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Photo by Tom Munro

I have written an article on Madonna’s Hard Candy era and the diverse reactions from critics and fans. You can also read it on the Madonna Connexion website.

It all began so well, when Madonna was welcomed into the Rock‘n’Roll Hall Of Fame back in March. There were rumblings of discontent among the dad-rock brigade as the ‘one-act disco dolly’ finally entered their ranks. But after 25 years at the top of the music business, few can doubt Madonna’s influence.

Among Madonna’s worldwide fan-base, leaks from her new album had been appearing for months. The news that Madonna, who in recent years has collaborated with left-field musicians like William Orbit and Mirwais, was now working with chart-friendly Timbaland and Pharrell Williams, was greeted with caution.

Younger fans were excited, while some die-hards feared she was ‘selling out’, highlighting the paradox of a ‘maverick’ star who nonetheless controls her own empire. It could be argued, however, that aiming for a teen-led market is in itself a radical goal.

There are some fans who love her forays into contemporary R&B and hip-hop, and others who simply don’t like the genre. But though Madonna has often faced highbrow scorn, she has rarely been overlooked. With her latest project, sales have been hit by the worldwide economic crisis, and her loyal fan-base seems divided as never before.

‘4 Minutes’, featuring both Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, was the lead-in single and an instant smash. Madonna has lost some popularity in her native America over recent years, and this return to her roots seemed a calculated attempt to recapture the US market. What’s more, her gamble worked – at first.

Then in late April, Hard Candy was released. US reviews were enthusiastic, but European critics were uncertain. Nobody could doubt Hard Candy’s high energy, but some listeners felt it lacked depth. In fact, several tracks are on a par with her finest work – ‘Heartbeat’, ‘She’s Not Me’, ‘Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You’, ‘Voices’ – but none of these have been released as singles.

Her previous album, Confessions On A Dancefloor, was also essentially light and playful, but had nonetheless been an artistic and commercial triumph nearly everywhere, except America. Her collaboration with producer Stuart Price created a unique, cohesive sound that is lacking in its successor.

Hard Candy is Madonna’s final offering in her long and fruitful contract with Warner Brothers. While the recording sessions spanned almost a year, the promotion was rushed. The cover shots, by Steven Klein, are provocative, but the sleeve design seems amateurish by comparison. After a few splashy magazine interviews and a short promotional tour, Madonna moved quickly onto other projects.

Having recently signed a historic deal with Live Nation, Madonna began rehearsing for a world tour. She attended screenings of her directorial debut movie, Filth And Wisdom, seemingly destined for cult status; and I Am Because We Are, an acclaimed documentary covering her humanitarian work in Malawi. This latter film goes some way towards healing her image after the public battering she took when she adopted a Malawian baby boy, David Banda, back in 2006.

As tour preparations intensified, Madonna looked increasingly wan and tired. Her excursions with husband Guy Ritchie were rare and awkward, and rumours of an impending divorce persisted. After an outing to a baseball game with her children, she was romantically linked to star player Alex Rodriguez, whose own marriage had broken down. After several days of tabloid speculation, Madonna issued a typically curt denial of the alleged fling.

Her second single, ‘Give It 2 Me’, tipped as a summer sensation, failed to ignite. For once, Madonna was not the puppet-master of the attention she was receiving. The final straw came when her younger brother, Christopher Ciccone, published a tell-all memoir, Life With My Sister Madonna. Ironically, this self-pitying, if revealing opus made little impact other than to garner sympathy for Madonna in unexpected quarters.

All eyes were on Madonna when in August, her inevitably-titled Sticky And Sweet Tour opened in Cardiff. Even her most vitriolic detractors cannot contest Madonna’s mastery of spectacle. While this gig may lack some of the daring and drama of her last Confessions and Re-Invention shows, it still holds our interest.

Madonna sings her 1994 hit, ‘Human Nature’, whilst a video of Britney Spears, stuck in an elevator, plays behind. This is Madonna’s comment on celebrity culture, and few can understand the pitfalls as she does. Her momentary relinquishing of the spotlight to her younger pop rival shows a mixture of generosity and opportunism which is, as always, intriguing.

A later film interlude shows Madonna performing part of a new track, ‘Beat Goes On’, mixed in with clips showing starving African children contrasted with obese Westerners, Hitler contrasted with Gandhi, and the intermittent slogan, ‘Get Stupid’. Madonna reworks the good-time lyrics of a dance anthem and gives it political resonance – ‘The time is now/I’ll show you how…’

Though Madonna’s message is hardly subtle, her sincerity is evident. She also appears to endorse Barack Obama as the montage fades out, angering Republicans as she doubtless intended.

Later in the show, Madonna revisits old favourites – ‘La Isla Bonita’ (complete with gypsy band), ‘Like A Prayer’ (mashed with the 1992 Felix hit ‘Don’t You Want Me’), etc. This pleases casual ticket-buyers, but older fans would also enjoy more obscure tracks from Madonna’s extensive back catalogue. ‘Borderline’ was a smart choice, but given the R&B flavour of Hard Candy, it would have been fun to hear some old favourites from Madonna, Erotica or Bedtime Stories. Though riskier, it might have strengthened the overall concept of Sticky And Sweet.

On August 16th, 2008, Madonna celebrated her 50th birthday with a lavish party in London, organised by her husband. Ritchie’s new film, Rock‘n’Rolla, opened soon after. A return to his gangster/comedy caper roots, and unapologetically English in form, it has been well-received. After two flop movies, Ritchie needed a hit, if only to quell the unflattering comparisons to his wife. In recent interviews he has spoken warmly of Madonna, suggesting a reconciliation of sorts (although cynics may think this is just clever spin.)

Ever since she donned a pink leotard and did the splits in the ‘Hung Up’ video, Madonna has made herself vulnerable to accusations of ‘ageing disgracefully’ – as if this is a crime, and unique to her. Some of the column inches spent on this topic have been distinctly ageist, not to say misogynist. And a small, but significant, proportion of her detractors are older women.

Sexuality has always been part of Madonna’s persona, and she is at odds with the widespread prejudice against middle-aged, sexually confident women. But is she trying too hard? With her relentless workout regime, Madonna is clearly determined not to ‘let herself go’. She still squeezes herself into corsets and dances in teetering, thigh-high boots.

By trying to compete with starlets half her age, Madonna has pushed herself into a corner. Her pride in her body is justified, but some fans feel that she would still be as beautiful if she allowed herself to relax occasionally. In her unending quest for perfection, she has lost some of her exuberance.

Madonna has never been a conventional ‘sex goddess’, perhaps because she is too tough and independent to appeal to some straight men. Her looks are stunning, but not classically beautiful. Nonetheless she remains an inspiring role model for many women, and of course her loyal gay following.

‘Miles Away’, the upcoming third single, is a melodic, bittersweet love song, showcasing Madonna’s wide emotional range. But ballads are not selling well in this frantic era, and without a strong video, ‘Miles Away’ may struggle to make a dent on the charts.

Some fans feel that ‘Beat Goes On’ would be a better choice. If the timing is right, it could be the next iconic rave of Madonna’s extraordinary career. Apart from a possible ‘Greatest Hits’ commitment at Warners, Madonna is now virtually a free agent, though her contract with Live Nation makes for a gruelling read. We can expect three more albums and tours before Madonna turns sixty.

Since the raw, folk-tinged American Life drew a mixed response back in 2003, Madonna has shied away from making truly personal statements in her music. She admitted that the recording of Hard Candy was an escape from the demands of her humanitarian work, and recently she has found a new outlet in film-making.

But for most of her fans, music will always be the driving force of Madonna’s appeal. It remains to be seen whether she can unite her personal and professional concerns, which seem to have diverged in recent years, and create another epic like the new-agey, Grammy-winning Ray Of Light. She also needs to reconnect with her audience by making her tours more accessible (and less expensive.)

But all is not lost; this is not the end for Madonna, but merely a transitional phase. Hardcore, long-term fans will know that she never stands still for long, and change may be just around the corner.