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MDNA (Madonna)

Yearning for youth does Madonna no favours.

Yearning for youth does Madonna no favours.

She has a stock answer for it now. American news anchor Cynthia McFadden recently questioned Madonna about the uncanny resemblance between her 1989 hit "Express Yourself" and Lady Gaga's "Born This Way". What did she think of the comparison - indeed, the general opinion sweeping the planet that Gaga has taken her place? Madge fixed her with a frosty glare. "I think it's . . . reductive." What do you mean? "Look it up." It must be tiresome, navigating your way through a silly media-fuelled catfight, but that's what they're saying: Gaga is Queen of Pop and Madonna, usurped, must be put out to grass.

Last week the first single from her new album MDNA, "Give Me All Your Luvin'" - a cheer-leader anthem pre-tooled for the No 1 slot, featuring hot girl-rappers MIA and Nicki Minaj - entered the UK charts at No 37 and fell away quickly, the lowest performance of any of her 75 singles since 1982. Madonna's made some odd choices in the past decade ever since that kiss with Britney Spears. Collaborations with younger artists seem under-confident, while the rush to incorporate new urban production values looked like a woman running to keep up. Then her directorial debut, W.E, became a cult phenomenon the moment the trailer hit YouTube - because it looked so awful. All this, from the toughest pop star and businesswoman the world has ever known?

Madonna, like Blackadder's Queenie, has the body of a weak and feeble woman and the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant. Her commercial and artistic decisions have generally been flawless. She was the first MTV star and exploited the video age with a kaleidoscopic rotation of new "selves", each one so expertly crafted we never wanted to know who the real person was. From Catholic ingénue to Mario Testino model, Erotica porn star to Eva Perón, Kabbalah-scented cowgirl to 1970s disco diva - these were much more than costume changes. Each persona took root for a couple of years; they were Madonna. In that respect she is unique - for that magical limbo she occupied between being and seeming.

You can't say the same for Gaga. Her platform is the two-hour stage show - she's a performance piece, mistress of the dressing-up box. We get commentary from her and warmth; she's empathetic towards her "little monsters" in the crowd and adrift in the world she's created, offering herself up in the service of "her art". You wouldn't want to hear Madonna talk about "her art" any more than you'd want Gaga to talk about her music. She is pure, first-generation pop - one of the 1980s machines, like Michael Jackson, whose vast live shows were just part of the job. The question is not whether she has been "replaced" by a younger model - but whether she's allowed to be a pop star at all aged 53.

This is the feeling stirred by MDNA, whose title embraces pop's transient nature (punning on the clubbers' drug du jour, it'll sound gloriously out of date in ten years' time). The first half of the songs were produced by French and Italian electro-house DJs, the other half given to the composer/producer William Orbit, who shaped Madonna's dazzling Ray Of Light album in 1998. Spoken word rings out on the opening track, "Girls Gone Wild", over a blasting rave backdrop: "girls say just wanna have some fun/get fired up like a smoking gun". "Gang Bang" is even more defiantly dumb ("I shot you dead/in the head") and on "Turn Up the Radio" ("I just want to get in my car") she sounds as young and daft as she did on "Holiday".

These songs are built for the dance floor but their determined superficiality is strangely alienating coming from the mouth of someone with such a terrific story to tell. You're never going to get a confessional from Madonna but there has been a humanity in some of her musical faces, and here it's found in the William Orbit tracks - "Masterpiece", from W.E (it won a Golden Globe) and "I'm A Sinner", which features the same sweet, psychedelic guitar he used on "Ray Of Light", its chorus gospel-infused, its lyrics all about saints. Orbit's analogue instruments make Madonna's voice more lustrous. She sounds appealingly eccentric around him too, cataloguing the woes of marriage on "Love Spent" ("Frankly if my name was Benjamin, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in.").

“Falling Free", the closing track, is a rather magical, bucolic meditation, bubbling away on a bed of strings and harp. "When I move a certain way, I feel an ache I've kept at bay . . ." She would do well to sing lines like that more often - it's one persona we've never been allowed to see. We're living in the age of the emotional pop star now and perhaps, in this respect, Madonna is behind the times.

None of the Orbit songs are up for singles so far - it's the chilly, adolescent dance-floor numbers instead. This is significant. Perhaps Madonna is fighting for something, after all. The point is, she doesn't need to.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide