Madonna disappoints, but Mariah and Robyn do not

I have to admit that I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Madonna‘s latest album, Hard Candy, but after downloading it on Tuesday, boy was I disappointed. The reviews have been almost across-the-board positive — or at least thoughtful, referencing Madonna’s influence and stature in the pop culture world — but I found myself fast-forwarding through repetitive choruses ("get stupid get stupid get stupid" — argh! — on "Give It 2 Me") and, frankly, not quite getting the album.

Perhaps, as the Houston Chronicle noted: "As a sit-down listen (in the car, through headphones or via a computer), Hard Candy doesn’t have the same immediate spark or insightful lyrics as 2005′s gorgeous Confessions on a Dance Floor. …

Under the disco ball, however, Hard Candy proves a sparkling after-hours soundtrack."

Maybe my problem is that I’ve been listening to it while at the office rather than out at a club. If that’s the case, it’s gonna be a long time before I "get" this album, since my club-going days have dwindled down to, oh, a couple of times a year. I suspect that most of Madonna’s die-hard fans also long ago stopped loving the night life (Madonna, after all, is turning 50 this year), and I’m not sure if those longtime fans will get this album, either.

I do like a few songs on the album, including "Dance 2night," which is way more of a disco track than a hip-hop one, and "Miles Away," a melancholy song that sounds like it belongs on Confessions on a Dance Floor.

Most reviews also mention that Madonna has made a concerted effort with this new album to attract younger fans, especially by working with current hit-makers such as Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Kanye West and others. The funny thing is, I personally really enjoy Justin, Timbaland and Kanye. The problem, in my opinion, is that Madonna’s somewhat cold, emotionless voice just isn’t suited to hip-hop — and Hard Candy is a total wannabe hip-hop album, right from the start of its first single, "4 Minutes" (which I think is the best track on the whole thing).

I’m far from a hip-hop expert, but the melding of Madonna and hip-hop beats just doesn’t seem quite right to me. Especially in comparison to another recent album released by a pop music icon, Mariah Carey‘s E=MC2, which melds hip-hop and pop almost perfectly.

Mariah has also received a ton of praise for her latest CD, which was released on April 15 and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Back in the 1990s when Mariah was all about music boxes and butterflies, I admit I kept the fact that I actually owned a Mariah CD a secret, but after The Emancipation of Mimi (and getting 10 years older), I decided it was fine to like her songs — and about time to acknowledge that she knows how to make a hit. Plus, anybody who watched her week on American Idol also saw that it’s really hard for anybody else to sing a Mariah Carey song.

Though E=MC2 has some weak points (the sing-song melody of "O.O.C." just annoys me), the album has several truly addictive tracks, including "I Stay in Love," which is a worthy successor to her hit "We Belong Together," and "Side Effects," which could be the most Mary J. Blige–like song Carey has ever written. I even like the booming, bass-heavy "Migrate." Its simple lyrics draw a surreal picture of a group of friends moving from club to after-party to hotel as if they were part of some vast wildlife migration.

But I shouldn’t compare Madonna to Mariah. There’s just no comparison; both have carved out their own pop music kingdoms on their own and quite separately. One artist who does compare to some extent to Madonna, though, is Swedish pop star Robyn, who just released her self-titled CD in the U.S. on the same day that Hard Candy came out.

Robyn’s eponymous CD was originally released in Sweden in 2005 and came out in the U.K. in March 2007; many of the songs that Americans are only now getting to hear have already been hits across Europe and Australia, including "With Every Heartbeat." If her voice sounds familiar, that’s because you may remember her 1997 pop-dance hit, "Show Me Love."

Now, it’s not Robyn’s early years that I’m comparing to Madonna — it’s her new stuff. Many of the songs on Robyn remind me of very early Madonna, like from 1982. Maybe it’s because that early ’80s synth sound is back, but Robyn also has some of the same attitude, especially on songs like "Handle Me" ("It’s a simple fact that you can’t seem to handle me/No matter how you act with them
you can’t handle me"). She even has a song called "Who’s That Girl" (although I suppose it could be referencing the Eurythmics’ song as much as Madonna’s).

To be fair, there are a couple of duds on Robyn. I thought the opening track, a recitation of Robyn’s (false) qualifications, "Curriculum Vitae," is a bit self-indulgent, and I’m not a big fan of "Robotboy" because it’s, well, a bit too boppy. But 90 percent of the CD is brilliant, from Robyn’s hilarious lyrics and infectious beat on "Konichiwa Bitches" ("Right now you probably thinking how she get in them jeans/Well I’m gifted all natural and burstin’ the seams") to the moody, ethereal "Eclipse" ("There’s an eclipse in your eye/where I used to shine").

Robyn is currently touring the U.S. in promotion of her album, and she’s got the attitude and the androgynous haircut that I think will make her quite a hit with lesbians.

Is it enough to make her a gay icon in the mold of Madonna and, even, Mariah (come on, gay men love the diva)? Have you had a chance to listen to the new albums from Madonna, Mariah and Robyn? What did you think?

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