This week saw the big reveal of the cover image for Madonna’s eagerly awaited, twelfth studio album MDNA. The image is reminiscent of her iconic 1980s look, along with the cover of her recent hits collection Celebration, and the first single from the album, ‘Gimme All Your Luvin’, is an amalgam of parts of the last year’s most obvious pop moments (with a title that bears more than a passing similarity to that of a ZZ Top tune). Every sign indicates that the Queen of Pop is not pushing any new boundaries. She even references her classic track ‘Lucky Star’ in the single’s lyrics.
To herald the song’s launch, Madonna will perform at this Sunday’s Superbowl – now a de rigeur platform for any big artist and hardly the most imaginative of arenas – although, of course, it’s a guaranteed way to reach a huge worldwide audience. After her previous, lacklustre album Hard Candy, critics have started to question whether the Queen of Pop – the perpetual self-reinventor – has finally run out of ideas.
Live to Sell
Madonna sits alongside U2, Muse and Radiohead as artists who are truly CEOs of their own global brands. Acts in this bracket have very little outside influence on their strategies and have generally gone wherever their artistic visions have taken them. But Madonna has pushed it further than any of the others; while they have generally stuck to music – with only U2 branching out into the world of musicals with Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark – Madonna has attempted to create a true, multimedia empire, incorporating acting, book writing and directing. In her musical ventures, similarly to Radiohead, she now works without a label, having signed a 360-degree deal with the touring company Live Nation in 2007. This marked her departure from Warner Bros, the label she’d been with for her entire career up until that point.
Her ventures into the literary world, notably with children’s fiction, have by and large been a success – but the story of her acting career has largely been one of failure. Her recent feature-film directing debut W.E. was widely panned by critics, and a commercial disaster.
It certainly seems that Madonna is at a crossroads in her career. Being a one-woman corporation with a singular vision, and enormous ambition has been one of the main reasons that Madonna is the huge star that she is. No one from the record industry of old (and probably even today) would have agreed with her constant risk-taking and image reinventions of the past – find a winning formula and stick with it has always been the order of the day. By defying that dogma, Madonna became bigger than anyone. But at the same time, her lack of answerability has almost certainly caused her to make judgements that adversely affect her career.
With no one to say no, it feels as though her extra-curricular activities are damaging the Madonna brand, which should be chiefly based on music. And by spending time on those pursuits, Madonna has allowed her most recent albums to fall behind the curve musically.
Hard Candy was an attempt to grab onto the coattails of the dominant urban sound of the time, and the producers on MDNA are uninspiring: the presence of William Orbit, producer of 1998’s Ray of Light, feels like Madonna stepping back into a comfort zone, and Martin Solveig – while responsible for a couple of great pop singles last year – is hardly as cutting edge as Orbit was first time round, or his successor Mirwais, who delivered the cut-up sound of 2000’s Music.
Madonna’s CEO ambition has taken her to the top – but perhaps now is the time when more astute resource management is required; a co-manager to help her focus on her priorities. Lady Gaga has arguably seized Madonna’s pop crown, and has none of the other distractions that Madonna has (yet). The unveiling of MDNA in March will clearly show us whether the music is good enough – or whether the one-woman megabrand has fatally taken her eye off the ball.