Which came first, Madonna's image or her music?
In her 25-year career, the pop superstar's ever-changing look and provocations garnered more critical attention than her musical output. Yet in that time, she managed to score major hits and sell 200 million albums around the world.
There's no question that her morphing image, which used to be surprising and daring, helped sell her music. Although her albums were often calculated appropriations of musical sub-genres, they used to offer thrills.
But that was a long time ago.
Hard Candy, her 11th studio album, in stores today, is a mostly stale piece of self-consciously fluffy pop. In lieu of ushering on-the-outskirts producers and bubbling musical trends into the mainstream, something Madonna mastered early in her career, she plays it safe on the new record.
The London-based superstar, 49, enlists proven, overexposed hit makers such as Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Timbaland and Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes to give her dance music a new coat of gloss. The tracks they concoct are sleek and propulsive, echoing with elements of early '80s R&B; and club music. But Madonna is almost nowhere to be found.
She should be very familiar with the era her young producers evoke. She was around during that time, making infectious dance-pop that flirted with R&B.; (Remember "Holiday" and "Into the Groove"?) But Hard Candy is hardly a nostalgic trip. There's nothing here as gloriously fizzy as Madonna's early dance hits.
The singer seems to be playing catch-up with musical trends in urban-pop, which often look backward for inspiration. Though not an outright embarrassment, Hard Candy is still a lifeless album in which Madonna's disconnection with the material is palpable throughout.
The album kicks off with "Candy Shop," on which Madonna promises "candy galore." The pulsing, unadorned groove is among Williams' most understated tracks. But the beat does all the work while Madonna sounds as if she'd rather be doing yoga or writing another children's book. Her come-ons are completely devoid of life.
That track is followed by the album's first single, the surprise hit "4 Minutes," where Timberlake's impersonation of Michael Jackson circa Off the Wall nearly obliterates Madonna's presence. Her deadpanned vocals seem to serve an accentual purpose here. In fact, the track sounds like a retread of the sound Timbaland gave Nelly Furtado a while back.
"Dance2night," another cut featuring Timberlake, does a decent job of rehashing classic early-'80s club music with its thumping bass line and popping, synthesized percussion. But, again, Madonna adds no verve and even Timberlake sounds disinterested here. Slower numbers such as "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" and "Miles Away" fare a little better. Although the emphasis is more on rhythm and less on melodic hooks, the cuts are perhaps the most memorable songs on the 12-song CD.
Unlike previous Madonna albums, the tracks seem to be more important than the songs. Madonna used to be great at fitting marginal dance trends into an accessible pop context. A memorable melody was just as important as the groove.
But on Hard Candy, Madonna seems content to follow the trends instead of pushing them. Given where the pop diva is in her personal life - she's married with children - Madonna probably has little time to focus on what hipsters are doing in the underground club scene. Also, Hard Candy is the last album she owes Warner Bros. Records, her label since 1982.
Madonna will soon begin her all-encompassing, 10-year deal with Live Nation, which includes recordings, concerts and merchandising, worth a reported $120 million.
So her creative energies and exciting ideas may be flowing in another direction. They're noticeably absent on Hard Candy.