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MDNA: A Few Strands Need to be Untangled

As a long-time fan of the Material Girl, I have to say, these are hard times to be a Madonna defender.  She hasn’t exactly demonstrated to the world that she gives a flying fuck.  There have been a number of incidents that have resonated in the media and on the internet that have made her a less than endearing person.  In particular the whole hydrangea debacle and the Molly incident at Miami's Ultra Music Festival, come to mind.  Both played like the acts of a woman with poor reasoning skills.  Her Superbowl  appearance was almost right on the money, spoiled only by M.I.A.’s unnecessary middle finger and a misstep on the bleachers.  She played that opportunity smart – appearing in an age appropriate dress and giving the fans what they wanted: the hits.  She definitely knew what an important opportunity it was and did her best not to piss anyone off.  Not that it’s helped her sell her latest disc, MDNA.  

Yes, it debuted at number one, but then experienced the biggest drop-off of sales that any number one had previously.   They also claim that she cheated by giving away a CD with each concert ticket she sold – but I think (considering the tickets were $200) that’s kind of nitpicking and a much less questionable practice then selling it for 99 cents on-line (Lady Gaga – looking at you). 
So, who the hell knows what is in Madonna’s head these days.  MDNA is certainly not the CD expected of a mature artist.  At this point, I would be very interested in hearing music made by a 53-year old Madonna, rather than one that seems to come from a place of insecurity about getting older and generally appears to feel entitled and angry.  Vulnerability really speaks volumes to the general public.  However, the Platinum Lady does not seem to want to expose any flaws in her armor.   Given that perfection is consuming and unattainable, a quest for such leaves one exhausted and irritable – which may explain why MDNA comes across so incredibly negative.  That negativity is a total turn-off, Madge.  Hey… you have a lot of money.  You can sleep with whomever you want.  So why so crabby?
To be blunt, Madonna’s MDNA release isn’t one of her best.  The lyrics are frequently hopelessly lazy, some of the songs go on for far too long (a little judicious editing would have gone a long way), and the pop glean that once seemed to shine so easily for her is hopelessly absent.  But the worst issue with the CD is the sequencing.  It undermines the story arc – a story which is very much evident if one muddles their way through the disc.  Why exactly the songs are in the order they appear makes no sense: it’s not like they front-loaded all the potential hits (there are none).  In short, plenty of fodder for the critics to gripe about. And trust me, the haters did just that.
Maybe she didn’t care enough?  Maybe she only views new music as necessary product at this point.  We’re a long way away from the meticulous sheen and polish of “True Blue”, “Like A Prayer” and “Ray of Light” – three of her best efforts.    Let’s face it – things have not gone well in Madonna-town since “American Life”.  Still, I must admit I found a lot to like on “Confessions on a Dance Floor”, though, once again, the sequencing of that CD did a lot to undermine what could have been a very good release).  “Hard Candy”, her last effort, was not very good.  It came across as hard, brittle, angry, and crass.  As with MDNA, Madonna herself seemed to be absent in the mix for that one.  And since the reason people care (or used to ) about Madonna’s music is because it is all about Madonna – to have her show up M.I.A.(no pun intended) gives everyone an opportunity to totally opt out: she didn’t care enough – why should we?  
Which is why I think the sequencing of the CD is so important.  If you create a story… begin somewhere – then we will follow you to the end, because once involved, we begin to care. 
Here is the CD I think MDNA should have been, with explanations and suggestions along the way.   Stand out tracks have been indicated with a * before the title.
Track One: Turn On the Radio
It all began there – on the radio, with Madonna.  So, since this is the first release on a new label, it should begin there again.  It is, in fact, lack of radio support that keeps killing her singles.  This is also an upbeat way to begin.  The lyrics support that this should be the kick-off song: “There's a glow of a distant light, calling you to come outside.  To feel the wind on your face and your skin, and it's here I begin my story…”
Track Two: Give Me All Your Luvin’

This song plays out like something Madonna would have gotten on the radio, pre-American Life or maybe even pre-Erotica.  It’s a trifle of a song, but is fairly light and uplifting.  It would seem to say (and did) that Madonna is on top of the world; the apex from which all others are to be compared.
*Track Three: Some Girls
Thematically, it only makes sense to assess the competition and to differentiate in the market she was born to rule.  Which is something one does at the top of their game.  What separates Madonna from the rest of the pack?  This has become one of my favorite tracks.  It has enough tiny hooks to satisfy my pop demon, the vocals are interesting, and it makes me want to dance.
Track Four: I’m A Sinner
This track works – if edited right before all the stupid Jesus/Mary/St. Sebastian rhymes.  Cut it early and is a bit charming.  Let it go on too long, and those stagnant, meaningless, school-girl couplets will have you throwing up just the tiniest bit in your mouth.   Sometimes less leads to success.
Track Five: Girl Gone Wild
“I’m a Sinner” sets up the spoken intro to “Girl Gone Wild” perfectly. As a lead off track it made no sense and only reminded one of how magnificent “Like A Prayer” was years before.  So at this point in the story we have a diva at the top of her game, one that is perhaps heading off the tracks.  Oh, what in the world could possibly save her?  Why, love, of course.
Track Six: Superstar
I hate this song.  It is stupid; a name-dropping song without the usual knowing wink.  I include it because on even Madonna’s best CD’s there is always one really stupid track, without which, the rest of the release loses something.  “Superstar” is that point when our heroine – so full of herself and high on life – comes in contact with that one person who can bring her back to earth. And yes, it is no surprise that the object of her affection is a combination of all the greatest male icons ever to live, but, hey… it’s Madonna!
*Track Seven: I’m Addicted
Ah, obsession becomes addiction.  Not so healthy.  Not so happy.  This is one of the best songs on the CD.  Love it.  Captures unhealthy emotional addiction perfectly.   That and, “I need to dance…”
*Track Eight: Masterpiece
This is the best track on the CD.  As it is, it gets buried on the actual release, kind of put there as an afterthought.  Fact is, it demonstrates just what a good songwriter Madge can be when she isn’t obsessing over those veins that stick out on the back of her hands.  This is a beautiful song and her best performance on MDNA.  
Track Nine: Beautiful Killer
This is where our diva starts waking up.  She realizes that she is dancing with danger and starts to look for an escape route.  Ends with the sound of a bullet casing hitting the floor… hello?  This is where I wish we could insert “Revolver” from the” Celebration” release, but that belongs to Warner Brothers, so no dice.  However, this track still dovetails nicely into:
Track Ten: Gang Bang
Diva is pissed.  And that’s why it does not work as the second track of the CD.  It is too angry.  Too negative.  Too harsh.  Better it appear here, where it thematically makes sense.  By this point in the story our lady love needs to get angry… in order to evolve.  This is another track that could benefit from some editing.  I hit the fast forward right after she tells us she has a lot of friends in hell.  After that point, well, I just don’t think Madge screaming ‘drive bitch, die bitch’ is very… effective or meaningful.
Track Eleven: I Don’t Give A ****
Diva is indifferent.  Having rid herself of Prince Alarming, Madge has to look at starting her life over without him.  She needs to reclaim herself.  And in order to do that she must be honest with herself…
Track Twelve: I Fucked Up
She has to admit that she was part of the problem.  OH – VULNERABILITY!  She shares her flaws and the world can once again relate to her… empathy garners CD sales.  So, Madge isn’t a heartless bitch.  In reclaiming herself, she is also realistic enough to realize that she is not perfect or infallible.
Track Thirteen: Best Friend
Sums up our story – Madge’s story and the reason this CD exists pretty well, don’t you think?
*Track Fourteen: Falling Free
Also one of the best tracks on the CD.  Lovely.  Well written and demonstrating a deepness absent on most of the CD.  And it leaves us wanting to know what happens next to our beautiful, fragile, very human princess. Seriously, though.  This track indicates what a whole CD done by a woman of 53 years could have sounded like.  Which is a nice place to start, should Madonna ever decide to record another CD.
86’d Tracks or ones regulated to the bonus/deluxe disc:
 Love Spent - (A nice bit of melody – but the lyrics sink it big time, it is just an embarrassment). 
Birthday Song – a throwaway, but kind of refreshing 
So, try this out.  Burn yourself a re-ordered CD and see if it doesn’t feel more like a piece of work rather than a bunch of songs thrown on a CD.  The story I’ve outlined pretty much is the story MDNA was supposed to tell.  But for some reason the strands of that DNA got all tangled up and out of order.  Which is a shame.  People are going to start turning their back on her unless she has a reality check.  The same sense of entitlement caused the world to turn their back on Marlene Dietrich.
I hope the same thing doesn’t happen to Madonna.
She’s too smart a cookie to lose.


Skilled4Men said...

A very thorough and thoughtful commentary! Truth be told: My curiosity just isn't piqued by MDNA. It's a shame really... Madge had some terrific moments in her career (her portrayal and music endeavor in Evita still moves me). Things did go very wrong somewhere -I suppose that's what happens when an Artist becomes entirely self-absorbed. By comparison, Leona Lewis... I am incredibly curious to know what's coming next! (New Album is scheduled for release by Fall) Really enjoy your posts!

Upton King said...

Thanks for the comment. You know, it is funny you should mention Evita... because Madge really should take a clue from the way Evita Peron managed herself in public. Evita knew that to remain vulnerable in the eyes of the general public was important - so she stressed her humble beginnings, remained humbled by her faith... And that remains at the heart of what is wrong with Madonna's career in the states: she simply comes off as too hard edged, too jaded, and too disinterested in her following. Hopefully she will come to see the error of her ways... because, as she sings in "Masterpiece" - nothing's indestructible.