Madonna went four years between Hard Candy and MDNA, her longest gap between albums since Bedtime Stories to Ray of Light, but it might have been among the busiest periods of her entire career. The Sticky & Sweet tour to promote Hard Candy lasted for over a year and grossed an astonishing $408M. At the time it was the second-highest grossing tour of all time (behind The Rolling Stones) and to this day remains the highest-grossing tour by a female artist of all time. Five months into the tour, her divorce from director Guy Ritchie was finalized after eight years of marriage. She also released her third greatest-hits album, Celebration (2009), introduced her Material Girl clothing line, opened Hard Candy Fitness centers across the world, and unveiled fashion brand Truth or Dare by Madonna which included perfumes, footwear, underclothing, and accessories. She then embarked on making her second feature film as a director, W.E., detailing the affair between King Edward VIII (James D’Arcy) and American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), merged with a contemporary romance between a married woman (Abbie Cornish) and a Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac). The film was a box office and critical flop but earned another Golden Globe for Madonna with the song “Masterpiece” and an Oscar nomination for Arianne Phillips’ costumes.
She then immediately jumped into the production of her 12th studio album, bringing a wealth of new producers, new vocal collaborations like Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. and a massive kickoff with the Super Bowl halftime show, which out-rated the game itself. MDNA debuted at #1 with her highest first week sales since 2000’s Music and became her 8th chart topper.
In this episode we talk about this changing era for her, our surprise favorite tracks, the sometimes lack of cohesion of the album and ultimately, WTF is MDNA.
AN: MDNA is literally the beginning of a new era in Madonna’s career. She’s fulfilled her contract with Warner Brothers, and has signed a deal with Live Nation that seems to prioritize her tours over her albums and singles. It’s also an album that comes out in a new world, where musicians are increasingly turning into brands to make up some of that lost revenue from, well, music. Among the many things I hate about the streaming era (and there are some things I love about it) is the fact that it made music less lucrative and sent every diva flocking to perfumes and clothing lines and makeup lines that distract them from what the fans want. MUSIC. Anyway, MDNA was a fraught era for Madonna fans. There were major highs, like the triumphant Superbowl performance. And there were definite lows, including the lack of any real promotion and Live Nations’ apparent ineptitude at marketing the singles of the Hot 100’s most successful solo artist of all time (unless Mariah has now surpassed her, I’m not sure, they’re both so deserving of the honor). All this said, in revisiting the album, I found myself… loving the music. It all begins with a (gang) bang with “Girl Gone Wild,” a rush of a song that really deserved more love. It should probably have been performed at the Super Bowl, imagine the cheerleader theme applied to this song. The opening nodding to “Act of Contrition” is iconic, as is the wink to Madonna’s ‘80s contemporary Cyndi Lauper. The lyrics are silly but liberating. As an opener, it works perfectly because it sets up that though this is her divorce album, the ultimate impact of the divorce is that she’s ready to go wild and have fun (and be very gay) again. It’s camp in the best way, in that it’s all delivered with a wink. I discussed how I felt Hard Candy was a very hetero album, and I’m very happy that “Girl Gone Wild” started this album off with a gay anthem. I love it. My kids are properly obsessed (it’s one of their most requested Madonna songs). And it absolutely slayed on the MDNA tour.
EA: We might overlap with comments and agreements but I’m all for it! I also might be a pretty big MDNA apologist today so get ready. While I think the album has a few clunkers it’s also one of her most fun, throwback records in a while. Re-aligning with William Orbit, the Benassi Bros. and bringing in Martin Solveig (“Hello” is such a great song) really pushed the pop and dance of MDNA into EDM territory, which was new for her. She again leans in on featured artists collaborations but I love that M.I.A. inspired the name MDNA and that’s it’s the third album in a row for her that has a title that isn’t a song on the album. As the first track, “Girl Gone Wild” is such a throbbing, dance masterpiece and she’s bringing religion back! There are so many threads in this song, a little bit of “Act of Contrition,” a little bit of “Get Together” and a little bit of “Celebration” and that nod to her 80s peer Cyndi Lauper with “girls they just want to have some fun.” Forgive me, I’m heartily but this song is top tier Madonna; an erotic, four on the floor banger and deserved to be a huge hit. The video is another throwback with its black and white gorgeousness, androgyny and big time sensuality.
EA: Here’s Madonna dipping her toe in a bit of the old ultra-violence. It’s a fun song despite the murderous context because it’s not serious. I often think about what a Quentin Tarantino-directed music video would have been like, since that’s what she wanted, but even though we never got it we got the next best thing – the performance of it on the MDNA tour. I remember watching it and kind of being stopped dead in my tracks. It’s violent and amped up what we saw in the video for “What It Feels Like For a Girl” in a way that was pure, button-pushing Madonna. She’s even cleverly provocative with a title like “Gang Bang” even though she never says that phrase in the song (it’s ‘bang bang’ instead) and toys with the audience’s expectation of traditional Madonna sexuality before you hear it. She’s in scorned, femme fatale mode here in the vein of “Thief of Hearts” but instead of focusing on who took her man, she’s targeting him this time. My only question is…why did this need EIGHT writers?
AN: Eight writers?! I didn’t know that. Wow. Okay, this one’s tough for me, ‘cause I really, really hate violence. It can obviously be used artfully in films and music, but it’s hard for me to listen to a song like this on repeat. As the second track on the album, it really challenges the listener to keep going ‘cause it’s so in your face with its gruesome imagery. I do appreciate the song as a work of art, as a revenge fantasy inspired by a nasty divorce, and as an homage to movies like Tarantino’s. The song almost feels like a short film, which might be why it was so effective on tour despite not necessarily being a high point of the album. I asked Sydney Urbanek, whose writing I’ve already mentioned and everyone should seek out, which Madonna song she wishes had a video and who would direct it, and she answered this one with Tarantino directing. But despite Madonna wanting Quentin to direct, the song is clearly both about Guy Ritchie the husband, and a response to Guy Ritchie the filmmaker, whose work is marked by violence. I recently saw Swept Away for the first time (I know, I know, and I still haven’t seen W.E. which will come up later) and I was horrified by Guy directing his wife in a role that sees her getting abused by a man. It brought back memories of that commercial he directed in where she plays a diva who is humiliated. It’s upsetting to me that when he was given the chance to direct her, he cast her as a woman who needed to be abused and humiliated. Given that, this song feels like a deep artistic response. I appreciate it. I don’t listen to it very often.
EA: I think you bring up a really good point. Madonna isn’t a fan of violence or guns either so when she uses their imagery, either visually or in lyrics, she’s usually coming from a place of artistic intent, or response, as you say. It’s still tongue in cheek, but mama’s working through some things with it.
AN: It makes me very happy she worked her way to “God Control,” but we’re not there yet…
AN: Music confession: I don’t really like EDM, which is strange ‘cause I love most dance music so much. Give me disco, give me house, give me reggaetón, but EDM often leaves me cold. Some pop artists have managed to elevate the genre, no one more than Rihanna. But Madonna really does that here. The production is pure EDM of its moment, but she infuses the song with so much of her own personality that it’s impossible for me not to love the song. The vocals are on point, and the lyrics are full of wonderful little nuggets: “your name is between a prayer and a shout” is a personal favorite and a lovely call back to “Like a Prayer.” And the moment where she declares “I need to dance” is fabulous. Of course, what makes the song a classic Madonna track is that after telling us that someone’s name pumps like blood through her names, she goes on to sing her own name – MDNA – for the entire end of the song, making this an ode to self-love in a way.
EA: I’m kind of with you on that, although Madonna’s version of it is more my wavelength than simple EDM beats over and over with no lyrics just waiting for the molly to hit. She knows this too, with her “it’s like MDMA and that’s ok” lyric. She’s just clever that way. It’s also not the first time she’ll use ‘addiction’ as a song title or theme. I do like the take on self-love from that ending, which is pretty fun but I’ll never not think of Cher saying “What the fuck is MDNA?” So shady lol.
AN: Oh Cher. She has quite a history of quotable responses to Madonna.
EA: I think it’s largely good natured, they’ve been friendly in the past. Just like Lady Gaga. People want to have more fun in the rivalry than in the friendship.
EA: I don’t think I know anyone that loves this song as much as I do. It’s infectious and fun, euphoric wraps itself in deep, velvety bass. I think it’s the best collaboration with Solveig on the album and although the message seems like a throwaway, it’s something I come back to over and over and over. When things get to be too much that’s you can take a moment, unplug from the drama and trauma of the world. It doesn’t need to be provocative, it just allows us to be free, if just for a few minutes. Those moments seem to be getting harder to find right now so it’s music like this that I often turn to, not to ignore what’s happening around me but help give some balance and perspective. The Offer Nissim remix of this is also one of her best ever. I love the Italian music video, part La Dolce Vita part Brigitte Bardot, boobs out, hair high. Glorious.
AN: I love how much you love this song. I do like it a lot too. It’s got a classic pop melody, and she looks STUNNING in the video. That said, there’s something that happens in the middle of this album where it loses focus for me. What really works about the album for me is how raw the emotions of the divorce feel in the majority of the tracks. Even fun songs like “Girl Gone Wild” and “I’m Addicted” feel like responses to being hurt. There’s an aggressive desire in them. But this one feels a little out of place on the album, almost like it belongs on True Blue honestly (a compliment obviously). A great track, just not the right track for this album. Personally, I would’ve replaced a few of the middle tracks with the stellar bonus tracks “Beautiful Killer,” “I Fucked Up” and “Best Friend” (my favorite of the bonus tracks, so fucking good, all three of those are so good).
EA: I feel that. We’ve talked about song order and how generally she’s pretty great at it but with the first four songs on MDNA it feels so erratic. “Gang Bang” and (less so) “I’m Addicted” make no sense between “Girl Gone Wild” and “Turn Up the Radio.” The tour separated the songs into sections really well, I wish the album had done that too. Ahhh “I Fucked Up” and “Best Friend” should have been standard edition songs since there are some, uh, expendable tracks here.
AN: Look, if this hadn’t been the first single, and hadn’t taken up so much space in her Super Bowl setlist, I bet Madonna fans would like it a lot more than they do. It’s fun. It should’ve been an album track though, it’s just not lead single material. But Nicki Minaj absolutely slays on it (anyone who doesn’t understand why Nicki is the perfect Madonna collaborator really doesn’t know Nicki’s work). I’m not sure what MIA is doing on the track, and she recently came out as an anti-vaxxer, so I can do without her part. But overall, I like this song a lot more than most. Do I wish another track had the distinction of being Madonna’s last Top 10 hit? Definitely. (hi, “Ghosttown”). But it’s a fun throwaway, and again, she looks fabulous in the video and her entrance with the stroller is hilarious. I’m always a fan of her sense of humor showing up.
EA: Ha ha, we may diverge a bit here. This is such a dopey song but I still love it. Her first, but not last, collab with Minaj but I like M.I.A. better here. I think she’s a reach further outside of Madonna’s zone and therefore the gain is bigger (speaking just about it at the time, not in reflection of M.I.A. now). You mention her Super Bowl performance, which was so huge and extravagant and fun. It was such a massive production, like Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra on a football field. One of the best halftime shows ever, even if she had to sing and dance with LMFAO. The video is really different for her, visually, although the sheer volume of Smirnoff product placement and football elements (and even the song’s ‘rah rah’ of ‘L-U-V MADONNA’ feel over orchestrated for the Super Bowl) is kind of weird. But the baby stuff is hilarious and the moment of her twirling her hair past the gun toting gangsters is WILD.
EA: I forgot to do a write up for this but listened to it a few times yesterday in prep and it’s such a weird little song. I don’t know what she’s trying to say. It’s not really been her thing to diss other women (unless she’s talking about infidelity or something) and even though it’s not savage it still feels strange. Musically it’s great and the breakdown at 2:30 is spectacular, as her vocals, and I love the ‘like a virgin’ callback at the beginning.
AN: I fucking love this song. It feels grimy in all the right ways. The production is so hard. The lyrics are aggressive and camp and bizarre. I mean, Madonna singing “fake tits and a nasty mood.” How can anyone not live for this? One thing that strikes me about this song is that it feels indebted to one of the great pop albums of the post-Madonna era, Britney’s Blackout. Madonna said she loved that album, and it shows in some of the dark themes and sounds she revels in on this album. It’s kind of sweet given how much Madonna influenced Britney, to see Britney possibly influencing Madonna as well.
EA: Oh ok I love this take! That’s why I love our conversations, it gives me a perspective and insight that I wasn’t seeing or hearing.
AN: Yes, I couldn’t agree more.
AN: When the album was released, this was my least favorite track. So it surprised me to revisit it for this conversation and enjoy it so much. It’s really sweet, especially with Lola singing alongside her mother. Madonna’s first Lola song was “Little Star” so there’s a nice symmetry to the titles. There’s a song I personally prefer called “Super Pop” that was cut from Confessions, where Madonna also lists famous people to make her point. People should seek that out. Anyway, like “Turn Up The Radio,” this is a sugary pop song that just feels strange on this album, and very True Blue. I like it, but I don’t get it narratively in the context of the MDNA journey, especially sequenced after the savage “Some Girls.”
EA: One of the things I like about this album is Madonna loosening up a bit and letting herself sing goofy songs. While I really love the melody and arrangement of “Superstar” is soo reductive. Another name-checking song? Al Capone? Really? It’s also kind of at odds with itself as it wants to sound like a young bop with Taylor Swift-like lyrics “You can have the password to my phone” and “I’ll play you a song on my guitar” but the references don’t really reflect that. It feels both dated and immature at the same time and I say that in no way making a comment about her age or the type of songs she should be singing. I hate the ageism that she’s suffered simply because she’s lasted this long where many of her other female peers have disappeared. I’m fascinated though by the mysterious music video for this that never happened with her “Terror Bride” costume the merged Iraqi and US soldier outfits. It’s hard to picture with this song though and feels disconnected.
AN: Wait, what? I know NOTHING of this music video that never was.
EA: It was reported to be but even Madonna never verified it so it may just have to exist in the pantheon of rumor. But at least I know I can always post it on Facebook as a fact that will go unchecked.
EA: Uh. Um. Well. So this is what happens when Madonna does the rap from “American Life” as an entire song. I don’t think she’ll ever have a better clapback to her critics than “Human Nature” and each time she tries it comes back with weaker results. It’s the most successful when she drops the “Tweetin’ on the elevator” nonsense and digs a bit deeper with “I tried to be a good girl/ I tried to be your wife/ I diminished myself/ And I swallowed my light.” With her divorce from Guy Ritchie being four years in the past now, she doesn’t spend a lot of time angrily lamenting it on MDNA (although she clearly has regrets and some melancholy over it) so that bridge is especially effective. I do also really like Nicki Minaj’s “There’s only one queen and that’s Madonna. Bitch!” as it foreshadows “Bitch, I’m Madonna” in a few years. It’s interesting though that she refrains from saying ‘Fuck’ yet, the deluxe edition has “I Fucked Up” right there.
AN: Ha, well we disagree on this one ‘cause I love, love, love it. I listen to it so often, usually when driving to meetings when I’m so tired from, you know, Tweetin’ on the elevator. Once again, we get an A+ Nicki verse. Of course, Nicki says here that “there’s only one queen and that’s Madonna bitch,” only to turn around and release her own album called Queen. Gotta love that. Queens gotta queen. As for Madonna’s vocals, we get the survival theme she revisits so often in the style of her American Life rap. You know how much I love American Life, so this is a very good thing to me. And it’s so fucking specific. I mean, she raps about not having a prenup, breaking her bones by falling off her horse, and taking her notes down a semitone because her vocal range has changed. Maybe it’s not deep, but there’s an odd intimacy to Madonna acknowledging any of this. Also, the end of the song with the choir is so ridiculously bombastic. Like “Girl Gone Wild” and “Some Girls,” I feel like she’s embracing camp on this album, from the lyrics to the production to the Barbarella visuals.
EA: I hear that. I think when she’s hyper specific about her own life and less general is when a song like this is best. That goes for a lot of artists and it’s not easy to strike the balance of personal anecdotes and universal platitudes that are reachable.
AN: Definitely one of the tracks I would replace with one of those three superior bonus tracks. This one’s good, but it very much feels like a version of material we’ve heard before from Madonna’s Orbit collaborations. “Beautiful Stranger” and “Amazing” come to mind. The religious themes also feel like a version of past songs. I don’t understand how it made the tour set list when one of her great songs, “Falling Free,” didn’t. I so wanna be in the room when those set lists are created.
EA: This reminds too much of the kind of country-fried 60s hippy dippy in “Beautiful Stranger” that I don’t like and that’s about all I have to say on that. We obviously need to be in that room, Abdi!
AN: Oh, you know, when I went to the Madame X tour, I got the VIP backstage tour ‘cause it was my lovely husband’s B-Day (song) present to me. And I met the musical director and gently asked this question. I didn’t get much of an answer, but I think I mentioned my deep desire to hear “Love Tried To Welcome Me” live.
EA: Oh please let that little bon mot sit in his ear for the future.
EA: Spurned and burned Madonna is sometimes the best Madonna and “Love Spent” is a perfect example of that. Lyrically it’s a shockingly simple and sparse song with the theme of her ex only being with her for her money on repeat but it’s really compelling here against the high beats, especially as the song accelerates. The dilemma of the famous or wealthy finding love and not someone just after money and short term fame is an understandably common theme for wealthy artists and it certainly gives them fodder for songs, even when you’re the most successful and powerful female musician on the planet. “I want you to hold me like you hold your money” and I want you to take me like you took your money” are little gut punches. How do you find love when someone doesn’t see you first as a person but as a means to and end? As a not rich person it’s probably the thing that keeps me from being one of those people that easily dismisses the problems of wealthy or famous folx.
AN: As she often does, Madonna saves the best for last. The last three songs on this album are absolutely brilliant, up there with her best work imho. MDNA isn’t a cohesive album, and I think that’s why it’s received quite a bit of criticism. Hard Candy, Rebel Heart and Madame X are all much more cohesive. But to me, the highs she achieves on MDNA are the peak of her later years. “Love Spent” is just perfect. It’s Madonna turning the very specific circumstances of her divorce into a song that is scathing and melodic. Though the production and melodies are fantastic, it’s the lyrics that really stand out on this one. “I guess if I was your treasury, you’d have found the time to treasure me.” “Frankly if my name was Benjamin, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.” I mean! But despite all the wordplay, the song feels genuinely emotional. When she sings “spend your love on me” and “hold me like your money,” it’s truly devastating. Also, this is one of the songs that really shined on the MDNA tour.
EA: Uh oh I’m probably going to get in trouble with the next song…
AN: You wanna hear something crazy? While I was listening to MDNA yesterday in preparation for this conversation, I went upstairs to get the kids on one of their school Zoom sessions, and they were both doing schoolwork while listening to this song. In separate rooms. So basically, three members of our family were listening to “Masterpiece” independent of each other. Anyway, the kids love this one, and it’s my favorite song from Madonna’s last four albums (so be careful what you say). I’m devastated it wasn’t eligible for an Oscar on a technicality. So silly. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Also devastated it wasn’t a single, ‘cause I think of anything on this album, this was the hit. It could’ve been her next “Take a Bow.” Back to W.E which I mentioned not having seen yet. I think one of the reasons I’ve avoided seeing it is that I don’t want this song to be about Wallis & Edward for me. Because the song is so personal to me. Something about the lyrics always brought to mind the bittersweet love a parent has for their children. The way you think of them as your masterpiece, and want nothing more than to hold them close forever, and yet you have to let them go and live their own lives, and accept that they’re not gonna wanna hang out with you and hug you forever. And yet, you’ll always be by their side like a thief in the night. Maybe I’m the only one who reads the song this way. But a song that allows you to enter it from your own experience is a magical gift. And this song has been a gift to me.
EA: Now I feel bad about what I’m going to say (some a bit repetitious). I know I’m always on the outside thinking that, I’m just generally not a fan of many of her mid-tempo pop ballads. But that’s on me. Musically it’s beautiful and orchestral and is a bit of a throwback to her biggest hit “Take a Bow,” but it also feels a bit rushed, lyrically. I wonder if it’s because she was so busy finishing work on W.E. that it feels like an afterthought. I’ll blame Guy Oseary for that. I do really love the awards history of this song though and the rivalry with Elton John at the Golden Globes. I’m glad she won there over him since he was so bitchy (calm down sis, you have an Oscar) about it but I really wish she had paid more attention to the Oscar rules of eligibility and started the song immediately as the end credits of W.E. began. She probably would have finally been Oscar-nominated after being the vocals behind two Oscar-winning songs.
EA: Beautiful. Gorgeous. Perfect. Vocals rich like “Frozen” but with so much maturity and sadness. When Madonna employs violins and string instruments combined with the more modern electronic elements (the vocoding, beeps and boops) she hits a perfect medium that is so wholly original and stunning and there isn’t a better example of it than “Falling Free.” As soon as that strums hits at the 3:00 mark and we start to enter the last act of the song I’m transported. The last minute and a half is among her most emotional and stunning work to date. “I let loose the need to know that we are both free to go” gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. She speak-sings in a way that sounds like she’s barely able to get it out. This is the album’s masterpiece.
AN: Along with “Masterpiece,” my favorite of the latter-era Madonna catalogue. Once again, she’s working with her brother-in-law Joe Henry. Their work together always tends to be rather poetic (just look at those “Don’t Tell Me” lyrics), but here they lean further into poetry. The song feels like a series of surreal images set to a truly haunting vocal performance. Hairline breaks, metals that she thought were gold, veins and wings and nothing short of the face of God are all mentioned. Everyone will interpret the song in their own way (if they pay attention to the song, which has never gotten the respect it deserves). For me, after an album that revels in post-divorce rage as well as post-divorce girl-gone-wildness, this song is the peace that comes from letting go. When she sings, “we’re free, we’re free to go,” it feels like she’s not only freeing herself from her relationship, but from all the rage and resentment she’s been singing about in the previous songs. It makes this the perfect closer for the album, and honestly one of her most moving songs. If this was on Ray of Light, an album people actually paid attention to, I bet it would be beloved.
MDNA by the numbers
- Released on March 23, 2012
- Peaked at #1 on Billboard 200 album chart April 14, 2012
- Length: 50:47
- 539K / 2M worldwide
- Billboard Hot 100 hits: “Give Me All Your Luvin'” (#10)