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Madonna – Celebration
[Warner Bros.; 2009]

“Time goes by so slowly,” goes the first line of Madonna’s silver-anniversary-or-so-in-showbiz collection, and she doesn’t quite make the case for that pronouncement. At the end of every decade, she puts out a greatest-hits set: 1990’s The Immaculate Collection was the kind of perfect straight-into-orbit retrospective pop artists dream of achieving, and if 2001’s GHV2 felt a little less epochal, it still collected a lot of magnificently melancholic dance songs from the following decade. Since then, she’s fallen off a bit– which is a strange way to describe eight years in which she’s recorded a dozen #1 dance singles, but “Hung Up” is really the only song from the post-GHV2 period that’s lodged in the American pop consciousness.

What Madonna is ostensibly selling here– the “celebration,” with its echo of her first hit, 1983’s “Holiday”– is 26 years of being Madonna, which does get a big gold star. (The chronological 47-video DVD version of Celebration is a lot closer to the mark: A lot of the fun of her career has always been its visual side.) But what she’s actually selling is an album, made for repeated listening, and that’s a trickier proposition. The 2xCD edition collects roughly half her singles, including everything on Immaculate except “Rescue Me”. For its first 12 minutes or so, it’s incredibly strong– the opening sequence of “Hung Up” into “Music” into “Vogue” is a convincing argument for her genius.

Then the sequencing turns random or even unfortunate. Following that opening salvo with the pallid “4 Minutes” kills the first disc’s momentum. Beginning the second disc with eight pre-1988 tracks can’t help but suggest that she peaked earlier than she actually did, and the “Take a Bow”/”Live to Tell” pair that follows a little later drags it into ballad purgatory. Putting “Erotica” next to “Justify My Love” has the peculiar effect of suggesting that sex was just something Madonna was interested in briefly (and following them with a new one in which she sings, “My sex is a killer/ Do you wanna die happy?” sours them in retrospect). And the title track (the other new one), a pro forma trance collaboration with Paul Oakenfold, comes off as less celebratory than obligatory: where the new songs on Immaculate pointed Madonna’s way forward for the next decade, these just sound like throwaways.

One critical line on Madonna was once that she was merely a trend-jumper, an appropriator of subcultural and dance-musical developments that she treated like so many berries ripe for the plucking. As it turns out, that’s exactly what’s made her special in the long term: Behind that not-quite-lovely bleat and the image she manages as carefully and transparently as, say, Cindy Sherman, her chief weapon is an unbelievably dead-on sense for what sounds and styles and sexualities are ready for the big time, and a sensibility that lets her spin four minutes of pleasure or melancholy out of anything. The Madonna singles that hold up best over time, though (”Ray of Light”, “Papa Don’t Preach”, “Don’t Tell Me”, “Secret”), aren’t just celebrations or ballads; they’ve got a sense of sadness or gravity that’s illuminated by the glimmering light of the disco ball. There’s a lot of remarkable music on Celebration– the work of an artist who’s spent a quarter-century in a passionate body-lock with the question of what exactly makes pop music popular. She deserves a retrospective more interesting than this haphazard piece of contract-filling product.


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