And still they come, the wave upon annual wave of barely pubescent girls who want to be Madonna. And year after year, in their ever more adept hiring of hairstylists and makeup personnel and production staff, they come a little closer to equaling their role model. Most of these canaries do remember to pay homage to Mama Madonna, praising the business sangfroid, image management, and marketing savvy that have kept her on the top perch these many years. Yet they, too, miss the point. One does not engage the public’s interest for 16 years by simply second-guessing it and efficiently reheating the pop modes of the day. One has to connect with the audience – there has to be jouissance to go with the puissance. And there has to be above all, an instinctive grasp of the pop aesthetic. And thanks to happy accidents of birth, timing, and training (particularly in the ways of gay culture), Madonna has that commodity in spades. The rest do not — which is why they will always be The Rest.
It was on l998’s Ray Of Light album that Madonna finally recognized her own strengths, and returned to the dance floor that had borne her. Even as she entered her fifth decade, Madonna realized that she could still connect with clubgoers, the most demanding audience of all. Always more astute in her choice of musical partners than in her choice of swains and armpieces, she exercised her droit de senorita by hiring producer William Orbit, known mainly on the British techno scene and for an album with Britpop avatars Blur. The real stroke of genius was to pair Orbit’s digital dexterity with the proven pop expertise of her longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard (“Like a Prayer.” “Open Your Heart,” “Live to Tell”).
As ever, the trimmings around Ray of Light were just right for the times: Madonna in “natural”-look mode, haunting her assets in a plain white tank top, thrashing her low—maintenance mane around in the hyperkinetic video for the title song, and elsewhere vamping in Gothic and “spiritual” drag (none of which was to be taken any more seriously than her Boy Toy belts of yore). The collective chemistry among Orbit, Leonard, and Madonna truly sparked — this was perhaps the first Madonna album where the music managed to overshadow the visual ancillaries. Orbit’s pulsing electro skeleton was girded with scratchy New Wave guitars and resonant melodies to create a soundscape that was more capital-M Modern than next month’s Wallpaper. Led off by the joyously hard—charging title track and colored by Eastern modalities and future-tech filigree, Ray of Light was received as a triumph, an artistic coming-of-age, a consummate suite of adult mood music.
Even so, all the praise and the Grammys (for best dance recording, best pop album, and best music video, short form — her only previous win had been for a l99l concert video) came almost despite the artist who made it.
On Madonna’s latest album, the just-released Music, the dominant producer is Mirwais Ahmadzai, a late-30s Parisian knob twiddler of obscure, exquisitely hip provenance. The record’s barnstorming and eponymous first single recalls the kind of tacky electro-funk that characterized the era of Madonna’s original self-invention. Only this lime, as the singer coos sexy dance-floor clichés – “I like to boogie-woogie” — over brash and funky synthesizer riffs, she is cowled in quotation marks as big as angels’ wings. She is only flirting with banality, like the true pop artist she is.
“Music” is Madonna’s self-portrait done Warhol-style.
Elsewhere on the new album, in seemingly random fashion, Ahmadzai stretches and bends the star’s vocals through his digital kaleidoscope, spitting them out in rainbow-colored jump-cut shards. The next minute he strips everything down to acoustic guitar, bone-dry vocal, and drum machine for an effect that is almost sonically naive, in the way that only sophisticates can be naive. Music engenders that particular reaction without which the pop industry and the fashion scene would stagnate and die: “God, that sounds/looks ugly… She must know something? To quote the title of another new Madonna song, she has once again conjured up an “Impressive instant.” It’s hard to think of a mainstream artist who would take as many gleeful risks at this stage in her career.
By calling her latest work Music, Madonna might well be issuing a pointed rebuke to the boy-zone rock critics who have shortchanged her to these many years, a final reminder to those who’ve interpreted her every new beat as a death knell. So, as Madonna nurses her second child and watches le tout Londres kneel to kiss her ring, no one is saying she’s over.
If anyone decides when that moment has come, it will be the erstwhile Material Girl herself.
© Vanity Fair