100 & Single: Madonna's Chart Transformation Into A Classic-Rock Act

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Whatever you thought of her performance at this year's Super Bowl, Madonna's halftime appearance had the desired effect: It drummed up awareness for her first album in four years, the longest recording gap of her career.

When the Billboard 200 album chart is tallied in the middle of this week, Madge's new disc MDNA is expected to dominate handily, with anticipated first-week sales of at least 300,000 copies. That tally would put MDNA solidly in the middle of the pack of Madonna studio-album debuts since the turn of the millennium—ranging from a low of 241,000 copies for 2003's American Life to a high of 420,000 for 2000's Music. All of these albums debuted atop the album chart, and MDNA will be her fifth consecutive No. 1 studio album, after Music, American Life, Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) and Hard Candy (2008). That streak outdoes her previous three-album run of chart-toppers, Like a Virgin, True Blue and Like a Prayer, notched in her '80s heyday.

The debut of MDNA will also mean the album chart and the Hot 100 are simultaneously topped by recordings boosted by the 2012 Super Bowl. "We Are Young" by fun., heading toward its fifth week as Billboard's No. 1 song, hurtled up the chart in February after its appearance in a Chevy commercial that debuted during the game. Never, ever doubt the promotional prowess of America's national consumerist holiday.

You might have expected the NFL's selection of Madonna as this year's halftime performer to draw scorn from the rock fans she's contended with for most of her career. There was some grumbling from the usual corners: KISS mouthpiece and former halftime performer Gene Simmons reacted to the announcement with predictably retrograde words; a Calgary radio station went into the big game with an "Anyone But Madonna Classic Rock Weekend" promotion.

But even as the postgame reviews came in mixed—some sniping about Madge's lip syncing and tentative dance moves, plus excess froth over guest M.I.A.'s middle digit—what was remarkable was how little the commentariat regarded Madonna as a dance-pop interloper. (Following up last year's halftime show by the Black Eyed Peas, a decidedly un-rock act, probably helped her.) Even without the axe-wielding bona fides of a Townshend or a McCartney or a Rogers-Nelson, few observers felt Madge was undeserving of the big game.

Such tacit acceptance was unthinkable a quarter-century ago, when Madonna was laying siege upon the Billboard charts and representing everything that was disrespectful and un-rock about popular music. Even back then, Ms. Ciccone was a strong concert draw, terrible vocals and all (from Virgin Tour '85 to Super Bowl '12, Madge's critics have browbeat her both for singing live and for not singing live).

But for the last decade-plus, Madge has been fully established as a top-drawer touring act, commanding Stones-level ticket prices and U2-size grosses. Like those rockers, Madonna continues to record heavily hyped new albums here and there, but she profits most from the nostalgia business and the ticket sales it generates.

So can we finally, once and for all, call Madonna a classic rocker? Whatever you think of the "rock" status of her music—which has only gone deeper into electronic dance tropes since Ray of Light 14 years ago—a careful study of the Queen of Pop's Billboard performance confirms that she doesn't really chart like a pop star anymore.


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