Agent Provocateur: Madonna’s Super Hard Candy Pop

Hard Candy

“Get stupid, don’t stop. Get stupid, don’t stop.” — Madonna, “Give it 2 Me” from the album Hard Candy

Listening to the new Madonna release Hard Candy, while deeply entrenched in the current American Idol season, I began to wonder what would have happened if beloved proto-pop star Madonna was on a show like this at the beginning of her career. Would she still be who she is? Would she even have gotten very far?

Doubtful. The standards have so drastically changed for what the consumers and judges alike expect of their pop singer cast of characters, that Her Madgesty probably wouldn’t make it past the preliminary round of cuts, let alone become one of the most recognizable faces and voices of contemporary celebrity culture.

Not the best singer, even by her own admission, Madonna’s vocal stylings are not really the point of a Madonna record, generally speaking. “Getting” Madonna requires that you look past the actual singing and into the other facets of the job. The good news is that on her newest CD, Hard Candy, the legend sounds stronger and more confident (if that is even possible), especially when pushed into the new directions by her posse of guest producers and musicians: Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, and Kanye West.

The towering, modern production values of Hard Candy, which enjoys some of the most adventurous construction of any Madonna record, combined with her willingness to maximize the effectiveness of the voice she does have, renders any past, present or future American Idol contender totally obsolete.

No one can touch the big “M” when it comes to good old fashioned star power and sheer charisma. And no one else can get away with what she gets away with – witness wannabes like Amy Winehouse’s or Britney Spears’ current, tragic crashing and burning trajectory in any tabloid near you. Is there any bigger pop culture institution than Madonna? Can anyone imagine a world without her antics? Hard Candy’s release is about to shoot her right back into our pop culture lexicon, this time deservedly so – this is a banging summer party record, with some of the most killer, audience-pleasing singles she has ever made.

Still, with any new Madonna release, the haters come crawling out of their holes to bitch and moan about how the singer is “selling out” or “stealing”. I don’t think there is a single celebrity that provokes such a varied, passionate response from both detractors and fans, but one common gripe I have seen/heard as of late from both sets has to do with people wanting Madonna “acting her age”. One blogger ranted that the singer was at the critical juncture where she should just “make music about wheelchairs, bedpans and catheters”, while another sage dared to compare her to the caricature of the “cool mom” in Mean Girls played by Amy Poehler.

I firmly believe that it is because of Madonna that the gay community became an important demographic, and that she led gay culture’s issues’ visibility in the media from the back rooms of gay bars into the forefront of American pop culture.

Even though Madonna happens to be hovering around the same age that Rue McClanahan was when she began her run as trampy Blanche Devereaux on the Golden Girls (49, 50 in August), she would like us all to know she isn’t ready for traditional old lady-dom just yet, nor should anyone else be. In short, Madonna is keeping everyone on their toes. Again.

On the new record, the candy metaphors, the gooey sex talk, the bordering-on-inane lyrics, and the youthful posturing aren’t the desperate pleas for attention that they have been made out to be. In fact, they suit Madonna just right – the appropriate doses of humor, sincerity, and business acumen are perfectly calibrated for another pop-music winner. The fact that Madonna has employed four of the most current, important music world figures to do her bidding speaks to her power to make these kinds of impossible collaborations happen.

For me, nothing is greater than artistic collaboration, on any level, but when the biggest, most well-known superstars of our time do it, its time to take notice. By associating herself with uber-relevant musicians, Madonna, in jumping in on the hottest trends, in effect, asserts her own relevancy in a world that doesn’t really allow women her age to behave in ways that defy categorization.

Still, the question begs, though, is why do Madonna’s critics think they know the definition of what a woman of 50, especially one in Madonna’s position, should be? Hard Candy functions as a tool that redefines middle aged pop superstardom, and Madonna smartly refuses to be painted into a corner in making this record.

There is a time-honored, sexist pattern that women of Madonna’s age and status bracket seem to be pigeonholed into – witness fellow divas Cher or Bette Midler’s descents (or ascents according to some) into adult contemporary super-stardom and safety. It is widely expected that former rabble-rousers, like these ladies (and many others), settle down and start cranking out sappy love songs or paeans to their toddlers or some other such nonsense. When the “reformed” bad girl who becomes the “good” girl does this, they are rewarded with money, awards, and credibility. I’ll take my Madonna dangerous as all get out, slutting it out on the dance floor, thanks; not as some lame-ass balladeering soccer mom. Thankfully, despite some close calls, she has not gone down this road, though it seems as though the public is keen to have her go the matronly route. If anything, with the newest record, she sticks closer to her whimsical dance roots than ever.

Growing up in Madonna’s hometown of Rochester, Michigan, there was always an element of Madonna’s personality that held a certain amount of importance in my own life. Before I saw the documentary film of her Blonde Ambition tour, Truth or Dare, I thought, because of the homophobic messages propagated at the time by most sources, that gay men were lecherous, ugly, old and fat. Most importantly, I was led to believe they were all alone and sequestered away in the darkest corners of society.

Not only were Madonna’s dancers all good looking and capable, they were friends with the coolest chick on the planet, and if they could have such a powerful friend as Madonna, than there was hope for all of us. Seeing a woman so in control and so influential not-so-subtly communicating this message of tolerance and love, which was not really a popular public opinion at the time, was a powerful, formative image for me.

So, other than becoming a chameleon who could thrive in many climates, Madonna’s legacy will be that she was one of the first people possessed of real power to bring about social change: I firmly believe that it is because of her that the gay community became an important demographic, and that she led gay culture’s issues’ visibility in the media from the back rooms of gay bars into the forefront of American pop culture.

This landmark activism doesn’t excuse the actual music quality, by any means, but thankfully, as an artist, she has been more than willing to try new things, even edgy things at times (like the underrated, overly-reviled American Life). Her readiness to bring about so many forms of change has always been one of the most attractive things about her, whether it was literally effecting change on a macro-level or offering a glimpse into her personal growth.

There is the famed Evita vocal training (for which I don’t think she has ever been given proper credit for), the bordering-on-profound introspection and experimentation of her best musical endeavor Ray of Light (for which she won a deserved slew of accolades), or the down and dirty boundary-pushing of the sex book that no other single icon could have possibly pulled off. Can you see Kelly Clarkson or Taylor Hicks getting naked and hitchhiking? More importantly, would you really want that?

Her outspokenness, and her willingness to stick up for the underdogs, the weirdoes, the perverts, and the fetishists was a fete accompli in it’s era that no other pop culture figure of Madonna’s stature dared to explore. It’s a heroic feat, when you think about it, how she put it all out there, everything on the line, to get these button-pushing messages across. She didn’t care what kind of “trouble” she was causing; she was sending a message from her heart. Sure, it benefited her too, but why shouldn’t it have?

When I would go out on the town in Detroit in my youth, to clubs that Madonna once frequented (like Menjo’s – a gay bar tucked away in a shady corner of the city), it felt like a hallowed experience to even set foot onto a dance floor that she once stepped on, even though I’m not really sure how much she actually gets out to the club these days, as her exquisite, lilting “Heartbeat” (the fourth track on Hard Candy) would lead me to believe. Still, the idea of Madonna out on the town, let loose to shake her ass all night long, as therapy, remains much more interesting than the actual exploits of the tired little girls who ape her mercurial salaciousness without much thought, and misinterpret it in the most lewd, offensive ways.

“I need a reminder so I can relate”, she states on “Incredible” (an epic, intimate moment on the record masterfully arranged by Pharrell, where Madonna’s voice is perfect). It’s a reminder that this “institution” is not a super-human money-making robot, but someone who is trying to stay connected to reality, despite the almost insurmountable obstacles.

The good news is that she soldiers on through all of the BS associated with being “Madonna” with a gleeful abandon missing from the lame imitators half her age (Fergie, I’m looking at you!). She proclaims (rightfully) that her music is the ultimate dessert confection, imploring us all to get our collective lazy butts back onto the dance floor for a little of that old dirty sweetness, with extra whipped cream, please. Madonna is, of course, the proverbial cherry on top.

It doesn’t matter that on a track like “Candy Shop” (which, to be honest, makes no real sense lyrically, at least), that Madonna talks about her “one stop candy shop” as being “sticky and sweet”. There is something so hypnotic about the strong delivery and the slinky production, that it is easy to just get lost in the rhythm. It’s a reminder that music doesn’t always have to be overly-thought out or cerebral; sometimes it can be a relief to just shimmy around to something that simply tempts your senses. On Hard Candy she gives everyone another good reason to talk about her, while delivering one of the most skillfully-produced albums of her career, which happens to be one of the most fun and entertaining of the year, so far, as well.

Hard Candy is ear candy, with respectful echoes of everything from the singer’s Like a Virgin to her most recent dance freak-out Confessions on a Dance Floor, proving once and for all that the consistently solid Madonna is the original American Idol. She’s almost 50, its sexy time, and she’s handing out ass-kickings and lollipops in equal measure.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.