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Behind the MDNA

Was MDNA that successful comeback everyone expected? We’re trying to find the answer.

In March 2012, Madonna released her twelfth studio album – MDNA. Expectations towards her new releases are always high, but this time circumstances were exceptional. The Queen of Pop was returning from the longest hiatus between albums ever – 4 years. Importantly, the previous album, Hard Candy, didn’t win neither fans’ nor critics’ hearts, and even though it sold quite well and produced 2 hit singles, it didn’t enjoy an exceptionally well reputation. The music industry has significantly changed within those 4 years – singers such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Katy Perry took the lead in the world of female pop, and albums sales were no longer the measure of success, replaced by singles rankings on iTunes. MDNA was widely expected to be a grand comeback for Madonna – and at least as prominent an album as the 1998 Ray of Light.

What were those expectations met with? Definitely a disappointment, however, one cannot cross the whole MDNA era off – largely due to a fantastic tour, according to some, her best show since the iconic Blond Ambition Tour. The manager Guy Oseary, in response to fans’ complaints about the little effective and non-traditional promotion, was reported as saying that time will show the results. With Madonna currently working on new music, we’re looking back, trying to find the reason why her latest album didn’t meet expectations.

UNCONVENTIONAL PROMOTION

That’s how Guy described the campaign in support of MDNA, after fans started to point out the lack of basic promotional activity. For over a decade, anytime Madonna put an album out, she would storm media. TV appearances with new material, countless interviews, magazine covers – this time, all this was missing. Yes, she did give an unforgettable performance at the Super Bowl, but that event affected mostly media based in the USA, where it secured album’s no. 1 position and led to high tour ticket sales. The rest of the world remained indifferent.

Was there any excuse for the lack of such elementary promotion? In a way, yes. Shortly after her Super Bowl performance, Madonna took a short break, only to find herself rehearsing again after merely 2 weeks, in preparation for the forthcoming MDNA Tour which initially planned almost 100 performances on 5 continents. There’s no way she could find time for additional promotion. The reason for such unconsidered and disorganized schedule lies in the second half of 2011. Madonna’s plan was to wrap up editing her film W.E. by the end of June, and then to record the new album, with a short break in favor of promoting the film in Europe and the USA in the last quarter of 2011. The plan foundered in September, when W.E. was panned by the critics at the Venice Film Festival, what prompted Madonna to re-edit the film and put its premiere off by the beginning of 2012. One has to remember though that Madonna couldn’t do anything about it as she was tied by a contract with the Weinstein Company. In the meantime, Guy Oseary managed to negotiate the Super Bowl for her, what meant that she would spend the turn of 2011 and 2012 on preparation for the big show. That automatically entailed lack of time to promote the album. Re-scheduling its release or the tour didn’t seem logical and no one even took it into account.

Even though Madonna gave several interviews to promote MDNA – having been pressured by Guy - it was nowhere as effective and sufficient as the campaign for Hard Candy, which still was met with criticism from the fans.

THE SINGLES

Madonna has always been praised for good single strategy, and although she has to  her credit a few missteps on that matter, it’s hard to disagree that she possesses a very good intuition. Even “4 Minutes”, loathed by so many fans, passed the test and turned out a worldwide hit. As for MDNA, her intuition simply failed. “Give Me All Your Luvin’”, which launched the promotion, is a song that should never have been released. Its presence in Madonna’s discography is justified only by the Super Bowl performance, since both the song and the music video relate to it. However, as a single which was launched the return of the Queen of Pop after 4 years, “Give Me All Your Luvin’” turned out embarrassingly disappointing. Luckily, the track still placed within the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, simultaneously becoming her 38th top 10 entry, which set a record. That doesn’t mean at all that the song won the American audience – it didn’t sell remarkably well, but the Super Bowl show and the deal with Clear Channel helped to boost the airplay and secured a temporary glory in the chart. Outside the USA, the situation presented much worse, especially in the UK, where the single reached only no. 37. - the worst position for a lead single since “Everybody”… That resulted from an unconsidered move from the British division of Interscope, where “Give Me All Your Luvin’” was an extra download with every pre-order of MDNA on iTunes. And even though iTunes took payment for the track, its sales from the promotional weekend wouldn’t count towards the weekly chart.

That was only one of Interscope’s mistakes, who on the top of that would not synchronize the release date for Europe and America, resign from releasing physical singles and neglect the promotion. It’s easy to scapegoat them, but the problem was much more complex, and the representatives of the label, who obviously want to stay anonymous, clearly pointed at Madonna and her management as the reason of all those misunderstanding and mistakes.

Two more singles followed – “Girl Gone Wild” and “Turn Up the Radio”, but they experienced even bigger commercial failure. Was there a better choice? Yes. These songs, with as much commercial potential as they have, still failed to raise the interest of general public – at least that part of the public who knew about their existence. In my opinion, MDNA offered more possibilities with other songs, rather than those chosen by Madonna. I’m not talking about rumors around the “Gang Bang” video with Tarantino, but it’s easy to see how much affection songs like “Masterpiece” and “Love Spent” received from media. That has much to do with music itself, but also the next point I’m going to elaborate on.

GIRL GONE TOO WILD

There’s a reason why those two particular songs received such favorable response from radio DJs and critics. Both “Masterpiece” and especially “Love Spent” show Madonna that every has been missing – mature, able to tastefully blend different genres, saying something deeper lyrically and emotionally. Instead, the 54-year old singer still fakes her image as a young, crazy, fun-seeking woman. There wouldn’t be anything wrong about it, as fighting with ageism and opposing social norms is important – especially norms that indicate that Madonna should have long retired – but the image of the empowered ‘teenage grandma’ Madonna has been serving us for almost a decade. The more critical words, the more clothes she takes off. Personally, I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I like the whole ‘fuck you’ attitude towards her critics and talks about retirement. Two decades ago Madonna initiated a sexual revolution and fought for the right for women to express their sexuality as openly as men are allowed to, now fighting with ageism seems a natural progression in her career. But on the other hand, I think it’s time to change. As much as the queen of reinvention she is, it looks like she has fallen into a sexual trap, which she not only can’t, but just doesn’t want to get out of. What’s more, by continuously exploiting the sex bomb image, she takes to symbols and themes she has used in her art a number of times – and almost 20 years ago, which looks like a desperate attempt of reviving the peak of her career.

It hurts even more that Madonna, after all, has much more to offer than just her athletic body and risqué costumes. On MDNA, apart from having fun on the dancefloor, she sings about much more personal subjects. Splitting from Guy Ritchie echoes throughout the album as a beautiful musical testament to their relation – long term, not always easy, marked by pain and disappointment, but also longing for the lost love. These parts of the record raised most controversies long before the official premiere and many critics went on to forecast another Like a Prayer. The singer herself apparently didn’t share their excitement and chose to be a pop vamp rather than a melancholic ex-wife. Unfortunately so, as some of the lyrics on the album paradoxically are one of the most autobiographical in her entire career.

DIFFERENT KIND OF GIRL... NOT!

In one of the very few interviews, Madonna revealed that recording MDNA, she tried to make an album that doesn’t sound like what one can hear on the radio. Providing that that was a completely serious statement, she failed all the way. MDNA is (already…) her second album that doesn’t stay ahead of current trends, but quite contrary – is tiredly trying to catch up on them. Musically, it’s not a solid album, and although there are highlights like “Gang Bang” or “Love Spent”, they get easily overlooked in the mass of mediocrity and dubious quality served by many stars – but not Madonna. Apart from more personal songs, this is the material that could easily find itself in the repertoire of the likes of Britney, Rihanna or Katy Perry. Although not the greatest vocalist, Madonna always managed to make her songs sound truly hers, and any take of another singer on one of her songs would only meet with pity. Now, the boot is on the other foot, and Madonna is the one trying to sound like someone else. Deliberately? Hopefully not. The fact that she proclaims the Martin Solveig and Benny Benassi-produced material as something that one can’t hear anywhere else might result from the fact that our idol hasn’t had time to listen to the radio for 3 years…

Surely disappointing were also the effects of Madonna’s collaboration with William Orbit. Long worshipped by Madonna’s fans, Orbit was expected to produce another diamond in her discography. Many believed that the producer who stood behind the magical sound of Ray of Light couldn’t go wrong. His production on MDNA appears only as a shadow of his possibilities, sadly echoing past years. Like he was explaining on Facebook, the recording process didn’t really suit his working pattern as Madonna was busy with several other projects at the time, but that doesn’t change the fact that his skills and talent simply failed this time – or, gently speaking, performed below certain expectations.

How to look back at the MDNA era now? One cannot cross Madonna off – many have tried, but she still would come back in full glory. Her latest album surely isn’t her worst, and isn’t bad as such, but musically it doesn’t offer anything new. Its certain moments, as well as the accompanying tour, give hope that the Queen will get back on the right track. People want her the way she is on stage: theatrical, involved, emotional, aggressive, but also having fun. Hopefully this positive energy and enthusiasm are surrounding her in the recording studio as well. 13 is a lucky number in Kabbalah, the red string still is proudly worn on her wrist, so the thirteenth studio album has just got to be great!

PG / transl. Matt

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