In “Music,” Madonna’s currently rotating-everywhere-at-every-minute single, she asks Mr. DJ to put a record on, because she wants to dance with her baby. “When the music starts,” she sings, “I’m never gonna stop. It’s gonna drive me crazy.”
And indeed, for Madonna, music, like most everything else, is always going to do something. Bless her, she’s the queen of anticipation, not to mention ambition (blond, of course). She’s never spent much time looking back, save for those brief moments when she succumbs to writhing on her mother’s grave or maybe lamenting the loss of Sean, her True Love For Ever and Ever. She mostly likes to look ahead, to anticipate and imagine. Some might say she plots or schemes, but I like to think she’s less crafty than that makes her sound. Still, analyzing just how Madonna works—how she anticipates, how she appears to anticipate—makes good copy: as anyone who’s paid the slightest bit of attention to her estimable career can tell you, she’s also really good at making everyone else wait and want. She’s commendably honed this talent into a generally successful combination of aura, ritual, and entertainment-empire: the Wonder of Madonnaness. And so, even when you’re at a loss to describe or laud the particular qualities of a song or album, a movie performance or music video (though these last are more often than not, genuinely great), you can always fall back on the common critical strategy for dealing with new Madonna Product: you cite her skills in self-promotion and self-invention, marvel at her ability to stay ahead of various musical and political curves, perhaps laud her ostensible determination to lead the way.
No matter that she doesn’t invariably lead you someplace fabulous. Sometimes she does, but not always. Still, it’s usually fun to watch her anticipate trends and to anticipate her responses in return, especially if you’ve ever been into wannabe-dressing, aerobic dancing, voguing (well, okay, she stole that from transgender ballwalkers, circa the 1980s), or anticipating for its own sake. It’s apparently also fun if you’re MTV’s Kurt Loder, so visibly lusting for every precious on-screen minute with Herself. Here the anticipation is everything, as the actual interview is never very revealing or even interesting. But let’s be honest on that tip: anticipating Madonna can also be frustrating, if you’re inclined to listen to what she actually has to say. Aside from the occasional bombshell news item—she’s pregnant, she’s starring in Evita, she’s hanging out at the Cubby Hole with Sandra Bernhard—Madonna’s observations of the world tend to be rather mundane. It’s hard being a girl in this business. Warren Beatty is self-absorbed. Reporters hound her. She won’t allow Lola to watch television at home. Speaking of speaking, let’s just say upfront that lyrics have never been our Material Girl’s strong suit, and so, most people tend to overlook them. “Music,” she tells you in the currently rotating-everywhere-and-every-minute single, “makes the people come together.” Who knew?
Indeed, the new album, also titled Music (so grand and so simple: our girl has always had nerve) is full of similar nuggets of non-profundity (on “Runaway Lover”: “It doesn’t pay to be a runaway lover / It doesn’t pay to give away what you lack / You never get your money back”: come again?). But the words have never been the point with Madonna. Here and now, some 15 years after she double-whammied her way into the pop cultural spotlight with Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan and her own self-titled album, just about everyone agrees that she’s always been a kind of vibrantly visual, sensory, even pre-verbal phenomenon, and that she’s very good at being exactly this phenomenon. I confess that I respect Madonna’s very public shapeshifting. It’s not that I identify with her exactly, but her wrestling with sexuality and whiteness has surely been an instructive spectacle to behold over the years. Like many people around my age, I have in my mind a fairly dense-packed storehouse of Madonna images, most of them occasioned by Madonna songs. And yes, these images do sometimes come stepping out unbidden, though my own shapeshifting has rendered some of them more relevant than others. Most of these images come from videos (let’s be generous and not talk about Who’s That Girl?)—and, frankly, along with Michael Jackson and Run-DMC with Aerosmith, she altered the MTV mindscape in the 1980s (and thank god for all of them). She has her fingers on some cultural pulse, even if she doesn’t always articulate what she’s feeling so well: Madonna defending the bondage imagery in the video for “Express Yourself” on Nightline (“I’ve chained myself…”), saving a black christ from misinformed lawmen in the video for “Like a Prayer,” slithering about with all those fashion models in The Girlie Show, flipping her schoolgirl skirt for the Sex book, picking up boys in her limo while driving through Manhattan, fucking with Letterman, facing down her stalker in an L.A. courtroom. She’s done it all. Or, more important, she appears to have done it.
Though Madonna and I have gone in different directions, I keep track, I continue to anticipate. I doubt I’d be listening to Music, if it wasn’t a Madonna album, but, at the same time, I’m glad she’s convinced me to take yet another brief journey in Madonnaland. Taken together, the 10 songs on Music create their own provocative logic. They’re arranged in three or four uneven groups—the lively, made-to-single dance tunes (of which “Music” is one, and “Amazing” is another), the not-so-interesting dance tunes (“Impressive Instant”: “I like to singy singy singy, like a bird / On the wingy wingy wingy”), the fatuous, strangely dim ballady songs, and the good songs, which differ by degree. This third group is probably the most annoying: the sorta trancey, sorta tedious “Paradise (Not for Me)” features her half-whispering, half-chanting in French. With six of the tracks written and produced in collaboration with French DJ Mirwais Azmadzai, the album expands on musical themes in Ray of Light and illustrates that our definitively American Girl is given to global understanding, or at least, appreciation. She’s been living in London, you know.
Of the nearly good ballady tracks, “Nobody’s Perfect” is too slow and keyboard-tricky to rank with Madonna’s great snark-capacity, in the ballpark with “Human Nature.” “Don’t Tell Me” is another near miss, with admirable attitude but, well, laughable lyrics: “Tell me love isn’t true, it’s that something that we do” or better, “Tell the bed not to make” (hmmm). As well, the album includes your basic throwback, “Amazing,” which sounds like an elevated and somewhat cleverer version of the many Madonna songs you’ve heard before, where she’s mad at some bad boy for being a jerk (“You took a poison arrow and you aimed it my heart / It’s heavy and it’s bitter and it’s tearing me apart”,) and again startled at her own ceaseless capacity to want more, to anticipate that something positive will come of yet another hook-up, all with exuberant synthetic beats for background: “It’s amazing what boy can do / I cannot stop myself.” “Gone” has an almost warbly dimension in its strumming, and makes me imagine she might have been a country star had we all lived in another universe (“I’m not very smart / Why should I feel sad for what I never had / Nothin equals nothin”). Perhaps the most surprisingly not-bad track is “I Deserve It,” on which she sings with a relatively simple guitar accompaniment, even sounding, on a couple of bars, like Anthony Kiedis (as they say, tres bizarre): “This guy was meant for me and I was meant for him / This guy was dreamt for me and I was dreamt for him / This guy has danced for me and I have danced for me.” I think this makes me both sad and happy that she’s fallen in love with a guy named Guy.
My favorite song, though, is the one reportedly written for Lola—though I imagine Rocco, lucky enough to be her son, might also glean a little something from “What It Feels Like for a Girl,.” As songs-for-your-kids go, this one is outstanding. It opens with an excerpt from The Cement Garden, spoken by Charlotte Gainesbourg: “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, because it’s okay to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly, you’d love to know what it’s like, wouldn’t you, what it feels like for a girl?” A few sweet, enchanted beats later, Madonna chimes in, “Silky smooth lips as sweet as candy / Baby, tight blue jeans, skin that shows in patches / Strong inside but you don’t know it / Good little girls who never show it / When you open up your mouth to speak, could you be a little weak?” Coming from the political-musical-aesthetic inspiration for the various courtneys-gwens-alanises- spicegirls-britneys-christinas now crowding the planet, this track rather appropriately sums up where Madonna’s been and, of course, anticipates where she might be going.