February 5, 2012

Madonna with MIA and Minaj at the Super Bowl – it's too easy to sneer

Madonna … still has the hunger to keep tyring to hit something fresh.

Madonna is tying herself to what she thinks is cool again. But it's got to be better than the Who.

Remember when Justin Timberlake ripped the cloth from Janet Jackson's breast at the Super Bowl in 2004 to reveal an imposing industrial tit? (Insert your own Nine Inch Nails joke here.) Pre-boob, the supermassive pop stars of the day – Britney, Nelly, N*Sync and Christina Aguilera – got a chance to perform in front of 110 million viewers. After it, the list of special guests reads as if disco never happened: Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Springsteen.

In 2011 there was a gesture of reconciliation towards pop, when Black Eyed Peas rampaged through a mini-greatest hits set with the help of Slash, but really, that's like apologising for slapping someone by punching them in the face.

This Sunday, pop is back – Madonna is doing the honours with the help of MIA and Nicki Minaj. It's easy to sneer at this and many have: Madonna is tying herself to what she thinks is "cool", again, but MIA and Minaj are almost as mainstream now as Britney and Christina were when she hitched herself to them at the 2003 MTV awards, using her tongue. These days, thanks to the blog-speed intensity of modern hype, younger, fresher pop juggernauts cast their nets wider, and with more ambition. Beyoncé teamed up with Diplo and tried working with Sleigh Bells, while Rihanna samples the xx on her last album, and had one of her biggest ever hits with Calvin Harris - not exactly underground, but far from the Jay-Z/Drake/Eminem hook-ups she previously went in for. When the demo of Madonna's new single leaked a few months back, I uncharitably called it Dance to the Beat of My Mum, because it sounded like Nicola Roberts' own Diplo moment, only smoother, less urgent.

This was a kneejerk reaction and one I've reconsidered. It's elitism born of its own desire to hitch itself to "cool", and lacks any broader context. Madonna doing the Super Bowl with Minaj and MIA is as much of a moment as Beyoncé headlining Glastonbury, except she's doing it to the largest television audience in the world, for whom Hipster RunOff must sound like a particularly unflattering item of sportswear. At least she isn't like the Rolling Stones or the Who because she doesn't churn out album after album of fading photocopies of songs which sound like the old songs which sound like the old songs. She could easily sit back, put her feet up and give herself over to nostalgia, but she has the hunger to keep trying to hit something fresh.

Recruiting MIA and Minaj is a move forward. The former's new song, Bad Girls, lacks the bracing shock-hooks of Galang or Paper Planes, but brilliantly, remarkably, it's because it sounds normal. Imagine, 10 years ago, daring to think that pop would turn out this way.

Likewise with Minaj, though she seems to be getting odder as she gets bigger. The tracks that have been leaked from her new album, Roman Reloaded, are spitfire rants unlikely to be covered by two sweet little Essex girls in tutus.

I don't really understand much about a Super Bowl – other than the fact that it should rhyme with "hyperbole", sung the Natasha Bedingfield way – but I like the idea that instead of the bloody Who, this year, 110 million people get to see three formidable women who are always mouthing off, always getting shouted down for doing so, and always refusing to shut up. God bless America.

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