Madonna and the pitfalls of gaining musical tenure

In the U.S., 111.3 million people watched Madonna’s performance at the Superbowl this year. Many were hoping to nostalgically sing along to “Like a Prayer,” while another decently-sized portion of America was watching to see her err. Madonna took the stage in a gold Aztec-like outfit and reconfirmed her title as a pop queen. So why is it she’s letting American culture unravel off her finger with the release of her 16th album, MDNA

Instead of reinventing the voice of pop like she normally does, Madonna allowed producers’ choices to shape the music: Heavy club bass beats dominate every song to the point where her voice could belong to any other female singer. It’s cheap, it’s flashy, and it’s below her standards. Yet MDNA reached its anticipated commercial success when the album debuted on Billboard 200’s number one. 

Longtime musicians can’t be allowed to slack off like this once they gain tenure. Once an artist hits it big enough, their name jacks up the authenticity of the music — regardless of how different it sounds. 

The problem with musicians abusing their name is that they are wasting the fans’ time. Releasing mediocre music proves they’ve lost the drive to surprise listeners and have them fall in love all over again. 

However, the lack of desire to pursue continual milestone albums makes sense. After putting so much of themselves into creating new twists in their genres, popular musicians have worn themselves out. You can only be original so many times before the songs you create sound reminiscent of past tracks you’ve released. Some fans love this: They want albums that are barely different from others. It’s hard to create something new within your sound when you’ve been writing in that style for decades. No musician is a deity.

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It’s natural to wonder where the morals are in musicians who, once they have nabbed success, trade off talent for mediocrity. In a way, they should strive to be like The Who. With 11 albums out, the British rock group have kept hold of their sound from 1965’s My Generation to 1973’s Quadrophenia. They stick to timeless pop-like ideas (“My Generation” speaking about culture, regardless of demgraphic, or “5:15” about fitting in with a group). Their later albums, including Endless Wire in 2006, gracefully accept the challenge age carries — that youth left along with their energy and sound — and they still focus on churning out metaphoric lyrics and catchy riffs. 

Even Kanye West is admirable for this, despite being on his fifth record (rather than his 15th.) Yes, he’s arrogant, but the guy also tries to outdo himself on every album. West’s attitude towards making music is that of a driven individual crafting their debut album, disregarding all of his self-hype. 

Holding an established name in the industry is no excuse for artists to stop pushing themselves.

It’s easy to say everyone should produce artful music. Being original becomes harder and harder, but that’s no excuse for Madonna, a strong and intelligent woman, to write clumsy lyrics like those on “Superstar” (“You can have the password to my phone, I’ll give you a massage when you get home”) or whole-heartedly agree to the mindlessness of the music video for MDNA’s single “Give Me All Your Luvin.” Released a few days before, the music video is practically a pregame to the Superbowl: football players stand next to scantily dressed cheerleaders, including Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., who punch their pom-poms in the air. It serves as a clear reminder that her goal was a commercial hype chain: More video plays leads to anticipation for the Superbowl, which creates enthusiasm her new album, which equates to sold-out stadiums for her MDNA tour — a long-winded marketing scheme to make money from shows where the cheapest tickets are $100.

All that being said, Madonna’s vocals on MDNA deserve applause when not unrecognizably overproduced. “Paris” became a surprise jazz hit off Elton John’s Leather Jacket. The Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon still spent 27 weeks as third on U.S. radio charts. These artists still have genius creative minds that earn them titles as model musicians. It’s just disappointing to see artists purposefully use their name to succeed. Working hard to give yourself a name in the music industry is what all musicians should do. Abusing that tenure to toss out meaningless albums, however, is beyond disheartening — it’s an insult to their fans.