Once upon a time, there was a pop goddess named Madonna who ruled the radio airwaves and Billboard charts with her beyond-the-curve music. She often thrilled and sometimes shocked millions with a sound and image that drastically morphed with each album release. But the inevitable happened: Madonna grew older.
She became a mother, got married, acquired a British accent and wrote children's books. Meanwhile, younger, edgier pop tarts (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Beyonce) rose triumphant in Madonna's wake. And the boom of the Internet crippled her career hallmark: appropriating musical subcultures before mainstream pop fans caught wind of them.
Now with release of her 11th studio album Hard Cardy, in stores on Tuesday, Madonna, for the first time in her 25-year career, seems desperate to remain relevant.
"Like all late-career pop chameleons, Madonna is now more of a trend hopper than a trendsetter," says Bill Crandall, editor of spinner.com, a music blog on AOL. "But that's the benefit of superstardom: You get to watch others bust their butts to get where you are before you pick up the phone."
As with any impending Madonna CD release, there has been much media build-up. She recently appeared for the 10th time on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Through sometimes wry prose and elaborate photos, the piece chronicles her storied career -- from her early success and the dissolution of her first marriage to her much-maligned film career and her extraordinary physical maintenance.
Madonna's long career as a pop provocateur has also been lauded by her peers. In March, the performer was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, oddly beating out such nominees as Donna Summer, whose ground-splitting career in the 1970s helped pave the way for Madonna, who turns 50 in August.
But the woman who once excited us with her ever-shifting incarnations has now become obvious and transparent.
"I have never really thought of Madonna as an innovator. She is still trying hard to compete, maybe way too hard," says Rachel Weingarten, a pop culture and trends analyst and president of the New York-based GTK Marketing Group. "Way back in her career, I think, was the last time her style was her own -- the ripped tights, messy hair and T-shirts."
But even then, Madonna's persona was borrowed. She has always been something of a cultural sponge, absorbing the styles and sounds around her. She lives in London these days -- that may explain the reason the performer, born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit, now speaks with an affected British accent.
Back in the early '80s when Madonna first emerged, she appropriated what she saw and heard while hanging out on New York's hip art scene. Her music then rippled with elements from underground clubs. In her early hits -- such as "Borderline," "Into the Groove" and "Holiday" -- she adapted the chiming keyboards, piquant vocals and tough rhythms first heard on black radio in smashes by the likes of Stephanie Mills and Evelyn "Champagne" King.
The "vogue" moves Madonna ushered into the mainstream in the early '90s had been done for years in black gay and Latino clubs along the East Coast. But the performer was able to do this before the advent of the Internet, where audio and video clips of bubbling subcultures from around the world routinely surface. By the time Madonna has spotted the trends and tried to appropriate them for herself, they have become passe.
"She can't compete with the YouTube age," Weingarten says. "By trying to be innovative, she's alienating her core audience, people in their 30s and 40s."
On "4 Minutes," the first single from Hard Candy, Madonna partners with some of the most ubiquitous hit-makers of the hour: Timbaland and Justin Timberlake.
"Madonna is showing us how to be a pop star again -- well, she is trying to show us that," says Laurieann Gibson, a 15-year dance veteran and choreographer of Madonna's 2006 Confessions world tour. "She's never been groundbreaking on [her records], so why wouldn't she get with the hottest of the hot right now? Madonna has always done that."
But years ago, the performer fully inhabited musical trends -- sometimes to brilliant effect as she did on the electronica-based Ray of Light from 1998. But on "4 Minutes," the artist is barely traceable. Although the percolating track has become her biggest hit since 2000's "Music," the song lacks flavor. Madonna, who has never been much of a singer anyway, vocally deadpans through the industrial-sounding maze of pumping synths, wall-rattling bass and Timberlake's sexy-boy posturing on the microphone.
This adaptation of a sound that Rihanna and Nelly Furtado have pushed up the charts lately feels cynical and lifeless. At this point in her recording career, it would have been refreshing for Madonna to inject some humor into her musical appropriation. But the aging pop provocateur seems intent on competing with female performers half her age.
"Being a woman in this business and seeing how women are attacked because they're aging is sickening," says Theo Kogan, a founding member of the '80s female alt-metal group the Lunachicks. "But, at this point, Madonna has done everything. She looks great and can do whatever she wants -- even if she is rehashing herself to a certain point. She may not always win."