Madonna, M.I.A., and Nicki Minaj's single and Super Bowl performance last month were supposed to herald a comeback—but instead left the artists, like so many female pop stars lately, diminished.
A slew of music publications called 2011 the Year of the Woman: a year in which major female artists with equally major personalities reigned in sales and critical discussion. This wasn't really the case (any year offers more than enough triumphs and flops by female artists to claim a trend), but let's briefly pretend it was. If so, then 2012 is shaping up to be the opposite: the year those personalities and their acclaim recede.
It's happening throughout music, but let's stick to pop. Take Beyonce, who released her most mature and praised album yet in 2011 only to see the music near-totally eclipsed in the headlines by her baby. Take Rihanna, who'd already retreated from 2009's Rated R—the closest she's come to a coherent artistic statement—but who provided this year's queasiest news to date in two collaborations with ex-boyfriend and abuser Chris Brown. Lady Gaga, on 2011's Born This Way, explicitly identified as feminist and managed to refurbish the fustiest and cheesiest parts of '80s music as modern sounds, but the media increasingly portrays her as a grandmotherly, harmless demagogue, and her album's been so retroactively panned that U.K. rag NME called it "the most pretentious ever"—a dubious opinion, but hardly uncommon.
The three artists whom one imagines would make music as vibrant as their personalities seem to be hunkering back to anonymous tracks, to safe chart bets.
These are all solo affairs, though, and they're mostly holdovers from 2011. This year's since seen a higher-profile outing by multiple artists: "Give Me All Your Luvin'," a single and Super Bowl halftime showcase by Madonna, Nicki Minaj, and M.I.A, a three-woman lineup that the media immediately parsed in terms only slightly better than do/dump/marry. One of them supposedly sold out, one was desperate for relevance, one was rubbish in the first place, but nobody can quite agree on who is which. This isn't quite locker-room dross, but it's worse; it masquerades as legitimate criticism so well that people forget there's a difference.
The lineup was no accident. All three women have albums due this year that are presumably meant as artistic coups and/or comebacks. Yes, it's standard to guest or be guested on if you're in a promotional cycle, but this grouping seemed like something more. Madonna, Minaj, and M.I.A. represent a fairly complete cross-section of pop: veteran, newcomer, outsider. And they're three of the medium's most singular personalities—"America's biggest female icons," as Madonna told a Radio 1 interviewer—storming the masculine fortress that is the Super Bowl. The intent of the alliance may have been for all three to peak together, but instead, they're all being thrashed by backlashes that look awfully similar.
Let's start with Madonna. There is much to criticize about the rollout of her upcoming album MDNA, beginning with that title, which tries to force a nickname for her that nobody's used in her decades-long career. It's a just-deniable-enough drug reference that aims for transgression despite being name-checked in Michael Bloomberg's favorite hit of the 2000s, Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind." It's also a mitochondrial DNA pun rendered like the Tetragrammaton, but you can hardly mock that.
"Give Me All Your Luvin'" isn't bad; it's essentially a rewrite of "Beautiful Stranger." But it takes nerve to sing "every record sounds the same" on a record that reigning hitmaker Dr. Luke could have produced with a dubstep bridge so predictable you could guess its timestamp before hearing the track. Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. get about 30 seconds combined, about the same amount of time as an "L! U! V!" chant swiped from Nicola Roberts and producer Diplo's near-identical and less ironically spelled "L! O! V E!" on last year's breakout hit "Beat of My Drum." Worse is MDNA's, "Girl Gone Wild," which sounds like a RedOne throwaway, with borrowed Cyndi Lauper and Joe Francis references replacing Madonna's personality. Anyone could make these tracks. In interviews, Madonna acknowledged this as "ironic"; a better term is "sad."
Those complaints only come from music critics. The public has an entirely different set of gripes. Madonna's too old to make pop, they argue. She's too maternal to talk about sex, her arms too toned to make cheerleading videos. And she's too entrenched to rely on guest stars for her comeback. None of these accusations are new;. They date back to her newfangled Music in 2000, if not before, and peaked around 2008's Hard Candy, with its too-timely Justin Timberlake collaboration and a spread-eagle album cover. But as stale as the criticisms are, even staler is Madonna's response. MDNA seems so far the equivalent of her retorting "you don't want me to be sexy and trendy? See how blatantly I'll do both!" It's rebellious, but she'd gotten over that sort of rebellion years ago.
M.I.A. would recognize that criticism. In less than a quarter of the time Madonna's been around, she drew a backlash that might well have been fatal. 2010's MAYA was, depending on who you asked, either too pretentious or too poppy. Her politics were either too radical or too bourgeois, the dalliances of (as critics delighted to point out) a Brentwood housewife. Fewer people could name any given MAYA track than could cite the phrase "truffle fries," the most damning image in a Lynn Hirschberg New York Times piece that was, as Charles Aaron wrote in the Village Voice, one of Hirschberg's many "methodical eviscerations of prominent women."