Madonna vs Cyndi

Back in January I started a lazy pop cultural wrap up of 2008 and got as far as Sticky & Sweet and KylieX2008. Yes, many other things happened last year, but these were such obviously monumental events they deserved primary consideration. But as it’s, like, March, I thought I’d continue sifting through the wash-up of a quite significant year in pop…

You know something’s going on if two groundbreaking female pop icons forged in the mid-8os, both recently turned 50, release albums within months of each other. And while I remember thinking when these came out that they seemed such different approaches for mid-life pop stars to take, there’s actually some structural similarity between the two that makes their apparent differences even more interesting. 

Most obviously, Madge’s
Hard Candy is a take on R&B, whereas Cyndi’s thrown her lot into eurodance (which is, funnily enough, where Madge was positioning herself with Confessions on a Dance Floor). When I first heard that Madge was going to be working with Timbaland and Timberlake I was a little worried — why would she follow up something groundbreaking by jumping on a bandwagon that had already passed? Well, there’s always some method to Madge’s near pathalogical fascination with the new. It turns out Confessions just didn’t sell well in the US. On a business level, I guess it would make sense to claw back the American market by givin em’ what they want, but artistically it seemed quite regressive that she would sell herself out to hit-makers who were already beginning to lose their sheen.

While I can say with utter certainty that the result, Hard Candy, is awful, I’m still intrigued by it for reasons unknown. I think the awfulness stems from the improbability of a 50 year old control freak singing:

See which flavor you like and I’ll have it for you
Come on in to my store, I’ve got candy galore
Don’t pretend you’re not hungry, I’ve seen it before
I’ve got turkish delight baby and so much more.

This sounds creepy, but something about it keeps making me think of menopause, although I’m sure that’s some sick preoccupation of my own. 4 minutes seemed similarly disingenuous, with it’s half-hearted and vague eco-message (messages which always seem a bit off from Madonna and her ‘nannies, assistant driver and a jet’). To boot, she sounded completely bored throughout, except, interestingly, in the excellent Give it 2 MeI always believe Madonna more when she’s singing about getting what she wants, working hard, and screwing over whoever gets in the way. But most of it was bad R&B dross. So, so, sad, and a commercial failure, which proves once again that you don’t crack America by making music you expect America wants. But still my fascination. I think it’s cause I secretly want to believe that Madonna remains eternal, and if you listen to select moments and don’t actually look at her, you can just for a second believe she’s unstoppable.

Even though Cyndi Lauper’s Bring Ya to the Brink was a no-apologies dance record, it was Max Martin who she turned to for some of its best bits, which suggests that its quirkiness was coming from her own input rather than producer smarts. It also means that, in terms of turning to the hit-makers, Lauper wasn’t that different to Madge in her method. Martin’s Into the Nightlife has one of the *best* choruses I’ve heard in a long time, and while some songs veered into anonymous disco, her personality’s so winning they’re saved from complete banality. But most satisfying were the more ballady moments (e.g. Echo), where she proved she’s still able to project fragility and vulnerability with the same kind of authenticity she showed with Time After Time and True Colours. Considering Madge’s obsession with youth, it’s funny that Bring ya seems like a much younger record — I can actually believe that Lauper would, you know, go out and stuff, whereas Madge seems like she might be taking tips from Lourdes. If Hard Candy is a steely career women botoxed to oblivion (or perhaps some Patty Hughes from Damages type creature), Bring ya is the fun and kooky art teacher who never works out but still goes clubbing on the weekends. Or something.

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