As recent headlines prove, it's too late for Madonna to reinvent herself as the mature artist she could have been.
It might seem a peculiar moment to call time on Madonna, with her new album number one in the midweek charts (which will see her break the solo record set by Elvis Presley), and her world tour rapidly selling out. But I can't shake the feeling we are witnessing the last stand of the Material Woman.
For all the sleek modernity, contemporary electro groove styling and sharp, alluring marketing of her new offerings, there is something awry about Madonna's latest incarnation.
From the scene-stealing, finger-flipping incident with cheerleader MIA at the Super Bowl to the over-18 rating slapped by YouTube on a self-consciously provocative video for Madonna's new single, Girl Gone Wild, the once sure-footed pop tactitian has been made to appear out of step, no longer ahead of the curve but rather desperately trying to keep up. The latest unseemly twitter row with a DJ in a mouse helmet about alleged drug references exposes fault-lines in Madonna's attempts to stay in with the in-crowd.
No one emerges particularly well from the petty controversy about Madonna's onstage remarks at Miami's Ultra Music Festival, when she asked a club packed with dance enthusiasts “How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?”, a slang name for MDMA or Ecstasy.
Canadian superstar electro DJ Joel Zimmerman, who performs as Deadmau5, behaved like a petulant prude, taking to twitter to angrily denounce Madonna as “an idiot” appropriating “hipster speak for looking for drugs.”
“It really hurts me to see rampant advocation of extreme bullshit lifestyles,” Zimmerman grumbled, apparently in denial about the historic links between drug use and the techno music scene that has made him a star.
Yet for her part, Madonna was made to look weak and dissembling when she responded “I don't support drug use and I never have”, claiming she was actually making a spurious and irrelevant reference to a song called “Have You Seen Molly” by “my friend Cedric Gervais who I almost worked with on my album.”
That album Cedric “almost” worked on would, presumably, be the one called MDNA, which should in no way be confused with a reference to MDMA. And his throbbing two line techno track about finding Molly, “who makes me want to dance” is presumably about an Irish colleen leading him on a merry jig.
The undercurrent of this spat is that the 31-year-old Zimmerman is petulantly aggrieved at the 53-year-old pop veteran for jumping on the currently thriving electro bandwagon. “That's your big contribution to EDM (Electronic Dance Music)?' he complained. “Such a great message for young music lovers.” It is probably fair to say that Madonna has made a greater contribution to electronic dance music over the past three decades than the man in the mouse mask but pop has a short memory span.
There is a saying in the entertainment business: “You're only as good as your last hit.” And Madonna's last substantial global single hit was 4 Minutes (featuring Justin Timberlake) in 2008. Following the disastrous Revolver (which peaked at number 130 in 2009), the debut single for her new campaign, Give Me All Your Luvin, stalled at number 37 in the UK.
Her new single, Girl Gone Wild, seems unlikely to perform much better, since it is not being playlisted by any of the leading pop stations, BBC Radio One, Capital, Kiss or Heart, although her simpering ballad Masterpiece (from the WE soundtrack) has picked up plays with the other oldies on Radio Two.
There is an age divide in the singles market, as, indeed, there should be. Its an instant-fix, youth oriented, sex obsessed, dance-crazed, beat heavy, download world, and it is increasingly rare to find any veteran artists making an appearance, other than as a guest, a sample or a cultural reference (Mick Jagger's biggest chart smash in three decades was in the title of the Maroon 5 / Christina Aguilera hit Moves Like Jagger).
But what about albums? Long players are still the preference of mature music buyers, with the result that album charts have have become increasingly prone to retro trends featuring veteran artist and legacy releases. And Madonna is comfortably on course to hit number one this week, with midweek sales in the region of 40,000 in the UK.
This may be low by the standards of her glory days but it demonstrates that she still has the attention of a devoted audience. The question is how many of casual listeners will be back the following week, with no hit single to sustain momentum? And, more than this, what is the point of Madonna without hit singles?
You have to wonder if a saturated market place really needs a new album from any long established artist? It certainly helps if the artist is all about the music, offering a distinctive character and vision to attract continued interest even as their pop currency declines.
Great veteran stars like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are always going to have a strong core audience even if they are, effectively, only really speaking to the converted. Long may they reign, but it would be foolish for any of them to expect to hit the commercial heights of yore, when their breakthrough work was, effectively, the soundtrack to the times they were living through.
If a young consumer is going to buy an offering from a classic artist, from Elton John to U2, chances are they will start with a Greatest Hits collection and progress to albums long hailed as their finest work. The four million selling re-release of the Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street comfortably out performed any original Stones album of the past three decades. This is the position Madonna finds herself in now, as a heritage artist, with a huge live mainstream audience willing to pay to see her perform her greatest hits, but a declining core interested in her contemporary work.
If it is self-evident why anyone under thirty might not be interested in Madonna's take on modern pop (let's face it, to the girls screaming for One Direction, this is the equivalent of granny taking over the school disco), it begs the question why any discerning music lover over thirty should be interested in someone so focussed on appealing to people half her age?
Madonna's current sound is effectively the same banging electro you can hear blasting out of a teenager's bed room or fizzing on headphones in the playground, the sound of Rihanna and Lady Gaga. It is as if Madonna is competing with her own offspring. At her worst, her lyrics are lumpen appropriations of teenspeak, obsessed with sex and dancing, declaring with a tiresome addiction to cliché that “girls they just wanna have some fun” and attempting to woo a lover by promising “you can have the password to my phone.” I mean, please.
Most people I know of Madonna's age don't even know the password to their own phone, and have to ask their kids how to open it. As Helen Brown pointed out in her perceptive review of MDNA, “it's not that a woman of 50 has no right to be on the dance floor. But a woman who's putting so much visibly desperate energy into looking and sounding like a teenager is missing the point of pop, of parties… of life.”
There is neither wit nor wisdom to Madonna's songwriting, no sense of emotional depth or musical progress, just a relentless chasing after trends that sees her moving in musical circles in which she is no longer entirely comfortable, which is exactly what led to her twitter spat with Deadmau5. He may be being petty and ungracious, but he is right. There is something embarrassing about a 53-year-old mother of four speaking to a young crowd in street drug slang.
Like any truly great pop star, Madonna has been adept at comebacks and reinvention. She is still immensely popular, enjoying a hit album and about to embark on a hit tour. Yet it feels like this could be the last hurrah. Her next reinvention may be her most difficult yet: to find a way of making original music in an authentic style that comes naturally to her and addresses an audience of her peers, rather than trying to get down with the kids. Is it too late for Mature Madonna?