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Bittersweet Candy

For many fans, Hard Candy is a turning point in Madonna’s career. For the first time, the Queen of Pop jumped onto the bandwagon instead of setting new trends. Let’s have a closer look at the flaws of this underperforming album.

At the end of 2006, Madonna once again ruled in the music industry. Confessions on a Dance Floor had sold in nearly 9 million copies worldwide, Hung Up shifted nearly as many units, and the Confessions Tour was proclaimed the highest-grossing female tournée ever! On the top of that, she once again provoked a religious scandal, just like she did in her heyday. In the meantime, adopted a baby from Africa and looked better than before. Impressed by Madonna’s top form, the whole world was impatiently waiting for her next move…

The ideas for her next album were originally discussed as early as December 2006. Initially, Madonna was down for exploring disco music further, much to Stuart Price’s liking. Warner Music also favored the potentially successful idea of continuing the disco era into Madonna’s next album, which was expected to be her last for the label, as nothing indicated that she’ll extend the expiring contract. Pet Shop Boys were invited to work on the new material, but the collaboration ended as quickly as it began. Why? After more in depth analysis of global sales of Confessions on a Dance Floor, Warner’s enthusiasm cooled down as a worrying pattern started to emerge. The album as well as its singles, were huge hits around the world, except for the States. True, over 1.5 million copies sold wasn’t a bad result, but when compared to performance in other countries, it was clear that Americans hadn’t really fell in love with Madonna’s disco incarnation. So what music did they enjoy at that time? Well, a blend of pop, R&B and rap, commonly known as urban pop. The charts were dominated by that genre, and some of the biggest names at that time were Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Timbaland and even Nelly Furtado, who suddenly decided to explore this style in her career.

The conclusion was simple – to win the American market, Madonna needs the same sound on her next album. She didn’t need to be convinced as for the last several months her favorite CD was Justin’s FutureSex/LoveSounds. She decided to conquer the dancefloor once again – but with a more US-friendly material. Stuart Price didn’t like the idea and refused Madonna’s invitation to collaborate on the album.

The first weeks of 2007 were spent discussing possible directions and looking for producers. On January 25th, at the premiere of Arthur and the Invisibles, in which Madonna dubbed one of the characters, journalists from the British Radio 1 asked her about the new album. I have not started yet but I will soon. I fancy more dancing – she replied, and kept the promise when only weeks later was reported as making new music in LA. In an interview for Sirius Radio she revealed that her partner in the studio is the famous American vocalist and producer, a member of N.E.R.D., Pharrell Williams. One of the first songs they created was Candy Shop, full of sexual allusions and Pharrell’s trademark production. She was so pleased with the result that she knew she wants to continue working with him. The pair also cut Hey You, a special track written for the Live Earthconcert which was scheduled for July. The mellow guitar and strings ballad, showcasing an uncomplicated melody and recycling some of her older lyrics, was not anywhere near as good as Imagine. It was written for a good cause though, so the fans quickly forgave her that little misstep.

It was obvious from the beginning that Pharrell alone won’t produce the entire record, so in between recording sessions Madonna’s manager Guy Oseary contacted Justin Timberlake. He explained how much she loves his latest album and suggested that they record something together for her forthcoming LP. Initially, Justin couldn’t believe that this collaboration could ever come true, but, naturally, was delighted at the prospect of working with the Queen of Pop. After several weeks, the phone rang again, this time from Timbaland, who had worked closely with Timberlake and who was in charge of production on FutureSex/LoveSoundswhich Madonna loved so much. Such a high-profile collaboration couldn’t be kept a secret for too long, so in early April Madonna’s press agent, Liz Rosenberg, had to confirm that the trio is working on music for her client’s new album. The feedback from Madonna’s fans was mixed – new smash hits would be very welcome, but on the other hand, no one was too excited about potential R&B influences and duets with either guy. When two Pharrell-produced demos, Candy Shop and The Beat Goes On, leaked online in July and August 2007, situation didn’t get any better. Good melodies didn’t make up for numerous flaws – mediocre lyrics, repetitive sound and archaic production. But the strongest complaints were addressed towards Pharrell’s vocal contribution in both songs, and rap, which most Madonna’s fans simply despise. Further information reported that final versions would sound completely different to those early demos.

Madonna, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake (2008)

Meanwhile, Madonna was working with Timberlake and Timbaland in a studio in Notting Hill, West London. According to Justin, the Queen of Pop was very well prepared, and would always turn up with a notebook full of complete song lyrics, single phrases and poems. The collaboration was going smoothly and the trio communicated very well. Miles Away and Devil Wouldn't Recognize You were first two songs they created together, although the latter was simply a re-worked version of a track Madonna wrote back in 2004 for a musical she never completed. Another song from that session, Is This Love (Bon D'Accord), was also completed with Justin and thus became Voices. Initially, Timberlake’s vocal contribution to new songs was quite substantial, and only in the final phase of production was his part reduced – although some songs on the final album could still be classified as duets. Production was handled by Timbaland supported by his usual collaborator, Danja. For the first time in many years, Madonna didn’t participate in the production stage, and although she wasn’t happy with such arrangement, eventually accepted Timbaland’s working pattern – he hardly ever allows anyone else get involved in this process. The collaboration was so productive that as early as September, he was heard bragging on MTV about 10 fantastic songs he had made for Madonna’s album. He promised to bring back the old-school Madonna sound circa Lucky Star and Holiday, but mixed with R&B flavor. The producer also confirmed that Pharrell’s Candy Shopwill make the album but didn’t reveal if the final version is any different from the one leaked online. At that point, the album shaped up to be almost entirely produced by Timbaland who poked fun at Pharrell, saying that he should get back to work if he doesn’t want to end up with a sole track on Madonna’s album.

That possibly had an impact on Williams’s next recording session with Madonna which took place in October in Los Angeles. Pharrell presented her several songs which he had worked on with his team of songwriters and session vocalists, such as Heartbeat. Madonna liked them so much that she decided to record them, of course, adding changes to the lyrics and production. The previously leaked The Beat Goes Onhas now been transformed into a dance club hit. An unexpected guest on the track was Kanye West, who happened to be recording with Michael Jackson in a studio next door. Just hours before his flight, West hurriedly wrote and recorded his rap part. Thanks to Justin, an older Timbaland’s demo, Infinity, ended up in Pharrell’s hands and after general changes was turned into Give It to Me. The name was then tipped as the new title of the album, which now wasn’t going to be exclusively Justin and Timbaland’s work.

Warner Music premises shortly before the listening party, December 3rd2007 (New York)

In the meantime, big news shocked the world: after 25 years, Madonna chose not to extend her contract with Warner Music, and instead signed a 10-year deal with Live Nation for an astronomic sum of $120 million. That meant the new album would be her last studio offering for Warner. Many believed that both sides will do their best to promote the project and make it a huge success. When the material was ready it was time to present it to the label and on December 3rd, Liz Rosenberg threw a listening party in Warner’s headquarters. Its motive was anything sweet: candies, lollipops, there was also a champagne. Slightly anxious Madonna informed the guests that final mixing had taken place only days before, and the new album, at that point still titled Give It to Me, includes 13 tracks, and will premiere at the end of April.Candy Shop and 4 Minutes to Save the World were played first, not at all by accident, as the two tracks were competing to become the lead single. Madonna’s personal favorite was the former, but to her slight irritation, the duet with Justin was received much more enthusiastically, and indeed sounded like an instant hit. Later, in random sequence, Madonna played 8 more songs: Give It to MeMiles AwayDevil Wouldn't Recognize You, She's Not MeHeartbeatVoices, Dance Tonight, and The Beat Goes On, making it clear that the latter won’t be a single. After the event, Madonna had no doubt which song will launch the promo campaign for the new album as barely 2 weeks later on Z100 radio Timbaland was heard announcing Madonna and Justin’s new single for January 2008. On December 16th, Timbo unexpectedly played 2 minutes of the song at the Jingle Bell party in Philadelphia. A low-quality recording from the event was uploaded onto the Internet, sparking many negative opinions. Fans were complaining about Timbaland’s predictable production, his beatbox, Justin’s vocal being too prominent and Madonna’s barely noticeable. As with Candy Shop and The Beat Goes Onearlier, some were hoping that the leaked track was just a remix or an alternative take of the song, and that the official version would sound different, what was rumored at that time.

With the lead single finally picked, the next step was to film the video, which have been commissioned to the French duo Jonas & François. Filming the 4 Minutes to Save the World video was scheduled for the last 3 days of January and the photoshoot for the album’s artwork was planned for December 21st with Steven Klein. Madonna decided that her next reinvention will be a sexy boxer M-Dolla – the nickname was coined by Pharrell who called Madonna just that during their recording sessions. A ring was set up in a London photo studio and Bea Åkerlund prepared a number of boxing outfits for Madonna. Upon special request, Rico Mann of Reggie Parks Championship Beltsdesigned a unique 24-karat gold boxing belt for the singer. It sported the title of the album and the name of Madonna’s new alter ego. The photoshoot took the whole day and at some point Madonna painted her face black, instructing Klein to continue taking pictures. She went on to joke that one of these images should make the album cover, which she now was going to call Black Madonna. When Guy Oseary realised that she’s not joking, he quickly talked her out of this controversial idea...

The belt was custom-made for Madonna by Rico Mann of Reggie Parks Championship Belts

But when Madonna saw the pictures, she was far from happy. Rumor has it that they sparked a serious row between her and Klein, and eventually the singer only used a handful of his pictures. Several months later, in an act of ‘revenge’, Madonna decided not to work with him on promo pictures for the new tour. Instead, she called a new photo shoot, transformed herself back into M-Dolla, and invited Tom Munro to take new pictures – she has previously worked with him on the ELLEmagazine photo shoot. Unsuccessful session with Steven clashed with Madonna’s concept of the album. What’s more, Warner Music complained about the album’s title, pointing out that the identically titled big hit by Timbaland was still well-remembered by the public, and from the marketing point of view it would be a major gaffe. Other titles were taken into consideration, but Madonna staunchly wanted it to have something to do with candies and Candy Shop, which now wasn’t going to be the lead single. Sticky and Sweetcame up as a suggestion, but eventually the album was christened Hard Candy, which seemed like a perfect compromise between Madonna’s ‘sweet’ inclinations and the tough boxer image. It was also high time the best tracks were selected and the tracklist finally closed. It turned out that contrary to Timbaland’s bragging, only 5 of his songs made the album. Such cuts as Across the SkyAnimal and Latte were left off in favor of Pharrell’s productions. The fate of She's Not Mewas on the line until the last moment, but in the end the song was included in the official tracklist. At the turn of March and April 2008, the title, the tracklist, and the artwork were all ready, and Madonna’s 11th studio album was fully realised.

That’s everything about the making of Hard Candy, the album which many consider a turning point in Madonna’s career – but a rather negative one. Why? There are many reasons. The fans’ dissatisfaction started long before the release date. There was no way that the most orthodox fans were going to embrace the overly American production and collaborations with mainstream musicians. The Queen of Pop, who’d always set new trends, this time decided to follow popular fashions. What’s worse, she arrived late to the party - when the record landed in stores, quite a few artists had already explored the same style on their albums. The music industry was over-dominated by Timbaland’s ubiquity who produced for everyone and anyone, rehashing his own ideas… Hard Candypaled in comparison to Nelly Furtado’s Loose, which came out two years earlier – it presenting itself as its younger, but less exciting and uglier sister. Some fans could put up with Timbaland, Justin or Pharrell’s involvement in production, but the problem was that each of them had, to some extent, also contributed vocally to nearly every song. Up to that point, Madonna was quite considerate when it came to duets – before 2008, she only did it a handful of times. She teamed up with Prince on 1989’s Like a Prayer, Babyface contributed backing vocals on Bedtime Stories in 1994, and she made guest appearances on Ricky Martin and Britney Spears’ albums in 1999 and 2003, respectively. Analogically to Bedtime Stories, Madonna decided to get popular producers on board to try to win American audience, and the effect was similar – only one big US hit, supported by another major artist, and an album which didn’t leave a lasting impression. Maybe comparing 4 Minutesto Take a Bowis unthinkable, but regardless of their individual artistic merits, both had one mission to complete – number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Although 4 Minutesfailed to achieve that, its peak in the Top 3, ten weeks in the Top 10 and decent airplay is more than Madonna could dream of after 2003. In this aspect then, the collaboration with the Timbaland/Timberlake duo was very successful.

Another reason behind the album’s underperformance is the lack of solid promotion, especially when compared to media storm which accompanied Confessions on a Dance Floor. What didn’t disappoint, was only Madonna’s presence in magazines – she appeared on such high-profile covers as Vanity FairELLE, Dazed and Confused, Interviewand more. But they all looked completely unrelated and seemed to lack a keynote which would unify the new image and the music. M-Dolla simply didn’t cut it, failing between one photoshoot and another, which – as gorgeous as they were – revealed completely nothing about the new Madonna. Speaking of image, one can’t forget about Madonna’s 50thbirthday, a stressful factor she had to face at that time, no matter how badly she tried to avoid it. Advancing interference of plastic surgery (the infamous ‘new cheeks’…), revealing outfits – all that came across as desperate attempts to show sex-appeal, which she undoubtedly still had, but tried a little bit too hard to prove it.

Instead of traditional promo tour around the world, countless interviews and gigs, she opted for a simplified format – a so-called ‘press junket’ in Los Angeles, where for the whole day Madonna answered questions from international journalists, and each of them had about 15 minutes to interview her. When asked about Hard Candy, Madonna didn’t show much enthusiasm, seemed bored and annoyed, especially when approached with inquisitive questions about lyrics on the album, which related to much-rumored crisis in her marriage with Guy Ritchie. Well, there’s no doubt that in early 2008 their marriage only existed on paper. The official announcement of their divorce was postponed by nearly a year, and although they tried hard to keep up appearances on the red carpet, the gossip press wasn’t at all convinced. The media preyed on their relationship issues, Madonna’s alleged romance with baseballist A-Rod, and the infamous book by her brother Christopher Ciccone, which presented a very unflattering image of her… and the music served as a mere background to all that media circus.

Warner had planned an expansive promo for Hard Candy, but Madonna decidedly rejected the idea, admitting during an interview for Jo Whiley that she’s tired of travelling around the world to promote only one song at a time, the way she had done with Hung Up. Instead of that, 3 mini concerts took place in New York, Paris and London, which gathered good reviews and raised hopes that the next tour will be at least as effective. The Sticky & Sweet tour actually turned out to be the bone of contention between the singer and Warner. Seniors at the label had expected Madonna to put all efforts into promoting her last LP for them, but their hopes died when instead of that she embarked on the long tournée for her new employer, Live Nation.

Alternative fan-made versions of the album cover using outtakes from the photoshoot (by lukau13)

If Madonna was involved in promoting anything, it was her non-musical projects – the self-directed feature Filth & Wisdom and the documentary I Am Because We Are about orphans in Malawi, which for obvious reasons was close to her heart. Both films coincided with the release of the album and although Madonna tried to give each project an equal amount of attention, the result was easy to predict – each project suffered the same.

The bad habit of trying too many things at once is following Madonna to this day. Her love for film is still strong, and with every new side project she spreads herself too thin. Although profitable, her business endeavours have started to erase the border between Madonna the artist and Madonna the businesswoman. She no longer compromises the two areas with skills and grace, and the perfect image comes across as chaotic.

It needs to be pointed out that although Hard Candyfailed to please Madonna’s regular fanbase, it certainly wasn’t – as it’s often repeated – a commercial failure. Although it didn’t match the global success of Confessions, it sold fairly well compared to other 2008 releases and even made the top 10 of the best-selling albums of the year by American artists. 4 Minuteswent number 1 in over 20 countries, selling in over 4 million copies, and in the USA it was her most successful single since Vogue. Give It 2 Mewasn’t half as successful as its predecessor, but definitely was a major radio success in Europe and earned Madonna another Top 10 hit in the UK. As for Miles Away, it’s hard to measure its actual performance as the video was shelved due to the divorce. Anyway, the concert montage which later surfaced on the DVD Celebrationwouldn’t have escalated its very modest success. To sum up, Hard Candymay not be Madonna’s brightest moment, but considering the state of the music industry at that time and poor promotion, the album is far from the spectacular flop it is often perceived as.

If the album was the precursor of anything, it was definitely something negative and worrying, namely Madonna’s limited and hurried involvement in creating music. There are songs on Hard Candyto which she barely contributed as songwriter or producer – contrary to what credits in the booklet indicate. The same thing happened during recording new tracks for Celebration, and to an even greater extent on the next studio album, MDNA. Is that a temporary slacking or the direction Madonna has knowingly chosen? It’s too early to give a definite answer. She has been regularly criticised in the past, even when she came up with better albums than Hard Candy. Let’s hope she’ll soon recover from the artistic dip, and this album will be remembered as a sweet misstep. Because, to be frank, the ‘Candy’ wasn’t thatbad – it was just served too late.

PG  / English version: Matt Zaremba

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