Just Say No – Andrew Anderson reevaluates Madonna’s lowest point, MDNA

'How do you do, fellow kids?'

There are several ways you, as an artist, can make it into this column. The first is simple: record a very bad album. But that’s not as easy as it seems. For example, if you record something very bad, it might accidentally be so bad it’s good.  

The second way is to record something that people don’t expect. Metallica and Lou Reed’s Lulu, which I wrote about in the very first instalment of this series, is an example of this. It wasn’t so much that the album was terrible, as that it strayed outside of what people expected. And since people often don’t like change, they didn’t like Lulu

The third way is the easiest of all: record an album, but put in zero effort. And that’s exactly what Madonna did with MDNA in 2012.  

In fact, Madonna’s career had been sort of stalled for a long time by that point. In the ’80s, you had classic Madonna: ‘Like a Virgin’, ‘True Blue’, ‘Like a Prayer’. Then in the early ’90s you had experimental Madonna: Erotica, Evita. That was followed by peak Madonna: Ray of Light and Music

But after that, Madonna kinda lost her way. American Life was part of the post-9/11 Bush era where artists felt they had to be political, but often forgot to also write good tunes (The Flaming Lips’ LP At War With The Mystics being a prime example). Then Confessions on a Dance Floor had a great lead single (‘Hung Up’) that dwarfed the rest of the album. And Hard Candy is mostly remembered for Madonna’s appropriation of hip hop style rather than the music. 

And then in 2012 came MDNA…and let’s focus on that title first. It’s sort of clever – the DNA of Madonna – but also a very annoying reference to MDMA. At the time Madonna was in her mid-50s and way too smart to be taking the most-least fun drug there is (well, aside from cocaine). It’s a very obvious grab for youth and coolness – rather like if your uncle asked if you wanted to “smoke a doobie”. 

So that’s the title. And then there’s the music, and there are two things going on here. The first is that Madonna doesn’t seem to be trying very hard. Lyrics like “No one can put out my fire / it’s coming down to the wire” and “DJ play my favourite song / DJ turn me on” are lazy to the extreme. The song titles alone – ‘Gang Bang’, ‘Girl Gone Wild’, ‘I Fucked Up’ – express and extreme lack of creativity or care.  

Her choice of producers affirms this laziness. The best Madonna albums have a single person at the head, and usually it’s someone out of left field. So for Ray of Light it was William Orbit, who was mainly known in electronica circles. For Confessions on a Dance Floor you had Stuart Price, who at that stage was still an indie darling rather than a mainstream name. 

But on MDNA no one is in charge. Orbit produces a few tracks, as do a few Eurodance DJs like Martin Solveig and Benny Benassi. Really, it feels like Madonna is just downloading pre-made backing tracks, rather than creating something with an original character. In fact, a lot of the album reminds me of Aqua (the group behind ‘Barbie Girl’) but without the campiness that made them so memorable. 

Which brings us to the second main failing of MDNA: that Madonna is trying to copy other people, rather than creating her own thing. In this instance, Madonna is pretending to be Lady Gaga, but without the effort, wit and weirdness that Gaga brings to her work. Guest appearances by M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj only add to the sense that she’s trying to be something she’s not – like a rich person buying friends, rather than making their own. 

But is this the worst album of all time? No – because it would be impossible for someone as talented as Madonna to do that. But it might well be her worst album, and I’d 100% recommend that you never listen to MDNA: it’s a cheap, synthetic drug, and it’s not been cut with anything good.