Few pop stars, if any, have been able to pull off career makeovers like Madonna. Whether working with underground heroes or superstar producers, Madonna has had an uncanny ability to predict trends and react to mainstream hits.
With her new album Hard Candy due out on Tuesday, Madonna has returned with a new sound again. Shes jettisoned the Euro-dance that marked much of her recent works. Instead she turned to hit-makers such as Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. But is Madonna really doing anything all that new and different for her?
A little help from former teen idols? Before singing with Justin, Madonna smooched Britney. Urban producers? Before Timbaland, Madonna worked with Babyface. Hard Candy might be this years model, but it follows the same old Madonna formula.
Here, we take a look at some of Madonnas key albums, launching with Hard Candy and ending with Like a Prayer in 1989, and examine the five or six hallmarks of a Madonna release. Hot collaborators? Check. Explosive branding? Check. And usually a controversy or two. (AFP/Getty Images)
Album: Hard Candy, 2008
Chic collaborators: Hey, it worked for Nelly Furtado. After years of mining the underground European dance scene, Madonna went all-American mainstream with Hard Candy, graduating from Britney-kiss to Justin-collaboration. Producers on the album include the ubiquitous Timbaland (its a story now when hes not producing a pop star) and Pharrell Williams. Mega-rapper Kanye West guests on the record.
Back to roots: Madonna didnt say it, but Timbaland told a U.K. tabloid that that his songs with Madonna are kind of like Holiday with an R&B groove, referring to one of Madonnas early singles.
Cross-platform branding: Where to begin? Earlier this year, Madonna saw the film festival release of her directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom. But the official release prep for Hard Candy saw Madonna strike a multitude of licensing deals, including Verizon, Vodaphone, Unilevers Sunsilk products and even Japans FujiTV.
Fashion/beauty partner: Madonnas 4 Minutes has been seen in commercials for hair product Sunsilk, which culled images of Madonnas look through the year.
Gimmick:Miley Cyrus and her pal choreographing a YouTube video in response to Madonnas 4 Minutes was cute. Madonna responding to it with a YouTube video of her own, in which she vacuums and tells the kids that they have to clean up after themselves, was odd.
And then there was the Web video she gifted to gossip blogger Perez Hilton, in which she asked him who she loved more -- her or his dog. I can get down on all fours, she said in the clip. I chase balls, and I love a biscuit.
Getting out the youth vote: The aforementioned Perez video, as well as a planned April 30 webcast on MSN. Additionally, her website has a new social-networking component, and a remix of 4 Minutes was given to Verizon/Vodaphone, and customers of the cellphone carriers were also allowed to preview Hard Candy.
Controversy: All quiet on the Madonna controversy front, but with the official release of Hard Candy only days away, and a tour in the works, give it time, give it time.
Chic collaborators: With an 80s revival seemingly in full swing (see the Killers, Gwen Stefani), Madonna collaborated with touring mate Stuart Price, a producer/remixer who owes a heavy debt to French house and synthpop. To cover her bases, she also tapped Swedish duo Bloodshy & Avant, fresh from their success with Britney Spears Toxic.
Back to roots: I want to hear all these songs in a club, Madonna told Billboard. I approached the album from more of a DJ’s point of view.
Cross-platform branding: Madonna waited until near the release of Confessions to make her music available via iTunes with a huge marketing splash but also had her music heavily featured in television spots for Motorolas ROCKR phone, and licensed Hung Up to hit CBS series CSI.
Fashion/beauty partner: So long Gap! To get the word out on her tour, Madonna paired up with fast fashion retailer H&M. But to display her high-end taste, and prove that attending those haute couture parties and fashion shows wasnt in vain, she also helped launch Versaces spring line.
Gimmick: Madonna launched a phone line (1-888-2-CONFESS) inviting fans to call in and profess their secrets.
Getting out the youth vote: Before the release of the album, Madonna went to MTVs Total Request Live and appeared on the networks college station, mtvU. And like her olive branch to the dance crowd with Music, Madonna appeared at Coachella in 2006 in the hopes of winning some underground credibility.
Controversy: Even before the album was released, the song Isaac angered some rabbis and religious scholars, who claimed it was about 16th century Jewish mystic/Kaballah scholar Yitzhak Luria. In Billboard, Madonna dismissed the criticism: You do appreciate the absurdity of a group of rabbis in Israel claiming that Im being blasphemous about someone when they havent even heard the record, right? (EPA)
Album: American Life, 2003
Chic collaborators: If it aint broke
After their successful pairing on Music, Madonna collaborated even further with Mirais Ahmadzai, going for a harder mix of European techno sounds. Yet this wasnt a full-on dance record, as Madonna attempted to respond to the socio-political climate of the time with guitars.
Cross-platform branding: Forget spy movie parodies like Austin Powers. That was kid stuff to the 2002 Madonna. American Life was launched with a little help from Bond, James Bond, as the 2002 Bond film, Die Another Day, helped launch American Life promotional efforts.
Fashion/beauty partner: The Gap. Hoping to capitalize on her past, and sell some pants, Madonna melded single Hollywood with Into the Groove.
Gimmick: Does kissing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the MTV Video Music Awards during a performance of Hollywood count as a gimmick? Show of hands? Yeah, thats a gimmick.
Controversy: America apparently wasnt ready for its No. 1 pop star to start taking swipes at the war and President Bush. Her video for American Life, in which images of a militaristic fashion show are interspersed with Madonna in a generals outfit, caused such a tizzy that the artist was forced to issue a press release declaring her patriotism.
Getting out the youth vote: All her bases were covered in 2003, thanks to the release of her childrens book, The English Roses, which came complete with an apparel and doll line, and an appearance on the NBC hit Will & Grace. Going straight to those Web-abusin kids, American Life was the first album to be a part of MTVs advance-music initiative, The Leak. Then in early 2004, Madonna continued to make headlines, endorsing Wesley Clark for president. (WireImage)
Album: Music, 2000
Chic collaborators: After the huge dance success of Ray of Light, Madonna went deeper into the club with Music, mining underground dance culture. At a time when teen-pop and hip-hop dominated the charts, Madonna had none of it, instead showing off her dance cred by working with the likes of William Orbit, Guy Sigsworth, Mark “Spike” Stent, Talvin Singh and Mirwais.
Back to roots: While discussing a string of surprise club dates with Billboard, Madonna said, The electricity of jumping onstage in a club is so intoxicating.
Cross-platform branding: While released months before Music, The Next Best Thing in 2000, a poorly received and Razzie Award-winning romantic comedy starring Rupert Everett, brought Madonna back to the silver screen. But it gave Madonna a single in American Pie. Also in 2001, Madonna appeared in the Ritchie-directed BMW commercial Star, which was aired online.
Fashion/beauty partner: No official pairing, but Madonna was a presence at fashion shows for, you guessed it, Versace.
Gimmick: Madonna makes her political views known via a letter to the Los Angeles Times, criticizing Bush while defending the lyrics of Eminem.
Controversy: Coming late in the promotional life of Music, Madonna teamed with husband Guy Ritchie to create the video for What It Feels Like For A Girl, a crash-and-bang, heavily violent video that was relegated to late-night viewing in America, and banned in a number of countries.
Getting out the youth vote: Madonna participated in her first-ever online chat in 2000, and hosted a global listening party online. Also before release, free remixes of Music from the likes of Groove Armada and Deep Dish were available on MTVs websites, and appeals to the hardcore dance fan were made by giant club nights in major cities. She also revisited the promotional club gigs, and broadcast one from London via MSN. (Associated Press)
Album: Ray of Light, 1998
Chic collaborators: Aside from occasional breakthroughs such as Fatboy Slim, electronica wasnt totally mainstream fare when Madonna released Ray of Light. Recognizing the burgeoning scene, Madonna tapped techno pioneer William Orbit as her Ray of Light collaborator.
Back to roots: This record takes me back to where I started -- in a club right in the middle of a dance floor,” she told Billboard. It’s full circle, except I’m so different now.
Cross-platform branding: Can you say Oscar? She didnt win one in 1998, but she did appear at the awards a couple weeks after Ray of Light hit stores, and, coincidentally, around the same time Evita was released on DVD. The following year, she recorded Beautiful Stranger for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. And she was milking Ray of Light all the way into 2001, when it became the theme song for Windows XP.
Fashion/beauty partner: While making sure to appear at the Versace shows and parties, Madonna inked a multimillion-dollar deal to help launch a new Max Factor cosmetic line in Europe.
Gimmick: The sudden makeover from go-go dancer to yoga instructor (see the albums Shanti/Ashtangi). All the fun of early Madonna + all the maturity of Bedtime Stories Madonna = Total Madonna.
Controversy: Having already offended Catholics and Christians, Madonnas MTV Video Music Awards in 1998 irritated the Hindus. Her Ray of Light performance came complete with holy facial markings and sexually suggestive clothing, the latter of which were seen as taboo when combined with the holy symbols. Madonnas response: If they’re so pure, why are they watching MTV?”
Getting out the youth vote: Madonna conducted a live TV interview on MuchMusic, answering questions from fans in person, and via phone, e-mail or fax. She also performed her first club show in years, and appeared on the Kids Choice Awards. (Warner Bros.)
Album: Erotica, 1992
Chic collaborators:Madonna worked closely with Shep Pettibone on the project, who had done remix work on her songs in the past, and was fresh from their smash hit collaboration on Vogue.
Cross-platform branding: Before the release of Erotica, she starred in A League of Their Own, which spawned the hit song This Used to Be My Playground. But soon, Madonna said ‘so long’ to family-friendly fare. To coincide with the release of Erotica, Madonna issued her first book, Sex, a sort-of multimedia concept effort about human sexuality. Continuing the trend of highly sexual images, in 2003 she starred in the explicit sexual thriller Body of Evidence.
Fashion/beauty partner: Her revealing tour fashions with Jean-Paul Gaultier (the satin cone bra) were still making news, and Madonna wasnt one to miss a Versace show. Plus, Madonna sported some Burberry on tour. Finally, the Sex book also took from the worlds of high fashion, with Naomi Campbell modeling and famed fashion photographer Fabien Baron shooting the images.
Gimmick: The project.
Controversy: The project, especially the sexually explicit video for Erotica, which was directed by Baron.
Getting out the youth vote: The project. Who doesnt love sneaking into R-rated movies? (Warner Bros.)
Album: Bedtime Stories, 1994
Chic collaborators: While working with Bjork to co-write Bedtime Story, Madonna largely turned to proven R&B hit-makers for the album: Babyface, Dallas Austin, Dave Hall and Nellee Hooper.
Cross-platform branding: Before the release of Bedtime Stories, a tour video from her Girlie Show was issued, and she was coming off the film Dangerous Game, which was released shortly before the album came out. During the Bedtime Stories release cycle, she filmed a cameo for the 1995 film Blue in the Face, and also began filming Four Rooms. In early 1995, Madonna released a book of photographs from her Girlie Show, and later filmed a cameo for Spike Lees Girl 6.
Fashion/beauty partner: Madonna strolled down the catwalk at a fashion show for regular tour collaborator Jean-Paul Gaultier, and appeared in Versace advertisements in 1995.
Gimmick: A kinder, gentler Madonna! But wait, isnt this the same Madonna who said the f-word a dozen or so times on the Late Show with David Letterman in early 2004? Yes, but they were all apologetic by the fall, when Letterman chided Madonna to watch her language at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Also: a 1995 pajama party to celebrate the release of her video for Bedtime Story.
Controversy: Her Sex book and a topless dancer in her 1993 tour The Girlie Show provided enough controversy for a few years. So much so that she even brought it up in Bedtime Stories, keeping the story alive in the media. In the albums Human Nature she sings, “Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex.
Getting out the youth vote: Aside from the aforementioned pajama party, Madonna early on made available for downloading Secret, the first single from Bedtime Stories. (WireImage)
Album: Like a Prayer, 1989
Chic collaborators: Not yet producer-hopping at this stage, Madonna worked with longtime collaborators Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray.
Cross-platform branding: Pepsi! Madonna inked a major deal with Pepsi that would debut her new single, Like a Prayer. But the video for the song inspired a wealth of controversy, thanks to its assortment of violent images and religious symbols. About one year after the release of Like a Prayer, Madonna starred as a sultry vixen in Dick Tracy.
Fashion/beauty partner: Jean-Paul Gaultier, who created the unforgettable cone-shaped bra.
Gimmick: The mega-controversial video. And the ensuing Blond Ambition tour, in which Madonna simulated masturbation on stage.
Controversy: See above.
Getting out the youth vote: Soda-pop is safe for all ages! Except in this case it wasnt, as Pepsi ultimately tried to dissociate itself with Madonna. (WireImage)