Madonna is not just a pop star. She is the pop star. It’s been over thirty years since she burst onto the UK charts with ‘Holiday’ back in 1984 and she’s been churning out hits ever since. She’s released 12 studio albums and has had more top ten singles than you’ve had hot dinners (sixty, for the record). She’s ubiquitous, ambitious and persistent – a little like a pop-music tapeworm, if you will. Through sex books, conical bras and reinvention after reinvention, Madonna has proven herself to be the definitive pop icon, capable of relentlessly rebranding herself and releasing new, innovative music. Until now, at least.
Madonna is renowned for her ability to reinvent herself. She’s gone from karaoke Marilyn Monroe to risqué sex symbol, from electro-country singer to Queen of the dance floor, and she’s done it all so seemingly effortlessly. This is precisely why her last couple of albums have been more than a little frustrating. Has the Queen finally lost her touch?
2008’s Hard Candy and 2012’s MDNA undoubtedly gave us more than a handful of great pop songs, but they offered little in the way of innovation. Let’s not forget when Madonna shocked the world in 1992 with the release of Erotica, an album dedicated entirely to sex, and its accompanying book that featured a naked Madge with some of her famous friends. In 1998, she released Ray of Light, an introspective, pensive album inspired by Kabbalah and the birth of her daughter Lourdes. It gained both critical and commercial acclaim. 2003 saw Her Madgesty release American Life, a political statement about the vacuity of Western consumerism. This was followed in 2005 by the dance masterpiece that is Confessions on a Dance Floor, which saw Madonna don that leotard and strut her way straight to the top of the charts once more.
You’d have thought that by now Madonna would be a dab-hand at reinventing herself, leading the crowd but never following it, keeping her fans guessing and always intrigued. Yet her last two albums, despite boasting collaborations with some of the most creative names in the biz (Kanye West and M.I.A), have felt like attempts to replicate what is already in the charts rather than take it in a new direction. Both Hard Candy and MDNA are filled with danceable tunes, but many sound like cast offs from the Confessions album, or efforts to cash in on the wave of EDM that’s taken over the charts in recent years.
Even worse, Madge has resorted to some pretty dubious tactics to stay relevant. Though she’s always courted controversy and rubbed shoulders with pop-culture figures, (see Austin Powers in the ‘Beautiful Stranger’ video or Ali G in the promo for ‘Music’) these days, whipping out a nipple in Istanbul and grinding on Miley Cyrus feels more scraping-the-barrel than cutting-edge.
And it seems I’m not the only one wishing for something a little different – Madonna’s last album of clubby tunes produced only one top 40 single, ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’, which peaked at a disappointing 37.
So where can the Queen of Pop go from here? Personally, I’d like to see Madonna give up chasing chart success with big club tunes and create an album with a little more substance, á la Ray of Light. After all, does the world really need another song about dancing or getting drunk or having sex? Madonna is better than that. American Life taught us that she has strong opinions and isn’t scared of shouting them from the rooftops. She has long been an avid defender of LGBT rights worldwide and her comments regarding Pussy Riot and Malala Yousafzai show that she is in tune with world events and all too eager to weigh in on them. Yet none of this is reflected in her recent output.
If Madonna can look past her obsession with youth culture then her next album could be her best yet. If she is willing to ditch the EDM for a more authentic, subtle sound, then she could create something genuinely exciting. Madge has long been keen on Asian sounds and music (best seen in her Ray of Light album but also on the Confessions track ‘Isaac’). By using this sound, and perhaps giving it a Western tweak, she’s capable of producing an album that sounds completely fresh, like nothing we have in the charts at the moment.
Madonna has a lot to prove on her next album, but if there’s anyone capable of stunning the world with a belter of an album, there’s no one better equipped to do it than the Queen of Pop.