The year was 1987, and a trifecta of iconic pop stars named Michael, Whitney and Madonna were ruling the Top 40 airways with hit-after-hit records. After emerging as the world’s most prolific male solo artist with his trailblazing Off the Wall and Thriller records, 1987 would be the year when Michael Jackson would cement his status as pop music royalty, delivering a string of five consecutive #1 pop singles off of his Bad record. 1987 would also be the year when Whitney Houston would continue her record-setting run of seven consecutive #1 singles by releasing her sophomore 9x platinum-selling album, Whitney. And then there was Madonna – the third member of this illustrious trio of pop talent who, while achieving tremendous success with her previous records Like a Virgin and True Blue had yet to ascend to her critical or commercial peak (this would come two years later with the 1989 release of Like a Prayer).
With each artist at or near their commercial and creative highs, the year encapsulated a tremendous time for music – a peak that, unfortunately, the trio would never together get to enjoy again. For Michael and Whitney, their careers would tragically – over time – take very publicly turbulent turns for the worse, the former enduring – among other things – two very ugly sexual abuse court cases, and the latter dealing with a highly combative marriage and increasingly damaging drug addiction.
Fast forward to 2012, and the world has lost both treasured talents, leaving the increasingly immortal Madonna left as the remaining pop icon of the 1980s. It is a testament to her work ethic, career savvy and resolute will power that Madonna not only is still around but has – through her now thirty plus year career – remained focused, engaged and relevant in an industry that holds youth and of-the-moment sounds in the highest regard. During her thirty years in the public eye, we have seen her transform and adapt her look, sound and persona – in true pop icon form – to fit the times. The most convincing of pop chameleons, we have seen so many varied “Madonnas” – from Like a Virgin bridal tease to Ray of Light Kabbalah practitioner and everything else in between – that it’s exhausting to even attempt to recount all of them here. Instead, let us focus on the artist’s first record in four years, the effervescent MDNA. Given her storied career, timeless staying power and well-received Super Bowl Halftime Show performance, it was with great anticipation to give MDNA a listen. After several spins, it is with even greater excitement that I share how cohesively satisfying this return-to-form album is, as MDNA proves that Madonna truly is a modern-day marvel who, once again, has remarkably found a way to amend her sound to the times for now the fourth consecutive decade.
- Girl Gone Wild Whereas it may not make the canonical cut as one of her most trailblazing singles, ubiquitous Euro-dance production Svengali Alessandro & Marco Benassi deliver a slick, glossy album-opening track that allows Madonna to, as evidenced by the single’s controversial music video, strut her fifty-three year old stuff like she was a contemporary half her age. While sonically this cut is as current as anything else on Top40, its simple chorus – while still indelible – doesn’t surge into the stratospheric heights you’d anticipate it to after witnessing the song’s dramatic opening, spoken-word salvo. The good news for those listening? There are many, far richer tracks to be enjoyed very soon…
- Gang Bang In fact, the riches need not be mined any further than the explicative intensity that defines this Parental Advisory-only track #2. The first of five cuts to be produced by William Orbit – who triumphantly returns as an in-form collaborator after a twelve year absence from Madonna – the track is an inspired, enigmatic affair. If Lana Del Rey was half serious about staking claim to her “gangster Nancy Sinatra” persona, she need only look to Madge’s Kill Bill homage here to find her inspiration. On this the album’s strongest and most fascinating cut, Madonna hisses, growls and coos sinisterly – presumably the first of many references to ex-husband Guy Ritchie – over an ominously pulsating house beat. With a chorus lyric of “gang bang shot you dead, shot my lover in the head”, this song will likely never see a deserving single treatment for radio adds. If that is the case, however, consider it the finest album-only track of her thirty-year career.
- I’m Addicted The second Benassi offering on the record, third track I’m Addicted is a straight-ahead, thumping dance track that is tailor-made for the clubs. Equipped with not-so-subtle addiction references – lyric “flows through my body igniting my mind it’s like MDMA” as a primary example – the track succeeds not for its lyrical content but rather for its kinetic energy and frantic chorus.
- Turn Up the Radio Pre-ordained by many to be the album’s third single, this Martin Solveig-produced cut too is not a lyrically imaginative track: “Don’t ask me where I want to go / We gotta turn up the radio” Madonna sings over a shimmering, synth-heavy slice of electronica. Despite its lack of lyric ingenuity, the production has a buoyant freshness that will surely serve this song well on the Top 40 charts this summer.
- Give Me All Your Luvin’ (Featuring Nicky Minaj & M.I.A.) Those who watched the largely acclaimed Super Bowl Halftime Show performance will be familiar with this mash-up of sixties Brit pop-meets-cheerleader bandstand lead single. The second Martin Solveig-produced song to appear on the album, the single – which recently became Madonna’s record-extending 38th top-ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – is a fun, if a bit inconsequential, piece that unfortunately is marred by unexceptional turns at the mike by Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. Fortunately, both artists perform far more capably later on in the album on their subsequent guest appearances.
- Some Girls Another Orbit-produced track, this biting cut has Madonna once again in woman-scorned mode, taking unveiled attacks at former husband Guy Ritchie. Over an affectingly glacial groove, Madonna assertively states her case – “Some girls are not like me / I’m everything you ever dreamed of” – and even takes a direct swipe at Ritchie’s new, far younger baby mama – “Some girls got an attitude…fake tits and a nasty mood.” Another album standout, this cut merits future single consideration.
- Superstar The endless celebrity name-dropping lyrics aside, album track Superstar is a welcomed, sunny departure from the jaded affairs it is bordered by. The cut’s minimalist “Ooo la la you’re my superstar” chorus might be a bit lightweight for some, but the song’s upbeat and cheerful sentiments sustain it – positively paying homage in some way to the singer’s uber-optimist Cherish record from the Like a Prayer record.
- I Don’t Give A (Featuring Nicki Minaj) Another album standout, producer Solveig provides a stuttering, syncopated beat for a spirited Madonna/Minaj duo to unleash their wrathful dismissal of the public’s perceptions. Not more than thirty seconds in, an enraged Madonna morphs into American Life-era rapper mode, spit-firing defiant verses detailing how hard it is to live the superstar life (see first verse – “Wake up, ex-wife / This is your life / Children on your own / Crying on the telephone” and chorus – “Gonna live fast / Can you follow my track / I’m livin’ fast / And I like it like that/ I do ten things all at once/ And if you have a problem / I don’t give A…” as telling examples). While this “haters gonna hate” topic matter may sound tired, the track works – building majestically to its unexpected Tim Burton-esque crescendo of orchestral swirls and monastic chants. Refreshingly confessional lyric during the bridge cements the song’s success: “I tried to be a good girl, I tried to by your wife, diminished myself, and I swallowed my life…and if I was a failure…I don’t give a…” Another potentially successful single here.
- I’m a Sinner This funky, scintillating slice of psychedelic pop – again curated by William Orbit – finds a jaunty Madonna channeling several different personas: the lyrical inspiration, of course, harkens back to the singer’s Like a Prayer days (if the song title wasn’t enough of a giveaway, then look no further than recurring lyric: “Hail Mary full of grace / Get down on your knees and pray”) and the sonic thematic a fitting nod to her Orbit-produced Ray of Light record. With a driving bass line and some intriguing vocal manipulations, the song is five minutse of pure delight.
- Love Spent A haunting banjo loop, swirling strings, and a building layer of synthesizers all serve to create MDNA‘s most honest and alluring look at Madonna’s failed marriage to her ex-husband. Paired with this very appealing sonic template, the track’s earnest lyrics of heartbreak (“I want you to take me like you took your money…”) regret (“I’m love spent…wondering where the love went”) and resentment (“hold me in your arms until there’s nothing left”) pack all the more emotional punch, making this song another one well worthy of numerous repeat spins.
- Masterpiece A song released late last year for the W.E. motion picture soundtrack, the track marks a down-tempo turn in the album. Over a Latin-tinged acoustic rhythm, Madonna sweetly sings metaphorically about the pain of being in love and its artistic likenesses (“If you were the Mona Lisa / You’d be hanging in the Louvre / Everyone would come to see you / You’d be impossible to move.” Both poignant and memorable, the song serves as the welcomed re-emergence of “Madonna the Balladeer”, a presence that is re-affirmed on the album’s concluding track.
- Falling Free Following the intimate tone set by its predecessor, the album’s standard-edition closer finds Madonna in similarly terrific vocal form, delivering her most emotive and heartfelt ballad performance since her 1995 compilation Something to Remember. Adopting a divergently introspective outlook on her failed marriage, Madonna sings with crystal-clear clarity over a simple piano and string-laden accompaniment: “Deep and pure our hearts are like / Then I’m free, I’m free of mind / When I let loose the need to know / We’re both free, we’re free to go.” It’s a fittingly moving vocal performance that concludes a similarly potent album.