The Madonna Method 

It worked for Gwen Stefani, and it’s still working for Madonna—and then some

In his highly entertaining cover story on Madonna in the Dec. 1 issue of Rolling Stone, writer Neil Strauss describes in great detail what he calls “a Madonna moment.”
In his highly entertaining cover story on Madonna in the Dec. 1 issue of Rolling Stone, writer Neil Strauss describes in great detail what he calls “a Madonna moment”—essentially, an instance in which Madonna demonstrates why she is an absurdly famous singer and you are...well, whoever it is that she is not. Strauss’ best example of the phenomenon is Madonna’s behavior backstage after performing on a German TV show alongside Green Day. At first, she’s incensed because the band get to leave the studio first. Then she discovers that Green Day are riding in cars to the airport in Frankfurt. Madonna will make the trip in a helicopter. You have to wonder if Madonna felt the equivalent of a Madonna moment when Gwen Stefani, the plucky, pint-sized singer of the ska-pop outfit No Doubt, released her double-platinum solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. a little over a year ago. No Doubt’s excellent 2001 CD Rock Steady suggested that Stefani had in her the same flair for transformation that’s propelled Madonna throughout her two-decade-plus career. Stefani and her bandmates collaborated with a wide array of songwriters and producers in making Rock Steady, including Prince, the Neptunes, former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, trip-hop producer Nellee Hooper, reggae greats Sly & Robbie and—whaddya know?—former Madonna sideman William Orbit. And the album followed previous Stefani one-offs with techno nerd Moby and hip-hop dynamo Eve. You have to wonder if Madonna felt the equivalent of a Madonna moment when Gwen Stefani, the plucky, pint-sized singer of the ska-pop outfit No Doubt, released her double-platinum solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. a little over a year ago. No Doubt’s excellent 2001 CD Rock Steady suggested that Stefani had in her the same flair for transformation that’s propelled Madonna throughout her two-decade-plus career. Stefani and her bandmates collaborated with a wide array of songwriters and producers in making Rock Steady, including Prince, the Neptunes, former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, trip-hop producer Nellee Hooper, reggae greats Sly & Robbie and—whaddya know?—former Madonna sideman William Orbit. And the album followed previous Stefani one-offs with techno nerd Moby and hip-hop dynamo Eve. Yet L.A.M.B.—the title is a takeoff on the name of Stefani’s clothing line—shows just how capably she has adopted the Madonna method to her own ends. (Somewhat like the Madonna moment, the Madonna method is the process by which the singer absorbs the creative energy surging around her, then focuses it into a single mass-culture product, thereby converting that energy into her own.) Just like Madonna—who over the years has absorbed the energy of a galaxy’s worth of enablers, from Nile Rodgers to Babyface to Mirwais Ahmadzai—Stefani cherry-picked the coolest kids on the scene to serve as her support staff: Dr. Dre, Linda Perry, Dallas Austin, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Andre 3000 of OutKast. More importantly, she uses each track to express a different aspect of her personality. Following the lesson taught by the Material One, Stefani understands that what great pop affords the performer (and ultimately the listener) is the opportunity to transcend the self—to flesh out in song what can’t be actualized in life. (This is in addition to bumping beats and a bra that makes your boobs look big.) Has Madonna, our supreme pop chameleon, been beaten at her own game? Probably not. As Strauss writes, this married 47-year-old mother of two remains a fascinatingly intractable bundle of contradictions: “part spiritualist, part narcissist; part provocative sex symbol, part children’s-book author.” So in “Rich Girl,” over Mike Elizondo’s hard-funk guitar and a healthy chunk of Fiddler on the Roof, Stefani impersonates the opposite of what she is (a rich girl), dreaming of cleaning out Vivienne Westwood in a Galliano gown. “Hollaback Girl,” with its bleacher-stomping Neptunes production, presents Stefani as a mouthy high-school chick telling off the baggy-pantsed knuckle-draggers in gym class. In “Luxurious,” she navigates the same slow-mo Isley Brothers sample that motors The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa.” And in “Cool,” one of 2005’s most heartrending singles, Stefani chews on one of her great themes, her faded romance with No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal. “We used to think it was impossible,” the current Mrs. Gavin Rossdale sings over chiming synths and crunchy new wave guitars. “Now you call me by my new last name.” Has Madonna, our supreme pop chameleon, been beaten at her own game? Probably not. As Strauss writes, this married 47-year-old mother of two remains a fascinatingly intractable bundle of contradictions: “part spiritualist, part narcissist; part provocative sex symbol, part children’s-book author.” But Stefani’s advance might have something to do with the more streamlined approach on Madonna’s new album, Confessions on a Dance Floor. Recorded mostly with Stuart Price, an English techno magpie who’s released records as Les Rythmes Digitales, the CD is mixed with one song cross-fading into the next, so that it resembles a continuous DJ set. The music is soft and pillowy, and the songs, about dancing and pleasure and faith, seem like they were all written in one long burst of late-night inspiration. The album is virtually the opposite of 2003’s underrated American Life, the cover of which depicted Madonna as a kohl-eyed freedom fighter. (Dance Floor’s cover, by comparison, has her in heels and a hot pink leotard.) On Life, Madonna took aim at the emptiness of American consumer culture, and her willing participation in it; detractors claimed the music was hollow, which was precisely the point. Confessions doesn’t reverse that critique, but finds solace in a different, more interior sphere, and the comforting sounds reflect that inward shift. (“I Love New York” might be the first post-9/11 song about New York that isn’t really about 9/11.) This is where Madonna the old-timer finally trumps Stefani the maverick. There’s a gravitas to even the fluffiest material on Confessions that Stefani hasn’t yet mustered, even in tunes as serious and emotionally potent as “Cool.” Some portion of this quality is a function of Madonna’s age, of course; she’s been around long enough—and been world-historical in stature for long enough—that what she says carries weight simply because we’re so used to listening to her. But to some degree, she was getting away with this way back in 1984, and she certainly was by 1989, when “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself” were redefining the role audacity should play in pop. Confessions on a Dance Floor doesn’t consciously push buttons like that earlier stuff did—or like Stefani’s stuff does at the moment—but in its way it’s just as audacious. In fact, the Madonna method on the album could almost be considered a sort of meta-method: she’s accomplished so much that the energy she’s best at absorbing right now is her own.

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