Madonna is no longer the belle of the pop ball, but the 53-year-old giddily believes she can still hang with all the Cinderellas. That's where the trouble starts on the new MDNA, an awkward midlife-crisis album. Madge makes like the Fairy Godmother of clubland, and guess who's up for a bibbidi-bobbidi-booty call.
Say what you will about MDNA — a title that slimily plays on the ingredients of party drug ecstasy aka MDMA — but she's earned the right to do whatever she pleases. One of the most pivotal pop-music icons of the past four decades (300 million records sold worldwide), Madonna is a tireless shape-shifting artist. Arrogant? You bet. Lazy? Never.
But here she's trying to play a pop-tart game better suited for younger disciples: Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Ke$ha. I'm not saying she can't have fun, whip up a frenzy, be the sexy force of nature she is; 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor got the job done with grace and heat. But this one feels phony, desperate, and the drug stuff is just inexplicably crass. Maybe the better fairy tale analogy would be the Evil Queen staring into the magic mirror relishing Snow White's youth — albeit while wearing one of her daughter's Hot Topic getups.
The songs long to shock and titillate; if she's not drugging-and-snogging, she's blow-torching her past in cutesy fashion. Gang Bang is a pistol-packing shot at ex-husband Guy Ritchie. They divorced in 2008; apparently the wound is still fresh. "I thought it was you / And I loved you the most / But I was just keeping my enemies close," Madonna hushes before filling him full of lead. She's said she wants Quentin Tarantino to direct the song's video, no doubt because Ritchie's critics dub him a Kmart QT. That would be a far better slam than this cut.
"I tried to be a good girl / I tried to be your wife / Diminished myself / And it swallowed my life," she chants on I Don't Give A, another unconvincing — and kind of late — dig on Ritchie. It should be noted the track doesn't take off until Nicki Minaj shows up for one of two cameos, leading it into an admittedly over-the-top Gregorian finish.
The album opens with a prayer — or maybe that should be 'like a prayer' — to God, who is no doubt rolling his eyes at yet another intrusion from Madonna: "I want so badly to be good," she hushes before the generic synth pounds of Girl Gone Wild. But alas: "I'm a bad girl anyway...forgive me." Then, just to make sure the Man Upstairs gets absolutely no work done, she bugs him again by narcotically corrupting the kids on I'm a Sinner: "All the boys and girls have a magic dust tonight."
Madonna doesn't get much help from talented producers Benny Benassi, the Demolition Crew and William Orbit. Martin Solveig puts together a head-spinning blast on first single Give Me All Your Luvin', which the singer performed at the Super Bowl with Minaj and hip-hopper M.I.A. But that's the rare time Madonna sounds as if she's having fun. The electronic swirls and plodding beats don't change; Superstar and Some Girls are egregiously boring. And maybe that's the ultimate crime. For all her reinvention — boy toy, bondage freak, Mrs. Penn, Mrs. Peron — Madonna has always avoided that one pitfall: being dull.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.