Madonna's Manic, Personal 'MDNA'

It's a surprisingly honest, if musically uneven, album from the Queen of Pop.

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No one was asking for a Madonna murder ballad, but there one is, a mere two tracks into her 12th album. Five and half minutes long, riding menacing bass pulse worthy of Nine Inch Nails, speckled with clanking percussion and gunfire, "Gang Bang" gives us the Queen of Pop in revenge mode, fantasizing about shooting a lover in the head and then voyaging to hell to shoot him again. The beat dies, a wubwubing dubstep thunderstorm erupts, the cops arrive, and Madonna just gets more pissed. "If you're going to act like a bitch," she cackles—there's another gunshot—"then you're going to die like a bitch."

Well, then. So much for the "World Peace" message she left us with at the end of her Super-Bowl halftime performance this year. Then again, it was never the right message for Madonna, pop music's most excellent conflict-causer for three decades now. When she reemerged into the spotlight at the beginning of 2012, she was in full provocateur mode, sniffing that Lady Gaga's music was a mere "reductive" knockoff of her own material, tossing antifeminist insults at Ricky Gervais during the Golden Globes, and releasing a track list replete with click bait titles like "Girl Gone Wild" and, well, "Gang Bang." She was reminding people not only that she was back, not only of her staggering rap sheet of hits, and not only that she started this whole game that Gaga, Rihanna, Perry, Ke$ha, Britney et. al. have been making so much money playing. She was reminding that more than any of those new-nice upstarts, Madonna's edge is that she has edge.

Rarely do pop stars as high gloss as this one so convincingly reveal their lives to be a mess.

MDNA, out today, is a strange, asymmetrical, halfway successful album. Its strength is in how it shows Madonna—she of cartoonishly meticulous self-presentation: toned arms, put-on accent, and vanity film projects—as shitty, worn out, and human as anyone. In pop now, this is almost radical. Gaga trades her humanity for symbol-rich otherness, Perry and Spear affect just enough character to be memorable, and Ke$ha inflates her own personality to achieve her drunken Superwoman shtick. Perhaps not quite intuitively, Rihanna stands as the most Madonna-esque for the way she scares parents and trades on her supposed personal life for attention, but stunts like pairing with Chris Brown are just that: stunts. Meanwhile, "Gang Bang" camp and track titles aside, MDNA features little self-conscious provocation, which is the second-most surprising thing about it. The first? That it makes the argument for Madonna as the most honest dance-pop diva we have.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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