April 8, 2008
As finishing touches were being applied to the East London premiere of
Madonna’s latest album, academics specializing in adoption at the University
of Liverpool announced what they called The Madonna Effect – a phenomenon
“in which parents in Africa surrender their children for adoption thinking
they will enjoy a better life”.
Whatever context is applied to it, you felt like adding that The Madonna
Effect – sure to accumulate now that she has set her sights on adopting in
India – isn’t restricted to adoption. There’s a Madonna effect for almost
everything she does. In the past week alone, the Swiss jewellers Chopard
have been besieged with requests for replicas of the £500,000 knuckleduster
rings exhibited on the sleeve of Hard Candy.
All of which is worth dwelling on, because how will The Madonna Effect play
out when Hard Candy is released? It’s tempting even to theorise that Madonna
has made it so that there won’t be much of an Effect.
Seemingly eager to relieve herself from the pressure of being imitated at
every turn, Madonna’s 11th studio album finds her deploying a coterie of
producers – Timbaland, Danja, Pharrell Williams – who have, in varying
combinations, already done the same thing with Nelly Furtado, Britney Spears
and Gwen Stefani. Naturally, this being Madonna, she has already filed the
riposte before you made the criticism. On She’s Not Me, she makes the point
that however any other woman attempts to match her, they don’t have the
advantage of being Madonna. So, what’s the song like? Well, it’s like
roughly two thirds of Hard Candy – a sequenced avalanche of beats in the
sonic centre ground that, in the olden days, used to be occupied by tunes.
Far from being a problem, that’s how some of the most exciting pop music is
assembled these days. Madonna’s instinct for a killer tune has pushed
producers such as Stuart Price, Mirwais and William Orbit to career peaks.
Given time here, Incredible and the Kanye West-assisted Beat Goes On will
scrub up alongside some of her best – especially the latter’s nods to
Detroit techno at its poppermost.
Justin Timberlake cameos on the new single 4 Minutes and three other songs,
including the immediately excellent Miles Away – a collision of acoustic
downstrokes and feverishly jaunty rhythm that verges on reggae.
When the songs work, it doesn’t much matter that Madonna is blazing a
fourth-hand trail. After 25 years of reinvention, we can surely cut her
slack in that department. But on Dance 2Night, She’s Not Me and Give It 2
Me, what surprises is how deferential Madonna is to her collaborators. Even
the album’s showstopping ballad, The Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You succumbs
to a default mode of vast beats.
By this late stage, you rather feel like you’re in your fifth hour at the
Ambassador’s famous party. Great, but is there anything else on offer other
than Ferrero sodding Rochers?
Only on the final song, Voices, does Madonna remember that her stock-in-trade
is to assimilate the sound of a well-known producer and turn it into
something else. Here, the sort of poignant, unresolved chords you might
sooner hear on an early Serge Gainsbourg record accord with a more personal
lyric, before a grandiloquent finale of bells and pipe organ sends us on our
Hard Candy is no disaster, but a little more of that wouldn’t have gone amiss.