On the Depressing Suckiness of Madonna's "4 Minutes"
A bad sitcom waiting to happen
"4 Minutes," the new Madonna single, is already the biggest hit she's had since "Music" eight years ago. This is weird. "4 Minutes" is not a good song. It's not even a bad song in the immediate all-hook way that, say, Ray J's "Sexy Can I" is a bad song. "Sexy Can I" at least sticks in your head for an hour after you hear it. When I'm not actually listening to "4 Minutes," I have a hell of a time remembering how it goes. And yet the song is doing huge numbers over on iTunes, selling better than the new Mariah Carey and Usher tracks even though it isn't getting the radio saturation that both of those songs are. The iTunes chart is a weird little bastion of democracy; for better or worse (and mostly for better), songs do well there because people want to hear them enough to spend pocket-change on them, not because label execs and radio-station program directors are shoving the songs down everyone's throats. People apparently actually want to hear "4 Minutes," and since the song doesn't have anything much in the way of melody or beat or hook, I'm left assuming that the song is doing well based on name-recognition alone. "4 Minutes" features Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, and the marquee value of their pairing with Madonna is astronomical. All three of them are pop-radio survivors and champion adapters, and they've all been responsible for some insane number of great pop singles. Given the level of talent at work here, "4 Minutes" should be transcendent. Instead, it's a a flat, cynical, joyless bid for pop-radio hegemony.
I wrote a while back that Justin Timberlake and Timbaland should take a break from each other. As much as I loved FutureSex/LoveSounds, the initial spark between those two is long gone, and it recedes further into the distance the more often they play mercenary to whoever can afford them. On that album, it seemed like they were testing their own limits and each other's, figuring out where they could push their ideas. But after redefining their parameters, they settled into their drippily twitchy post-rave pop thing. The singles they did for 50 Cent and Duran Duran felt slapdash and thrown together, like they were auctioning off whatever half-formed ideas didn't make the album. I don't know who's responsible for which parts of "4 Minutes," but it at least doesn't sound like a FutureSex outtake. Instead, it's a whole new form of turgidly dry club-track. The tuba-fart marching-band beat sounds like something Timbaland might throw together first thing in the morning, wiping away eye-boogers, after he'd been dreaming about "Hollaback Girl" all night. Timberlake, meanwhile, doesn't dance over the track with his usual graceful panache. Instead, he just sort of bleats just underneath it, and his hiccuping ad-libs are straight-up self-parody. As for Madonna, I can't remember ever hearing her sound less alive than she does here. Both she and Timberlake sing against the track's rhythm, and she declaims all her lines in a flat, icy monotone that she's been using in interviews for a while now but that she's thus far managed to avoid in song. She and Timberlake are supposed to be trading slick little pick-up lines, but their lack of chemistry is borderline absurd. Everyone involved in the track seems to be operating on serious autopilot, like the song is beneath their effort.
It made sense for 50 Cent and Duran Duran to rent the TimbaLake hit machine; nobody expects those guys to be making left-field artistic decisions at this point. With Madonna, though, it's just a depressingly obvious choice. The last time we saw her, she was working with Stuart Price, who'd been known mostly as the little guy with the keytaur and the blindingly red dye-job from Les Rhythmes Digitales before she'd gotten ahold of him. The great pop moment from 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor was "Hung Up," which threw a muscular house beat behind a twitchy half-obscured Abba sample and which neatly predicted the current inescapablility of coked-up French filter-disco. Other than maybe American Life, every previous Madonna album has had at least one great moment like that, one that snatched up a new collaborator or a new idea before it'd had time to completely trickle into the mainstream. Maybe her upcoming Hard Candy will have a moment like that one, but this sure isn't it.
When Madonna performed with Gogol Bordello at Live Earth last year, it was a total mess, but at least it was a leap. She's still plugged-in and courageous enough to try some left-field shit like that. But "4 Minutes" finds Madonna working with the exact same team that every would-be pop-star is seeking out. It's not a leap at all, and the total lack of energy and excitement in Madonna's voice is a testament to that. She can do better, even if she apparently doesn't need to.
Voice review: Rob Harvilla on Madonna at Madison Square Garden
Voice review: Joan Morgan on Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor
Voice review: Jessica Winter on Madonna's American Life
Voice review: Phil Dellio on Madonna's Music
Voice review: Jane Dark on Madonna's Ray of Light