“My sugar is raw,” she pants. I have no doubt, but on this, her final record for Warner Bros., Madonna’s goodies are as highly processed as Laffy Taffy. Let’s be clear—and this is happy news for Madonna music fans—Hard Candy, her 11th studio album, is a good dance record, possibly even a great dance record. Madonna guaranteed this outcome with her choice to work with studio pop-meisters Timbaland and Pharell Williams. After all, they’ve engineered star-making and booty-shaking hits with everyone from Justin Timberlake (who stops in for a few cuts with Her Madge-esty on this record) to Britney Spears and Nelly Furtado. Among the club-worthiest tunes, judging from a handful of early listens: the ubiquitous “4 Minutes,” featuring JT; “Give it to Me,” which is rife with the sexual braggadocio that is mass hip-hop’s SOP, but which long ago Madonna ripped from another dance floor queen, Donna Summers; “Beat Goes On;” and “Candy Shop,” the kick-off tune on which Madonna promises she’ll be your “one stop candy shop.”
Yes, this is a good dance record, but is it a good Madonna record? Her strength as an artist has always rested in her appetite for the underground—or at the very least, the uncelebrated (previously unheard-of producers like William Orbit and Mirwais, for example). Blended with personal musings and a heavy dose of gyno-centrism, Madonna makes music that rewards both your feet and your head. Ray of Light, Music, Confessions on a Dance Floor, Erotica—these are Grade A Madonna, pop music for the thinking woman. But this time around, while there’s no shortage of beats, it seems that Madonna let somebody else do the thinking for her.
As long as there is a Madonna, there will be fools (cf. the May current issue of Vanity Fair) who look no further than the surface. They will deny that her diligence, her relentless mining of the female experience, her marriage of mass marketing with feminism, her curiosity (usually dismissed as re-invention), are the cornerstones of her art. They will sniff and withhold that very word to describe what she does. Such is the price one pays to be a successful, hard-working, opinionated woman in the male-dominated entertainment business. As an unreconstructed Madonna defender, I don’t worry about those people anymore. I’m sure she doesn’t either. But I’m troubled that Hard Candy, with its generic undertones, its could-be-Gwen-Stefani-or-that-other-one sound, will fuel their misunderstanding.
Recently a friend and I confessed to each other that if Madonna could turn 50, well, then we all can. I don’t know exactly what we meant, except that for some of us Madonna has been a guiding light of a sort, leading the way through life, love, motherhood, work and, yes, aging. I still believe that’s true, and for now it seems that while Madonna herself figures out how to navigate the next passage, she’s taking us all back to the dance floor for a spin.