If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it must be a duck. If it sings like a duck and exudes pretense, it must be Madonna.
(Or so I thought. This is kind of personal, so um...)
Madonna’s Hard Candy doesn’t suck, and that’s about the nicest thing I’ve been able to say about any of her albums since Bedtime Stories. I’ve long loathed the baggage she regularly straps to her music. Excruciating navel-gazing interviews and frequent proof that she is the queen of just one medium aside, in my experience, her output of the past 15 or so years has been a chore to slug through. Ray of Light wasn't a sign of electronica's late-90's reign; it was an album that aspired to "put a face" on electronic music. American Life wasn't just an extension of the early-00's infatuation with cheap synths; it was a political statement. It wasn't enough to make Confessions on a Dancefloor just a bunch of big, dumb trance songs; it had to aspire to reveal and enlighten. I suppose Music is about as unpretentious of an album name/concept as it gets, but only if what makes the cut actually qualifies as such. Kidding! (Kind of.)
“Just shut up and be a pop singer!” I’ve wanted to shout. Stop undermining your inherent fun! Don’t give me so much gristle to cut through to get to the gooey middle! Well, with Hard Candy Madonna’s made an album of gooey middles and it’s time for me to suck 'em down.
There’s something so refreshing in the implied theme of Hard Candy: Madonna doesn't have anything much to say, so she doesn't say anything at all. The deepest song is fascinating on just a voyeuristic level: “Miles Away” suggests she and her director hubby get Guy Ritchie along better when they’re apart. Peep absence making the heart grow fonder and then move on to songs about dancing, making pop music, dancing, aspiring to fame, dancing and dancing. I’ve said for a while that my favorite Madonna look is no look at all – the only album of hers that I can say that I love is her self-titled debut. On it, she's more or less an anonymous disco (aspiring-) diva whose nascent identity springs from her impeccable taste in material and collaborators. Before she was the face of MTV (and, indeed, three of my favorite songs of hers – “Holiday,” “Everybody” and “Physical Attraction,” aren’t associated with an official video clip), she was just a girl who loved dance music.
The unabashed substance abandonment (what is hard candy but bubblegum’s ominous sister?) has caused some public rumbling regarding just how relevant Madonna is at this point. I suppose that’s what happens when you fish for hits alongside two of pop’s safest bets, Timbaland and Timberlake, to launch a project. But whatever, as something so hedonistically commercial, the popularity of “4 Minutes” is equivalent to artistic success – no matter how despicable its intentions, it has achieved them, and that's all any piece of art can really aspire to do. And so, the answer to the doubters is that Madonna is as simultaneously relevant and irrelevant as ever – she’s still a commercial force and she’s still late to the table when it comes to dining out on others’ sounds. Like, no shit -- Hard Candy collaborators Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake, Danja and Timbaland are worth celebrating. In some cases, we’ve known this for over a decade. It should shock no one that Madonna has just figured this out – this is the woman who taught the world about voguing three years after Paris Is Burning was shot. She didn’t get around to dabbling in new jack swing till ’94, for fuck’s sake! On Hard Candy, the greatest such offense occurs as the album's closing, when she busts out "Spanish Lesson" and "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You." Both sound similar enough to Timberlake's "Like I Love You" and "Cry Me a River," respectively, to strike the image of a mom who's trying to convince you how great an album Justified is. Like, duh. We know. Or we disagree and we have for, what? Five years?
But, anyway, who the fuck cares about relevance when you’re having so much fun dancing? Hard Candy might have come off as desperate if it didn’t sound so damn breezy – its sparse and peppy pumping is the antithesis to Confessions on a Dancefloor’s pompous pounding. Tracks like “Give It To Me,” “She’s Not Me,” “Beat Goes On” and my favorite Madonna song since “Into the Groove,” “Dance 2night,” swirl by with all the tangibility and personality of a disco ball. If you let your mind wander, you can forget that you're listening to Madonna at all
But any daydream is bound to be interrupted -- that is Madonna. Her voice sits way up front, honking and cranking at you like it’s being squeezed out of a constricted larynx. My theory is that her regularly underwhelming pipes are mixed so loudly to counterbalance the conceptual and sonic anonymity she often resorts to here as success insurance. Maybe I'm off. Maybe it's that she just transcends technical skill – if enough people say something is good, so do the charts. However interpreted, what starts out as delusion ends up coming off as humility – she’s naked against these bare backing tracks. There she is imperfect, maybe even unpleasant, refracting the rays of musical sunshine that back her up Maybe the point isn’t forgetting that this is Madonna, after all. Maybe if you let your mind wander a little more, you can remember that you're listening to an actual, vulnerable person. You can remember that you're listening to just this girl who loves dance music.