"The point," Taki Theodoracopulos has written in summarizing The Great Gatsby, "is that we can never really be someone else. We are who we are." That is also the point of Madonna's latest album, MDNA (Interscope).
Like James Gatz, the nom de womb of F. Scott Fitzgerald's greatest protagonist, Madonna Louise Ciccone has spent her adult life trying to be perceived as anyone but who she is-a good Catholic girl from Michigan whose sense of security was threatened by the early death of her mother and subsequent remarriage of her father.
Also like Gatz, Madonna is fascinating mainly to the extent that she hasn't succeeded.
If she had, MDNA would've been a quite different album, one characterized by Gatsby-like cool. Instead, driven by the pop zeitgeist's manic, electronic pulse, it's her most desperately vigorous attempt in years to convince the world that no matter how many headlines her legatees and peers make by dressing weirdly (Lady Gaga) or dying under mysterious circumstances (Whitney Houston), no one can touch her when it comes to the music. "There's only one queen," Nicki Minaj guest raps in MDNA's "I Don't Give A," "and that's Madonna."
There are enough third-person references to the "queen" throughout MDNA to signal anxiety over being forgotten. A group of what sounds like cheerleaders even chants "Madonna" in the refrain of the album's first single, "Give Me All Your Luvin'."
She also name checks some of her greatest hits by working their titles into her lyrics ("You can be my lucky star," "Like a virgin sweet and clean") and co-opts phrases or titles hitherto identified with Cyndi Lauper ("Girls, they just wanna have some fun"), Sonny and Cher ("and the beat goes on"), and the Rolling Stones ("Some Girls").
From beginning to end, "girl" and "girls" are how she refers to herself and/or her competition for affection, terms that coming from a 53-year-old smack of denial. So much for keeping her insecure inner child under wraps.
Her inner Catholic keeps emerging too. She begins the album by reciting an act of contrition and in "I'm a Sinner" says part of the "Hail Mary" after imploring the aid of the Saints Christopher, Sebastian, Anthony, and Aquinas-all on an album that, linguistically, is her most vulgar. It's as if, despite her onstage raunch and her real-life hedonism and Kabbalah obsession, she knows that it's only a matter of time before everyone sees through her Gatsby act and it's as Gatz that she'll have to face the music.
On the other end of the publicity-seeking spectrum is Sufjan Stevens, a Christian musician-composer so indifferent to what his audience might think of his work that he sometimes seems oblivious to its very existence.
The latest case in point is Beak & Claw (Anticon), an 18-minute EP that Stevens recorded with the Chicago rapper Serengeti and the Christian soundscape artist Son Lux under the name s/s/s. Combining Lux's electronic beats, Stevens' Auto-Tuned singing, and Serengeti's clever (and mostly clean) rhymes, the project has received predominantly negative reviews. The common complaint: Its four songs feel like discrete and failed experiments intended to alienate each participant's following.
In a sense, though, missed connections and dreams deferred are what the EP is about. Even its most-derided track, "Octomom," makes sense within this context. And on "Beyond Any Doubt," when Stevens sings, "If I could figure out what it was all about, I'd work it out," the mixed media and mixed messages are one.