If X-Factor and American Idol are to be deemed the great barometers of popular culture (and why not), then it would appear that Madonna is all but finished. Each week a succession of pop wannabes put themselves through the torture, but none of them wannabe Madonna. Mariah yes, Whitney even, but Madonna? She seems to have slipped right off the radar. In a way it’s not hard to see why she means little to the teenage girl of today. She started her career over a quarter of a century ago (when an aspiring pop starlet had to do a lot more than just flash a smile at Simon Cowell to get noticed) and, the odd single aside, hasn’t released an album of real note since 2002. Throw in the increasing soap opera of her personal life and the memory of Madonna the pop star is fading fast.
But what a memory it is, as this – the sixth compilation of her career – unequivocally proves. Not many would have suspected that the bratty twenty-five year old who emerged from the New York club scene with debut single ‘Everybody’ in 1982 would have lasted beyond her patchy debut album, let alone be issuing a thirty six track best of come 2009. Yet along the way she has amassed a body of work that easily puts her up there alongside – if not ahead of – the other two major names of the era, Prince and Michael Jackson.
Those early singles, ‘Holiday’ and ‘Borderline’ especially, are still damn near impossible to fault. It’s something that Madonna herself has been well aware of, maintaining a connection with them no matter what stage of her career or what much vaunted reinvention she has gone through. The truth is that these reinventions have only been skin deep, that Madonna has been at her best when making pop music pure and simple. When she has lost her way (the wilderness years of Erotica and Bedtime Stories in particular) she has done so because the desire to be shocking or fashionable has obscured that primary aim.
Every album contributes at least one track here – even the shocking Dick Tracy soundtrack in the form of ‘Vogue’ – leading to some forgotten gems amongst the towering highlights from her two periods of dominance. The likes of ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ and ‘Ray Of Light’ have of course stood the test of time, but so have the tracks that initially appeared less substantial (‘Cherish’, ‘Beautiful Stranger’ and ‘Dress You Up’), as well as her ability to tackle the big ballad with surprising ease. The more recent albums – the underrated American Life, overrated Confessions On A Dance Floor and hardly rated at all Hard Candy – do their best to keep pace with their younger siblings but in truth the old spark is missing. The two new tracks, meanwhile, are just appalling.
Is this then one final, glorious parting shot from the Queen of Pop? With the final call on her career down to her alone, the feeling is that she will never know quite when to stop. The danger is that each new record, each new move will leave her even further behind the pace that she once do dominantly set. So it’s perhaps no surprise at all that, to the X-Factor generation, Madonna is simply someone who got divorced and tried to adopt African babies. Celebration proves that there has to be more to her legacy than that.