In 1993, when asked by a Mexican journalist what she feared most, Madonna admitted plainly, “Dying.” Looking at her body of work, it’s embarrassingly obvious now, and it’s funny to think she’s best known as the queen of sex and not, in fact, the queen of death. Beating the clock, moving fast, accomplishing things because time is scarce and life is short are themes that have permeated almost every aspect of Madonna’s life and career. Her mother, also named Madonna, died at the age of 30, and her namesake spent the next 25 years believing she would meet the same fate. When Madonna became famous at the height of the AIDS crisis, her friends began succumbing to the disease one after the other, which turned the singer into an activist, but also ostensibly became an impetus behind her near-pathological drive to leave her mark on the world.
In the past three years, two of the three biggest pop superstars of the ’80s have died tragically. But unlike Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, Madonna wasn’t thrust into the spotlight by way of an enterprising family or the kind of prodigious talent that, with or without its owner’s consent, begs to be hoisted up and exalted by the masses. That Madonna was forced to compensate for her perceived lack of natural “talent” with, in addition to unbridled creativity, supreme self-control and focus is probably what’s helped keep her from succumbing to the demons that have plagued many of her contemporaries. It’s also, perhaps, the thing that makes her a somewhat unsympathetic character, an attractive target for ridicule among even those who claim to love her.
Everyone is afraid of death. But how that fear manifests itself when you’re one of the most famous women on the planet and how it’s compounded when you reach middle age in an industry that increasingly values youth and beauty were revealed, respectively, in Madonna’s largely graceful quest for answers to life’s most universal questions on Ray of Light and her often awkward, misguided attempts to reconcile those lessons with a habitual desire to preserve her status in the years that have followed. Social, cultural, and political impact aside, Madonna’s career has been a demonstration of endurance.
To that end, while Madonna was accused of running out of ideas long before she actually did, her recent propensity to rehash her own canon seems deliberate—not to mention cynical. Last month, she told The Advocate that while she “never left” her gay audience, she’s “back.” (Back from where is unclear, though her estranged brother’s claim that ex-hubby Guy Ritchie is a homophobe offers a clue.) The video for “Girl Gone Wild,” the second single from her first album in four years, MDNA, is like “Human Nature” redux, seemingly tailor-made to snatch the title of Most Played Video Artist at Gay Bars from Lady Gaga.
But while “Human Nature” was an intentional sendup of Madonna’s Erotica period, the seemingly straight-faced Catholic Girl Gone Bad shtick of “Girl Gone Wild” is just—you guessed it—reductive. Even though Madonna’s dressed up like her, the feisty pop singer who went on Nightline in 1990 and clumsily but zealously called out the media for its hypocrisy and sexism is missing here. Madonna pilfers the title of one of her earliest rivals’ songs during the hook of “Girl Gone Wild,” only to defang it of its feminist bent: Just like Madonna’s own “Material Girl” was meant to be ironic, the point of Cyndi Lauper’s signature anthem is that girls want to have fun, but that’s not all they want to do.
The song’s intro, during which Madonna recites an act of contrition over canned disco strings, is just a ruse; the rest of MDNA is reminiscent of neither Like a Prayer nor Confessions on a Dance Floor. It’s unclear what Madonna’s motivations were for reuniting with William Orbit after more than a decade; a smarter move would have been to call on longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard to help her excavate and examine the remains of her second marriage. But while the album is no Ray of Light either, MDNA is surprisingly cohesive despite its seven-plus producers (most notably, Martin Solveig, the man behind the regrettable lead single “Give Me All Your Luvin’”), and it’s obvious Madge and Billy Bubbles can still create magic together. “I’m a Sinner” harks back to the pair’s most ecstatically joyous work—not just sonically, but vocally. Something about recording with Orbit again has inspired Madonna to abandon her recent insistence on singing like she’s wearing a clothespin on her nose.
Likewise, her performance on “Love Spent” is confident enough to transcend Orbit’s superfluous vocal effects. It’s not just the most melodically sophisticated song on the album, it’s also the most revealing, rather poignantly alluding to the tens of millions Ritchie received in the couple’s divorce settlement: “I want you to take me like you took your money,” she longs. What makes the lyrical faux pas of songs like “Girl Gone Wild” and “Superstar” so frustrating is the pop mastery of tracks like this and the Italo-disco “I’m Addicted,” a meditation on the power of language that’s both profound (“All of the letters push to the front of my mouth/And saying your name is somewhere between a prayer and a shout”) and tongue-in-cheek (“I’m a dick-, I’m a dick-, I’m addicted to your love”). When she’s not rapping about child custody and prenups on “I Don’t Give A,” she admits: “I tried to be a good girl/I tried to be your wife/Diminished myself/And I swallowed my light.”
But in case the title of that song didn’t tip you off, the Madonna of MDNA is more defiant than heartbroken. Ritchie’s impact on the singer’s personal life is obvious, but his influence on her work is just as apparent: He bought her a guitar when they met, changing her approach to songwriting, and he was responsible for the introduction of violence, often seemingly gratuitous, into her videos and stage performances, starting with his clip for her 2001 single “What It Feels Like for a Girl.” So, in that sense, it’s disappointing to see guns and violence continue to play such a prominent role here. But the twisted “Gang Bang,” a standout cut in which Madonna quite convincingly portrays a jilted bride turned femme fatale in the vein of Beatrix Kiddo, plays more like a piss take of Ritchie’s gangster fetish than a glorification of it.
Madonna’s Super Bowl performance last month—spectacular but lacking spontaneity—was indicative of her overall approach to her career these days: meticulously orchestrated down to every dance move, every mimed syllable. The non-controversy of M.I.A. flipping the bird was notable only because it served as a reminder of just how “safe” the rest of the performance was. But songs like “Gang Bang” serve as reminders that what separates Madonna from most other mainstream pop stars is her willingness to try new things. Fear—of failure, of looking uncool, of death—can either paralyze or propel you. MDNA finds Madonna continuing to defy the laws of nature by doing both.