The woman who has always been above social media has been having a torrid affair with it of late. 2014 shall forever be known by this fan as the year the Material Girl embraced Instagram and treated us to everything from gratuitous boob selfies to her homage to hairy underarms. And I’ve loved it. Through her iPhone Madonna let us behind the platinum curtain – even inside her very posh Upper East Side Manhattan master bathroom to witness everything form her post work-out beads of sweat to her son David Banda on guitar.
Yet of most fascination has been the cheeky way she has beckoned us inside the recording studio. The Queen of Pop has been teasing the world with progress of her as-yet-untitled (unless it’s called Unapologetic Bitch – and Lord don’t I hope so!) 13th studio album.
The list of potential collaborators is so far impressive: Sky Ferreira/Haim producer Ariel Rechtshaid, Wrecking Ball co-writer MoZella, MIA collaborator Diplo, DJ/producer Avicii, former Lady Gaga collaborator Martin Kierszenbaum, pop singer Natalia Kills, US hit-maker Toby Gad.
The imagery teased out recently is also exciting: Homage to Betty Page, mysterious veils and religious imagery? Check. But there’s also some cause for concern. Why? Because Madonna seems so close to getting it right. And we all know what happens when Madonna gets it slightly wrong. Two words: Hard Candy.
Some might argue her last studio album MDNA was a disappointment. I actually loved many moments on the album but there was a sense, right before the album dropped, that something was out of alignment.
It’s hard to pinpoint what was missing. The world was hungry for Madonna’s ‘A’ game. The reality is, we got glimpses of it. William Orbit suggested in retrospect that M was pulled in too many directions to really focus on making the record the brilliant return to form that songs like Gang Bang and Addicted promised it could be.
She had a clothing line, a world tour, a film and a perfume to promote. Music – the source of all her power – had been relegated to a mere portion of her time, a part-time job and unfortunately something had to give.
I assume it was the laser focus on the dance floor that lost out in the end, and the project suffered.
Thankfully the accompanying tour did not. We witnessed Madonna in her full prime, mercilessly slaying audiences with her bold confidence and celebrating dance at the centre of her circus. Yet when the confetti cleared there was the sense that the Madonna train had passed through town without a trace. The era, like Hard Candy, didn’t seem to permeate the zeitgeist the way Confessions on a Dancefloor had a few years before.
The problem is, Madonna is consistently brilliant. When she hits her sweet spot, it is the music equivalent of orgasm. Moments like Holiday, Into the Groove and Hung Up are prime examples. Reckless abandon on the dance floor yet not throw-away gibberish. Yes, solid dance-pop tunes that you want to make out to, get drunk with or indeed form the soundtrack of a one-night stand to. But they are also songs of freedom, of escape and empowerment. Some might call them the soundtrack to coming out. At the heart of these floor-fillers are universal truths embedded in the human experience: “Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free.” “Soul is in the musical, that’s where I feel so beautiful, magical. Life’s a ball. So get up on the dance floor.”
What is this love affair between gay men and Madonna? It’s distinct from our admiration for all other popstars – a very particular tryst entirely separate from the love of Cher, Kylie, Mariah etc. While I can appreciate the qualities all these strong divas have in common, there’s something different about Madonna. If you grew up gay during her reign there is something of her rebelliousness invariably in your DNA. As a teen I identified with her refusal to be categorised. Neither butch nor feminine, tough nor soft. Especially in the 80’s she challenged what the definition of “beautiful” was and her resilience and determination were infectious.
I was 12 years old when ‘The Virgin Tour’ was released on videocassette. When other boys in my school were sneaking off to watch boobs in Porky’s or glimpses or nip slips in Conan the Barbarian, I was sat glued in front of the telly trying to learn the choreography from Dress You Up. I saw the sheer audacity in this woman who was teasing, nay, demanding the crowd beg for more. “I said DO you want to hear some more!?’ she screamed during an impossibly long pause in the middle of Holiday. And boy did I.
I’m a lifelong defender of American Life, a controversial choice for favourite album when it comes to Madonna fans but let me present my solitary piece of evidence: The song Nothing Fails. It’s the 2004 Like A Prayer only this time, a bit more battered, a bit weary from love and possessed of exactly the kind of depth I hope all Madonna records reach at some point in the album sequence.
As a project, yes I know it is devoid of “hit singles” – but to me it’s a songwriting master class. As an album it’s such a cohesive work of art because clearly it had her 100% undivided attention. It is this attention to detail a great Madonna album needs. It simply cannot succeed without it.
Projects that have missed the mark for me did so because they were missing a crucial element: Madonna. I don’t care how many superstar producers, songwriters or hot DJ’s she surrounds herself with – the horse I’m always betting on is the woman herself. When Madonna decides to show up in the studio you get unwavering brilliance. Like a Prayer and Ray of Light are prime examples. Here we have a woman who is in love with her craft and the passion is evident. The truth is, Madonna is always the most interesting element of a Madonna collaboration. Things only go awry when that delicate balance is thrown out of whack. Her collaboration with Pharrell and even BabyFace to a certain extent have always left me feeling like those producers overshadowed the Madonna quotient. Their sound permeated the records and the result was pedestrian. I know, shocking right? Madonna is never EVER supposed to be normal.
Madonna’s work with fresh and exciting up-and-coming talent is, for me, always most rewarding. Her work with William Orbit, a relatively obscure choice at the time, was revolutionary. Similarly her Music album with Mirwais completely reinvented her for the 21st century. By the time Madonna got into the studio with Stuart Price she seemed to be on a winning streak. Three incredibly original and yet massively successful pop records – with the edgy excellence of American Life in between.
I got into a bit of a “thing” on Twitter when I announced I was writing this article. I encountered a few snarky comments – from “tell her to start acting her age” to suggestions that Madonna didn’t write her biggest hits (completely fiction – she’s one of the most prolific and gifted pop writers around and strangely rarely gets this credit). I found myself defending Madonna’s right to get her kit off – even if it doesn’t do much for me, her refusal to “age gracefully” is so in keeping with her core values I can’t help but encourage it. With respect, Madonna fans are fiercely protective and the one common factor I noticed was a passion for Madonna to “get it right” whatever that means. My argument has always been that the focus has to be on songs and the discipline must come not just in the gym, but on ideas. On music.
All songwriters or artists get lazy – it’s HARD to be good. U2’s Bono has a great phrase about striving for excellence: “Good is the enemy of great.” And it’s true. Madonna is easily and effortlessly good. No one can deny that. But when she’s great, there is no one and I mean NO ONE alive who can touch her in pop music.
In this period of quiet before the storm I want to send out some cosmic rays of light to the queen. All the signs are there: the determination, the focus and the joy of being an artist. We can all debate which era, which look or which persona was strongest but there’s only one person who can deliver the goods. Help us Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. You’re our only hope.