Madonna doesn't need anyone's help; the performer's Super Bowl halftime show a scant two years ago was generally praised, and her worldwide tour last year was a huge grosser. And, no matter what happens, she'll still be the person who released "Like a Prayer" or "Vogue" or whichever of her songs is your favorite. (I'm partial to "Ray of Light"!) Like Paul McCartney, Madonna has earned the right to be unquestioningly treated as a legend; unlike McCartney, she seems fairly careless of her legacy. Can she right the ship?
The pop legend has seemed shakier than ever lately. Her tendency to make alliances with younger artists is hardly new -- but the journey from Britney in 2003 and Justin in 2008 to M.I.A. in 2012 and Macklemore in 2014 has been an uneasy one. Up until fairly recently in Madonna's career, the singer seemed in control of her art. Whether the music was good or bad, Madonna appeared to know what she was doing; if you didn't like the current album, you just had to wait two and a half years and there'd be a new one. Now, rather than enlisting younger artists for her music, Madonna has come to be called in by younger artists seeking a gravitas boost. She seems less in control than perpetually happy to be asked. As Lindy West noted at Jezebel, this isn't a complaint over Madonna's age but over her creativity and willingness to take risks: she's happier, these days, playing it safe. At the Grammys, Madonna seemed aware that she was playing second fiddle to Macklemore and to couples getting married, and so upped the ante with cheap theatrics; the singer was upstaged at the Super Bowl by her collaborator's middle finger; the queen of pop has been called in as a supporting act for Miley Cyrus.
That's because Madonna's legend so precedes her that she no longer needs to substantively reinvent herself; she's frozen in amber as a very famous individual, but without the new material to make her exciting. Her last album, "MDNA," was on a surface level meant to be contemporary dance music -- complete with tasteless reference in its very title to the drug MDMA -- but it sounded truly generic. So, too, was the fun, proficient, but meaningless attached tour, whose ideas went as deep as "now she's dressed like a cheerleader!"
Her style is both predictable and out-of-step in a way that feels less trendsetting than Havisham-ishly uninformed: at the Grammys, Madonna was in menswear and a gold "grill." Hers was the part of the performance that seemed most explicitly a publicity stunt, because there's little about Madonna in 2014 that feels genuine. She's not wearing a gold grill because she thinks it's interesting or cool, she's doing it because that's what Madonna does. Aren't you shocked? Her use of the N-word to describe her own white son on Instagram felt alternately cheap (she's back in the news, again) and sad (isolated by decades of super-fame, she seemed to have no clue why people were offended).
It was not ever thus -- indeed, as recently as 2006, Madonna opened the Grammys with "Hung Up," her homage to the disco era. It was a great song and represented a new direction in which the artist might push herself, and the collaboration (Madonna appeared, briefly, onstage with holograms representing the cartoon brand Gorillaz) was a sign of genuine curiosity about the frontiers of the world of pop. The next album was a hip-hop-inflected record, "Hard Candy," which at least was a try for something new, and then the unremarkable, could-be-anyone "MDNA." It's as though the commercial failure of her probing, strange antiwar record "American Life" haunts her still, frightening her away from taking a stand. Or maybe the war of words between her and Lady Gaga over the latter's perceived plagiarism scared Madonna about the upcoming generation more than she lets on. Whatever the reason, there's something curdled about Madonna in 2014.
It's not Madonna that's changed, to be clear -- she's lost her touch, but one sees in her the same fundamental elements that were always there. There's an element of the control freak that has never left in her elaborate tours and her attention to a consistent, if consistently semiotically empty, image; her provocations, too, were never that deep, even at their peak. But what used to shock in the world of pop were carefully choreographed awards-show performances created to bring across a specific idea; what shocks now are sloppy and ideologically squishy messes. The Macklemore performance at the Grammys was astounding for its utter lack of control, its poor production values -- pro-marriage-equality stand aside, the Madonna of 10 years ago would never have participated in something this shoddily constructed. (Madonna leaping on the shoulders of an LMFAO member during her Super Bowl halftime show was equally tragic in the same manner.) And Miley Cyrus, an artist with plenty of virtues and plenty of shortfalls, rose to mega-fame by existing as the sort of anti-Madonna, exerting zero control and zero interest in artistic perfection. Why should the two team up? Because it's an opportunity for Madonna to get on TV without having to make a great single, even if she has to sublimate the control and qualities that her fans particularly prize.
It's one of those questions without an answer, what Madonna should do next. There's never been a star quite like her -- a female artist with so much longevity whose claim to fame was an ability to get the public's attention, rather than by being the best singer or dancer. A first step might be to can the collaborators for her next record, and to get a new producer. We already know what the current crop of 20-something pop singers sound like, and what Madonna sounds like over an electronic beat. What she thinks about anything more controversial than marriage equality, and what trends in music she herself is intrigued by -- that would be worth buying on iTunes.