LIVE TO SELL: Could it be no one is harder on Madonna than Madonna herself?
I’d wager that Madonna is not much of a fun person. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it would be a blast to fly around in her private jet and hang out in the completely soundproof cocoon of pure white eternal light that she, in my imagination, emerges from every two years when she’s required to produce music, do tours, and dispense controversy. But unlike her Disney-factory-farm-grown protégées, Madonna, one gets the impression, is a serious individual with detailed ambitions and an obsession with self-improvement. Aren’t the constant accusations that she’s a shallow shape shifter really a failure to perceive that no one is harder on Madonna than Madonna herself?
If you just caught yourself thinking, “Huhuh, he said, ‘hard,’ ” then congrats, you are the target demo for most of the sexy-back double-whatevers peppered throughout the lyrics of the new record. I think that when she sings “My sugar is raw” to Pharrell in the chorus of album opener “Candy Shop,” the listener is given no choice but to what, take her word for it?
Like all of Madonna’s best work, from “Into the Groove” to “Ray of Light,” she’s most believable when she’s singing about her own solitude in dancing/spirituality; and despite the popular surface appraisal of this album as a booty-jam fest, the message of Hard Candy (if there is one) is, as she sings in “Heartbeat,” “When I dance I feel free.” (Echoes of “Into the Groove”?) Of course, the same song also finds Madonna repeating “See my booty get down” like a Kabbalan mantra — but it comes across more like the matter-of-fact direction of a yoga instructor than an actual come-on.
The simple truth is that Madonna’s sexuality and assertion thereof makes people uncomfortable — which has always been the point, right? In the early ’90s, her one-two punch of the Erotica album and her Sex book seemed to produce a general fatigue with her confrontational gender studies. Perhaps that’s because her arch mannerisms and precise control make her less of a “diva” in the classic sense and more of a Laurie Anderson–esque performance artist (albeit one who has more Top 10 singles than Elvis).
Hard Candy could be her most overtly collaborative effort: the stamp of the Timberlake/Timbaland team dominates. Not just in the production (it’s odd to hear an artist who had the first of many heydays in the early ’80s singing over music that overtly apes the music of the early ’80s), but in the vocal jousts and rejoinders (it’s also odd to hear a woman of Madonna’s age repeatedly referred to as “girl”) of her much younger peers. Madonna’s attitude toward this collaboration is summed up by the odd part stuck in the middle of the otherwise awesomely robotic vocoderfest “Give It 2 Me” where she just repeats the phrase “get stupid” over and over. What might seem like Madonna crunk is really the sound of an artist using tongue-in-cheek camp to cloak her own discomfort at catering to lowest-common-denominator conventions. To paraphrase the title of her collaboration with Britney Spears from a few years back, at times it’s her against the music.
But this is a dance record, and that sort of grad-school analysis is inappropriately academic for an album with songs like “Dance 2night” (chorus: “Let’s dance tonight/Dance tonight/And groove all over the world”). Madonna’s need for solitary introspection on a dance floor is her most successful motif, and her angelic power and seductive growl can make even a middlebrow exercise in First World cultural appropriation like “Spanish Lesson” sound like a soaring anthem beaming from Mount Olympus the power of music to us mere mortals.