The Super Bowl stage.
In one corner: LMFAO, the current barons of Pavlovian pop music, churning out shameless hits that promise nothing more than mindless “party rock” and deliver accordingly.
In another corner: M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj, rappers rife with complication and contradiction, but whom both straddle a compelling line between pop ambition and hipster-acclaimed auteur status.
In another: Cee-Lo Green, acclaimed rapper turned pop crooner, playing the “corporate synergy role” to connect with the return of the mega-popular The Voice after the game is over.
And in the middle of this disparate cacophony of personalities, there’s Madge. Unlike most Super Bowl performers during the past decade, she’s lip-syncing excessively, which is incredibly disappointing. She’s spectacle-ing just fine, though. But what’s most striking about the performance is how embodies the same scattered desperation with which Madonna has fought to interject herself into the pop zeitgeist during the third decade of her career.
And she’s probably going to fail again.
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The smartest thing that Madonna ever did was brand herself as a pop chameleon, someone who constantly changes her image and sound.
That granted her an impressive amount of freedom as a performer, and allowed her to transition into the 1990s with much more commercial success than her peers. Out of all her iconic contemporaries—MJ, Prince, Springsteen, Phil Collins, U2—Madge arguably stayed the closest to the cultural zeitgeist during that decade. And unlike those artists, she was playing almost entirely in the pop realm – not exactly the kindest space for a) aging, and b) aging women in particular. So: credit where it’s due.
The 2000s weren’t nearly so kind, though. Madonna’s trend hopping continued; the difference was that, much of the time, she didn’t quite get it right. Maybe it was that the Internet quickened the speed at which trends moved; maybe it was her increasing distance from her younger competitors (and, in her British retreat, from American culture). Whatever the case, her ability to tap into the zeitgeist suffered.
Her commitment to achieving pop success didn’t cease, though; if anything, it ramped up. Her nineties output had seemed comfortable in its skin, even when it was zeitgeist-seeking (such as 1998’s Ray of Light). In contrast, the 2000s it was all about finding a sound that would connect with what was hot when Madonna was making it…which, all too often, sounded lame and dated by the time it was released.
There was the post-house minimalism of “Music.” There was the political gestures of “American Life.” And the most glaring offender: “4 Minutes,” the lead single from 2008’s Hard Candy, which featured a Timbaland beat and Justin Timberlake guest spot just at the very moment when America was getting very sick of both of them.
If Madonna once had privileged access to the pulse of pop, she started to come across like a desperate woman lurking in the doctor’s office lobby, trying to sneak a glimpse at the patient through a crack in the doorway (and getting it wrong as a result). Moreover, her ability to arrive just as a trend is dying became almost uncanny. It’s like she’s a Baudrillard signifier, a third-level simulation. When Madonna hops on a trend, that means it’s probably on its last legs.
Coming in 2014: Madonna’s new single featuring Skrillex. (Of course, we’ll have all moved on from dubstep at that point.)
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That’s not to say that Madonna’s pop desperation has been entirely fruitless. Though it’s been nakedly transparent, it’s still produced some gems.
“Music” felt dated at the time of its release, but now that pop music has circled back around to minimalist electro, it actually seems rather forward looking. And pulled from its over-saturated context, “4 Minutes” is actually a pretty good Timbaland beat. (Though, an aside: I’ve always hated that Madge and JT split the “Grab a boy / grab a girl” line, even though the natural order of the call/response is that JT should sing both…perhaps JT was more to blame for that, but it always seemed like a cop out, especially from such a sexuality-pushing artist like Madonna.)
And, of course, there’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, the one moment where Madonna actually seemed a bit ahead of things. (Producer/collaborator Stuart Price later went on to work with The Killers and Scissor Sisters.) It also led to her one undeniably note-perfect single of the 2000s, the ABBA-borrowing “Hung Up.”
Which leads me to “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” the lead-off single from the forthcoming MDNA. Like “4 Minutes,” it finds Madonna hooking up with a bunch of trendy collaborators – not just M.I.A. and Minaj but producer Martin Solveig. And like “4 Minutes,” it’s a very enjoyable piece of pop music: I feel like the chorus could use some serious guitar crunch, but mostly, it’s an effective fusion of Madonna’s 80s hooks—signified in the video by the “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” outfit meshing scene—with Dr. Luke-style production. (It bears a striking resemblance, in fact, to Avril Lavigne’s underrated “What the Hell?” – produced by Luke.)
All of this probably means that pop culture is just about ready to backlash against Dr. Luke-style production.
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But should we really hold it against Madonna that it seems like she’s always playing catch-up? Shouldn’t we celebrate her for still trying?
Maybe. Maybe not. But there’s really nothing else that Madonna could do. Just compare her to the other aging acts who’ve played the Super Bowl halftime shows in recent years: Springsteen, Prince, McCartney, U2, The Who, Tom Petty. Some of these artists are still fighting to stay relevant; others are just content to tour the back catalogue. But all of them feel like they have some kind of central identity, built over the years, that their pursuits circle around.
In contrast, Madonna’s whole identity is having a fluid identity. There is no centre to circle around, no middle ground to go back to. Madonna’s singular goal has always been pop relevance. She could start repeating herself, sure, but that simply wouldn’t be her nature – nor would it achieve her goals. She doesn’t just want to have a fan base, to be popular; she wants to be pop. Big difference.
So her halftime show has to have LMFAO. And M.I.A. and Minaj. And Cee Lo Green. Because Madge is hedging her bets. Is the future of pop sleezy simplicity? Outsider female hip hop? Network television?
Whatever it is, she’s going to try and be there. Just don’t expect her to arrive entirely on time.