"The point," Taki Theodoracopulos has written in summarizing The Great Gatsby, "is that we can never really be someone else. We are who we are." That is also the point of Madonna's latest album, MDNA (Interscope).
Like James Gatz, the nom de womb of F. Scott Fitzgerald's greatest protagonist, Madonna Louise Ciccone has spent her adult life trying to be perceived as anyone but who she is-a good Catholic girl from Michigan whose sense of security was threatened by the early death of her mother and subsequent remarriage of her father.
Also like Gatz, Madonna is fascinating mainly to the extent that she hasn't succeeded.
If she had, MDNA would've been a quite different album, one characterized by Gatsby-like cool. Instead, driven by the pop zeitgeist's manic, electronic pulse, it's her most desperately vigorous attempt in years to convince the world that no matter how many headlines her legatees and peers make by dressing weirdly (Lady Gaga) or dying under mysterious circumstances (Whitney Houston), no one can touch her when it comes to the music. "There's only one queen," Nicki Minaj guest raps in MDNA's "I Don't Give A," "and that's Madonna."
There are enough third-person references to the "queen" throughout MDNA to signal anxiety over being forgotten. A group of what sounds like cheerleaders even chants "Madonna" in the refrain of the album's first single, "Give Me All Your Luvin'."
She also name checks some of her greatest hits by working their titles into her lyrics ("You can be my lucky star," "Like a virgin sweet and clean") and co-opts phrases or titles hitherto identified with Cyndi Lauper ("Girls, they just wanna have some fun"), Sonny and Cher ("and the beat goes on"), and the Rolling Stones ("Some Girls").
From beginning to end, "girl" and "girls" are how she refers to herself and/or her competition for affection, terms that coming from a 53-year-old smack of denial. So much for keeping her insecure inner child under wraps.
Her inner Catholic keeps emerging too. She begins the album by reciting an act of contrition and in "I'm a Sinner" says part of the "Hail Mary" after imploring the aid of the Saints Christopher, Sebastian, Anthony, and Aquinas-all on an album that, linguistically, is her most vulgar. It's as if, despite her onstage raunch and her real-life hedonism and Kabbalah obsession, she knows that it's only a matter of time before everyone sees through her Gatsby act and it's as Gatz that she'll have to face the music.