When in doubt, take Madonna at face value. Since the beginning of her career she has telegraphed her intentions and labelled herself more efficiently than any observer. She has titled albums Music, Erotica and, in 2005, Confessions on a Dance Floor for a collection that mingled personal and Biblical reflections with club grooves. Flaunting her ever-changing image, she named one tour Who's That Girl?, another Re-Invention.
She's just as blunt on her 11th studio album, Hard Candy (Warner Brothers), released this week. There's no question that this album aims to please -- and it does. "See which flavour you like and I'll have it for you," she promises as the album starts with Candy Shop, and she follows through: "Come on into my store/I got candy galore."
That's a come-on, of course, but it's also a statement of purpose. Hard Candy is devoted to the instant gratification of a musical sweet tooth -- it's candy, not tofu -- and, equally important, to the continuing commercial potency of "my store."
Madonna turns 50 this summer. The onetime club-hopping "Material Girl" is now a married mother of three who's making a midlife job change. She's leaving behind her career-long major-label contract for a deal with the concert promotion giant Live Nation that will keep her on the road and making albums over the next decade.
Hard Candy is Madonna's last album of new material for Warner Brothers Records, which says she has sold more than 200 million albums worldwide (via the Sire label and later her own Maverick) since her career began in 1982.
Instead of introducing little-known dance-world producers into the mainstream, she is working with thoroughly established hit makers. Instead of arty provocations, she's polishing the basics of verse-chorus-verse. And instead of another full-scale reinvention, she's looking back, deliberately echoing the sound of her early years, with a ProTools face-lift.
Alongside whatever she has offered her audience through the years -- sex, glamour, dancing, defiance, blasphemy, spirituality -- Madonna has never pretended to be anything but diligent. She's disciplined, hard-working and determined to sell. For Madonna as a pop archetype, the truest pleasure isn't momentary physical ecstasy or divine rapture but success.
Madonna's financial future is by no means precarious now that she's on her own. In a so-called “360 deal” reportedly worth as much as $120 million, Live Nation will handle her entire output, encompassing albums, ticket sales, licensing and merchandising. “I'll be your one-stop candy shop/Everything that I got,” she sings, appropriately.
Well, not everything. Madonna was getting mighty serious on her 21st-century albums American Life and Confessions on a Dance Floor. It's something that happens to songwriters in their 40s. Their perspective changes as they settle into home life, raise families and start worrying about the news. During last year's Confessions tour, Madonna melded her long-time hobby of Christianity baiting with her newer charitable cause. She sang Live to Tell from a crucifix with disco-ball mirrors, wearing a crown of thorns, while video images of suffering Africans were shown. Last year at the Live Earth concert she introduced a would-be environmental anthem, Hey You, that tried and failed to be her equivalent of John Lennon's Imagine. The song came and went, raising some corporate donations, but does not appear on the new album.
The closest Madonna's new album gets to social consciousness is 4 Minutes, which has a clock ticking and Justin Timberlake singing, “We only got four minutes to save the world!” in his best Michael Jackson imitation.
The lyrics on Hard Candy keep things simple and poppy, and the music stays almost skeletal, the better to reveal its hooks. As on Confessions, the sound reaches back to Madonna's early 1980s days as a New York City club regular. Now, cannily, she combines those pumping synthesiser chords with hip-hop's digital stutters and a precise, computerised veneer. Madonna wrote the songs on Hard Candy with Justin Timberlake and with Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, and the producer Timbaland adds his touches; Kanye West drops by to rap on Beat Goes On. They're all established hit makers, as well as some of the cleverest hook-makers alive.
Madonna might be singing to all her wannabes through the decades in She's Not Me, a branding statement -- “She doesn't have my name” -- couched as a warning to a lover. It's about a girl who tries to steal a man by copying everything from the singer's perfume to her reading list. As if to remind the guy that he and the singer have a shared past, the track reaches way back to revive disco -- scrubbing guitar, canned hand claps, brief touches of (synthetic) strings -- while Madonna sings, “She'll never have what I have/It won't be the same."
Which is true. No one since Madonna (including the Neptunes' client Britney Spears, whom Madonna once raved about) has come close to achieving the same alchemy of flirtation, pop proficiency, concert spectacle and self-guided tenacity. But she still has to watch her back.
Source: The New York Times