Is Madonna still relevant? Advocates of the pop star praise her efforts, whether they consider her early work essential or are drawn to her recent incarnations into the electronic crowd. Either way, one thing is certain: Madonna's 20th year in the music industry is a crucial period for the artist to either redefine herself or disappear into the world of decreasingly popular pop stars (Whitney Houston, Cher).
Her latest project, the American Life album, is filled with acoustic melodies and Euro-trance synergy, and offers essentially personal self-examinations of her successful career. As a devoted fan, I am not here to evaluate her musical efforts on the latest album (check out the News-Letter review on page B1), but to question whether or not any of it matters at all. My knee-jerk response is to defend Madonna's work, claiming her relevancy even in a diffused pop industry that caters to hip hop and American Idols.
Over 10 years ago, Madonna sold between 10 and 12 million copies per album, and every single dominated radio airplay and sales charts. True Blue spawned five top five hit records, including her signature "Papa Don't Preach." The Immaculate Collection, to date, has sold over 23 million copies. Controversy followed controversy, from domestic abuse in "Live to Tell" to burning crosses and a black Jesus in the superb "Like A Prayer" video. Then, with the triple whammy of her sex phase -- the video to "Justify My Love," the photography book Sex and the Erotica album -- sales started to slip. Ten years after her 1983 debut, Erotica only managed to sell two million copies.
Madonna spent the majority of the 1990s rebuilding her image after the stinging aftermath of the Erotica project. She had pushed her artistic vision to the limit, and, shockingly, this was too much for American audiences. Ironically, today she is praised for her feminist lyrics and sexual freedom. After the Evita project, an underrated musical film and album, Madonna reinvented herself with 1998's Ray of Light and introduced the world to her current romance with electronic music. Ray of Light sold four million records, while the follow-up, 2000's Music, only sold two million.
In this latest phase of Madonna's career, it is painfully obvious she has lost her once mighty Midas touch. For every triumph -- "Music" gave Madonna her 12th career number one -- a risky or unpopular song taints her career, as when "What It Feels Like For A Girl" failed to crack the top 20. To some fans, she can do no wrong, but charts simply do not lie. Most telling of all, the eponymous new single, "American Life," barely will peak outside the top 35, giving Madonna her weakest-performing lead single.
With the new album now available in stores, sales predictions are relatively modest. If Music only sold two million albums even with a number one hit, American Life may struggle to sell a million. Critics of the pop diva no doubt see evidence of her decline in the pop music industry.
Madonna claims in interviews and with her new music that she is less concerned with selling 10 million albums and creating material controversy. This may or may not be true, and I am willing to concede that her new-found modesty is exceptionally fitting for the soon-to-be-45 mother of two. However, if Madonna remains relevant, she certainly isn't dominating a music industry controlled by 50 Cent, Eminem and Kelly Clarkson.
A recent edition of Details magazine included a particularly insightful joke: "Gay men and straight, white girls rejoice, Madonna's American Life hits stores on April 22." Although I know for a fact that Madonna fans are not limited to gay men and straight, Caucasian females, the stereotype is hard to ignore. At any rate, Madonna's fan base is declining. Younger generations are not buying Madonna albums, preferring to spend their money on the production teams behind Christina Aguilera and Kelly Clarkson, American Idol's first champion. Furthermore, file sharing is killing the music industry due to economic convenience. Why buy Madonna's album for $14.99 when I already have all eleven tracks on my MP3 player? Of course, as a devoted fan, I did indeed purchase the tangible album on Tuesday, April 22, but I understand the desire to save money.
Madonna's relevancy is found, however, in her transformation into an aging woman in the music industry. Granted, she may one day have a surprise hit as Cher did in 1999 with Believe, but Madonna simply won't sell albums at any alarming rate, a shame given this transformation. The fact that Madonna can still garner controversy at her age with an anti-war music video is a testament to her staying power and inspiration to younger musicians to demand authenticity in their music. Whereas Kelly Clarkson was surrounded by Babyface, Diane Warren, Clive Davis and even Christina Aguilera (co-writer of the single "Miss Independent," on Clarkson's Thankful album), Madonna co-produces and co-writes every song on every album. The truly independent Madonna produces her own music, hit or miss, and she is to blame for any misfortunes. In contrast, Clarkson and the pop ingZnues that have come before her in the past five years are left in the hands of merciless producers intent on marketing specific images. A video with a grenade in President Bush's hand would never be an option for the ingZnue generation.
Madonna's authenticity sets her apart from the pop music industry, for better and for worse. This has led to criticism of her acting, which is well-deserved, and complaints that her music is hardly relevant these days, which are only founded in an examination of sales charts. In the world of popular culture, Madonna has lost her control over record sales, and critics will likely harp on this note until she finally resigns, which probably will not happen for quite some time.
However, Madonna haters cannot ignore that now more than ever, Madonna exercises considerable artistic control as a formidable aging musician in a pop industry that would arguably be anemic without her. In the future, Madonna may embrace a folk-pop vibe or a Bonnie Raitt rock sensibility, or she may continue to release electronic dance music for die hard fans. Regardless of her future incarnations, Madonna's relevance will depend on her historical accomplishments and public nostalgia for a career that refuses to die.