Madonna is more than an artist now. She is a brand. She demands attention, listening, fans, critics, and press. Arguably the only musician now who demands a sizeable fraction of following which the late Michael Jackson had; she unlike the latter has continued to "reinvent" herself, if reinvention is what she has done, especially in the last few years. Madonna's gift is not a great voice, or especially great music - it's the ability to catch the pulse of music fans around the world, and deliver on that. Around that she has constantly constructed and reconstructed an image composed of striking visual imagery, great hooks, all that were fastidiously maintained - until the next great fad came along. And unlike Michael Jackson she is still raking in millions upon millions every year. She hopes you will take her "Queen of Pop" self-branding seriously some day.
She now comes out with a greatest hits album - Celebration, her third, which could be a measure of the depth of her ouevre, or just the breadth of marketing gimmicks that surround her. I will speculate that it's both - the greatest hits albums have followed each other almost a decade later (The Immaculate Collection (1990), GHV2 (2001)). In those ten years, Madonna reinvented her image multiple times - from a dominatrix to Evita to Eastern Mysticism and spirituality, to western cowboy culture. From a dance queen, to well, a not so convincing hip-hop queen. It would be logical to come out with Greatest Hits Album which blends this new retinue of imagery into her colossal image. But at the end, its also a cash cow. For both Warner Bros. and Madonna herself.
It is surprisingly, not in the video for "Celebration" - the only new song from her Greatest hits album, that this image of Madonna as a constantly mutating pop star, came through. (Madonna's music videos are often a good way to dip into her psyche and realize her understanding of ever-changing culture and tastes). It was instead in the advertisement for the album. A One-minute long color-splattered tapestry of the constant reinvention of the Queen, with all the conical bra and the cowboy hats thrown in. By comparison, her new video is bland, boring, and been there, done that. It seems to be a ghost video drifting off her last album, Hard Candy. Seeing that, one wonders whether its Madonna who is now in charge of her image or the marketing circus that surrounds her. Lately, it seems that Madonna, instead of reinventing her image, is trying to preserve it. Becoming static. She is content to see herself as a dance/pop/hip-hop queen, cursorily adapting to newer trends in music, and churning out a great new ditty for the Twitter generation. But the charm is faded. Like the fads she had successfully captured all through her career, she seems to be becoming just another five-minute craze, soon to be replaced by another. Earlier, it was she who stood up looking down over the fads, picking one, and making it big. Now she seems to be just another boring pop star, being swept away by all the fads of a media, time-obsessed generation. She is also becoming too obsessed with her body image. Looking 30 when she is more than 50. Muscled and extremely fit. Yet, she begs the question - whether the woman who railed against typical conservative textbook sexuality, is now being driven by the same ideal - becoming a perfect, botoxed, never-aging idol. That we want to see a woman who has not an inch of flab, not a wrinkle out of place, dance away into the disco lights. Maybe we all want too. And Madonna is clever enough to again realize that. Though I doubt it.
The latest song is not as bad as some songs off Hard Candy, it seems to be placing Madonna back among her dance roots. I did like it until I saw the video. The same old Madonna gyrating along and grinding her hips against poles, a la Confessions on a Dancefloor, or Hard Candy. She plugs in her latest man-child, Jesus, and daughter Lourdes too. But the video is inspid, tepid, and boring. It is like watching a Madonna fitness video. It all started with "Hung Up" - a great song and video that should have warned us where Madonna was going.
Not like Madonna's past ten years have not been particularly good. It's just that now she is decelerating, and instead of reinventing on her own terms, is being reinvented- by Timbaland, by Twitter, by Time. I believe Confessions to be one of her stronger albums - with the songs beautifully blending into each other, and a sonic atmosphere and a dance soul that made it a classic. Songs like "Like it or Not", "Forbidden Love" and "Hung Up" reinforced our belief in the magic of Madonna and her vision of pop. "Hung Up" became one of Madonna's biggest hits, peaking in nearly 45 countries worldwide. Confessions also proved Madonna to be the Queen of Reinvention, after her American Life debacle - a tepid album to the say the least. After Confessions came Hard Candy. The album debuted at #1 in 37 countries, but Madonna by now had become too structured, safe and boring. Not all songs on the album were bad - but Timbaland had done better work for even Nelly Furtado, as many critics pointed out. There are not many memorable songs from that album, it sounds too artificial and studio-bred.
In 2008, Madonna surpassed Elvis Presley as the artist with most top ten hits in the history of the Billboard Hot 100. But has she ossified now, just being pushed along by the M of Marketing? From an artist who has picked up as much from art and culture as she has given it, her latest music is not a patch on the old. She has gone from the innocent mischief of "Like a Virgin" to passion-call of "La Isla Bonita" to the all-knowing "The Power of Goodbye", to the careful construct of "Celebration". Where to now? Let's hope she can prove us all wrong, and reinvent once more.