles (“Like a Virgin”).

One of the Material Girl’s most personal records, MDNA explores the aftermath of Madonna’s divorce from Guy Ritchie and seems to show many stages of the grief process right up to getting out there again, having fun and meeting someone new.

There’s a duality in the songs, light and danceable fun -versus- emotional, dark and cynical. It doesn’t sound terribly like any of her previous efforts but more like a cocktail blended up from Ray of Light, Confessions on a Dance Floor and Bedtime Stories, with a tiny sprinkle of Hard Candy‘s urban flavor on top.

While many artists and producers working with so much nostalgia would get lost in a dated mess, Madge’s production team, packed with electronic powerhouses including The Benassi Bros, Martin Solveig and William Orbit manage to make Madonna seem way more current than all of the other dance divas using the exact same tricks (dub step breakdowns, guest rap appearances, etc.). While the tracks do explore many different genres, all of them are produced with an almost scientific proficiency and intent, often starting out very minimal and adding layer after layer of instrumentation and vocals in waves, building to an eventual climax. Sonically each song has it’s own personality and the production is so lush and multi-layered you can get lost in any one of them. It’s a feeling of euphoria that one could surely equate to a drug-induced high, which comes back to the tongue-firmly-in-cheek title drug reference. (MDMA is the short form of the scientific name for the illegal but popular drug ecstasy, which subsequently is known for it’s prevalence in the club music scene.) In yet another conceptual layer, ecstasy is also known as “the love drug” and a large part of MDNA treats love as just that: a need, an addiction and an obsession; something to resist, resent or surrender yourself to and enjoy.

So the question on all of our minds: how did MDNA fare with The Pop Gods? Was it turned away from the gates of Pop Heaven or welcomed in with open arms? It’s time to check the Judgement Day Scorecard!

It’s safe to say that most people will agree that the choices for the first two singles were not representative of the great album we ended up getting. They do, however, make sense within the context of the album and serve to lighten up the mood. They grew on me! As you can see on the scorecard, my instant faves were the deliciously silly and violent “Gang Bang” and the slow and moody, Orbit-produced, standard edition closers: gorgeous love song “Masterpiece” and amazing, haunting and introspective “Falling Free”. Other highlights for me are the brutally honest and genius “Love Spent”, which boasts an American Life style banjo moment and the trippy, intense “I’m Addicted”, which is probably the album’s most danceable. The only places where I felt the album REALLY failed were on the silly bonus track “B-Day Song” (which obviously wasn’t meant to be taken seriously) and the extrenely mundane summer radio jam “Turn Up The Radio” which simply felt the least inspiring of all the other album tracks.

Despite the concerning single choices and a couple of lackluster tracks, it’s pretty clear that MDNA is…

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2 thoughts on “Judgement Day: Pop Heaven or Hell? Madonna – MDNA

  1. Amy says:

    PM- I love your blog, you are well written and I love you graphics! Great work!

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