x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The agony and the ecstasy of Madonna's MDNA

Taken at face value, MDNA works as a simple and snappy abbreviation of the star's name. It could also be construed as conveying the very essence of Madonna.

Madonna on stage during the 2006 Confessions tour. AP Photo / Itsuo Inouye
Madonna on stage during the 2006 Confessions tour. AP Photo / Itsuo Inouye

Madonna chose to announce her 2012 world tour immediately after her head-turning performance at the Super Bowl in February. Watched by 114 million TV viewers in the US - and millions more around the world - her half-time pop medley was a formidable statement of intent from the indefatigable 53-year-old.

Her 12-minute appearance featured an eclectic and energetic mix of performers, from Greek warriors, Cirque du Soleil acrobats and a gospel choir, to a high school marching band and cameos from Cee Lo Green, Nicki Minaj, M.I.A and LMFAO. Oh, and there was Madonna as well, who sung five pop classics and her new single Give Me All Your Luvin'.

Little wonder there has since been such demand for her first live shows in the Gulf. But what can ticket-holders expect to get for their money when she arrives in Abu Dhabi?

Thankfully, these days, Madonna is willing to sing almost all of her classic hits. During 2001's Drowned World tour - which was, at the time, her first live outing in eight years - she attracted criticism for overlooking her older and more popular songs. Just one song from The Immaculate Collection, a 1990 singles compilation widely considered to contain the crown jewels of Madonna's back catalogue, appeared on that tour's set list.

Madonna would later manage to overcome her aversion to her past hits for the Re-Invention tour in 2004. American Life, the album she was promoting at the time, had received a cool reception from both fans and critics so she peppered her live set with her most famous songs: Vogue, Like a Prayer, Express Yourself, Into the Groove and Material Girl.

She continued to blend the old and the new on her two most recent expeditions, 2006's Confessions tour and 2008's Sticky & Sweet tour. However, when an artist has more than 70 hit singles to pick from - spanning three decades of chart success - someone's favourite song will always be left out. True Blue, a number one in 1986, hasn't been performed live since the year after it was released.

But anyone arriving at Yas Arena expecting a nostalgia-soaked trip down memory lane might be in for a shock. Madonna loves to give her familiar hits a contemporary twist - as she showed at the Super Bowl, where she reworked 2000's Music to include elements of Party Rock Anthem and Sexy and I Know It, both recent chart-toppers from US pop-rap duo LMFAO.

Of course, she also has a new album to promote, and MDNA doesn't sound like the work of a veteran artist who's ready to rest on her past successes. Even the LP's title, MDNA, is wilfully challenging.

Taken at face value, MDNA works as a simple and snappy abbreviation of the star's name. It could also be construed as conveying the very essence of Madonna - if the singer is "M", then this record represents her musical "DNA".

But the controversy stems from its intentional resemblance to the chemical name for the banned drug "Ecstasy" or MDMA. Lucy Dawe, a spokesperson for the anti-drug campaign group Cannabis Skunk Sense, called the title "an ill-advised decision".

When asked about the matter, Madonna told the BBC that she just "liked the play on words. It's a triple entendre".

Ecstasy is, of course, often associated with the electronic dance music scene and there's quite a lot of that genre on MDNA. Madonna's chosen collaborators here are all notable names from the world of club pop.

She co-produces two songs with Italian DJ Marco "Benny" Benassi. The French electronic whiz Martin Solveig joins her for three tracks. And there are six new works with William Orbit, the British musician with whom she worked on her 1998 masterpiece Ray of Light. The results aren't as cutting edge as Madonna has often been in the past, but they're certainly contemporary. MDNA features plenty of hard-edged electro-pop songs embellished with up-to-the-minute production flourishes, including rap cameos and dubstep breakdowns.

One such moment occurs on the album's opening track. "You got me in the zone, DJ play my favourite song," Madonna trills on Girl GoneWild, borrowing a line apiece from Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez. It's disappointing stuff, especially from a woman who recently criticised Lady Gaga's Born This Way single for being "reductive".

Elsewhere, Madonna attempts to set a new record for the greatest number of lyrical clichés a pop singer can squeeze onto an album. When she's not "a fish out of water", she's "a bat out of hell", or "a moth to a flame", or "a thief in the night".

But alongside these familiar images, MDNA also features some remarkably personal moments. Madonna's ex-husband Guy Ritchie should probably skip over I Don't Give A, on which she finds inspiration from their failed marriage. "I tried to be a good girl, I tried to be your wife, I diminished myself, and swallowed my light," she sings, before declaring: "And if I was a failure, I don't give a ..."

Yet elsewhere on the record, Madonna seems remorseful. IF***** Up is a frank break-up song on which the singer shows her vulnerable side.

"I blamed you when things didn't go my way, somehow I've destroyed the perfect dream," she admits here, presumably addressing her ex-husband.

Moments like this will certainly provide grist for the gossip mill. But MDNA also succeeds on a more intuitive level. Tracks like Turn Up the Radio, I'm Addicted, Superstar and Love Spent prove Madonna is still a peerless purveyor of pop thrills.

Then there's the album's most jaw-dropping moment, a preposterous piece of pop called Gang Bang. Over an electronic throb flecked with gangster film sound effects (guns, sirens, getaway cars), Madonna plays a wronged woman seeking revenge. Her parting shot? "If you're gonna act like a b****, then you're gonna die like a b****." Just imagine how she'll translate this tune to the Yas Arena stage.

 

Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.