As Madonna’s custody battle for Rocco heats up–and her tongue gets looser when it comes unloading her thoughts about Guy Ritchie onto Rebel Heart Tour audiences–it’s somewhat significant to take stock of one of her best breakup albums, MDNA, released on March 23, 2012. Unlike the sadness and regret of Like A Prayer, which she put out post-divorce from Sean Penn, there is nothing but rage and contempt toward Guy Ritchie present throughout MDNA, which came four years after their divorce.
Opening the record with “Girl Gone Wild,” Madonna makes a declarative stance about her newly single and free mindset in the wake of being shackled by the oppressive viewpoints of her husband, which prompted her to ask the question of her marriage, “How much am I willing to sacrifice?” Considering the attempts made at playing the English country housewife (as displayed with conviction in the August 2005 issue of Vogue)–something Madonna was never born to do–she even tried to appear at her utmost “good little missus” by making an appearance in Ladies’ Home Journal (also in 2005). All of this retooling of her image retrospectively seems like a cry for help from the prison of being misunderstood by a conventional-minded Englishman. While Guy Ritchie is a talent in his own right–especially including Swept Away, contrary to popular opinion–his background is too antithetical to Madonna’s for it to ever have worked.
The fact that Madonna would move to London, a city she always hated (just ask her about having to record the Evita Soundtrack there in 1996), is a testament, however, to just how much she was willing to compromise on the basis of love. After first getting pregnant with Rocco, born on August 11, 2000, Madonna married Guy later the same year on December 22. Their marriage seemed “flawless,” as Madonna noted, at first, but soon started to show “cracks in the veneer.” For a woman who has touted the mantra “Express Yourself” for her entire career, being tied to a man with a provincial view of women couldn’t have been a worse fit.
Perhaps this is what sparked the fury of the second track on MDNA, “Gang Bang.” As one of the most unique and uncharacteristic songs Madonna has ever released, “Gang Bang” finds her railing, “I thought it was you and I loved you the most/But I was just keeping my enemies close/I made a decision, I would never look back/So how did you end up with all my check?/Bang bang, shot you dead/Bang bang, shot you dead, in the head!” Her vitriol for him comes to life in the stage version of this song, performed for the MDNA Tour that commenced at the end of May in 2012. As she wields a gun and fights against various male attackers while holed up in a sleazy motel, Madonna finds catharsis in killing them all–each a representation of Guy and the love that failed between them.
Elsewhere on the album, “Love Spent” is a mournful rehashing of how she should have seen through Guy from the beginning, lamenting, “You had all of me, you wanted more/Would you have married me if I were poor?” Her accusation that his motivation in marrying her was monetary seems to hold weight when considering not only his lifestyle during their time together, but also the upwards of 92 million dollars he received in the divorce settlement. His callous assessment of the period he spent with her (“I’m glad I made money”) also proves Madonna’s theory. Her moroseness over the latent motives of Guy shine forth in her “Love Spent” lyrics, “Hold me like your money, tell me that you want me/Spend your love on me, spend your love on me.”
The notion that Madonna had to, in essence, bribe Guy to treat her with some level of husbandliness still doesn’t mask the fact that she was very much in love with him at one point, as indicated on the sixteenth track (yes, she’s one of the few who releases albums with more than twelve songs), “Best Friend.” Objectively looking at both of their hard-nosed personalities, Madonna sings, “You wrote me poetry, you had a way with words/You said you wanted more than just a pretty girl/Maybe I challenged you a little bit too much/We couldn’t have two drivers on the clutch.” Her openness and honesty about what went wrong in her relationship is part of what makes MDNA a dance album that stands very much apart from the frothiness of others, including the likes of her own–particularly the light-heartedness of 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. While signs of strife between them were evident by 2008’s (the year of their divorce) Hard Candy and the long distance lament presented by “Miles Away,” there can be no comparison to the brutal assault on Guy Ritchie–and love as a general concept–put forth by MDNA, which is not just an underrated breakup album, but an underrated album overall (often ranked as among her worst). Maybe raw emotions are too much for the masses. The faux torment of Taylor Swift breakup songs are all they can process.