In Praise of Madonna

Love her or hate her--but give her some respect.

Even crummy movies couldn't break the spell--and goodness knows, Madonna has made a load of them. She was okay in Desperately Seeking Susan and Dick Tracy, pictures that she didn't have to carry, but Shanghai Surprise, Who's That Girl? and Body of Evidence (in which Madonna and a pained-looking Willem Dafoe did the nasty on a car hood covered in broken glass) were embarrassments largely because their writers and directors didn't understand her charisma nearly as well as she did. Evita, from 1996, missed the mark as well, but for more complex reasons. By the time it was finally made, the flick's Meatloaf-friendly music felt dated, and the visuals assembled by director Alan Parker were more stiff than sweeping. Worse, Madonna buried her distinctiveness in order to prove to Hollywood types that she could play their game. As a result, she faded into the background even when she was front and center.

That certainly wasn't the case with 1991's Truth or Dare, in which Madonna gives her best onscreen performance as...herself. A documentary ostensibly directed by Alek Keshishian but obviously controlled by the object of the camera's affection, it probably contains more dare than truth. But in its delineation of the on-tour Madonna as provocateur, den mother, hedonistic revolutionary and lover-in-command (in her presence, then-paramour Warren Beatty becomes a stammering twerp), it does a fine job of demonstrating why she prefers to be on top and how she's managed to stay there.

Sure, she makes the occasional misstep; her obscenity-laced 1994 appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman seemed as quizzical in its own way as did a flighty Farrah Fawcett's more recent chat with Dave. But brickbats seem to bounce right off her. When she decided to form her own label, Maverick, Madonna was given little chance of success; it's nothing more than a vanity imprint, many sniffed. Today, though, the company is thriving--and not only because she records on it.

The latest Maverick platter, Ray of Light, is, predictably, a deft piece of work. The electronica vibe Madonna emits seems far more appropriate coming from her than from, say, U2; she's made dance music for years, so it's only natural that the sound would catch her ears. Just as important, she was sagacious enough to balance the contributions of co-producer William Orbit, one of the most gifted figures in electronic music, with the tunesmithing of Patrick Leonard, a longtime Madonna collaborator with a solid pop sensibility. Hence the sonic palette never overwhelms the songcraft. Just when tracks like "Swim" and "Skin" seem ready to float off into the machine-driven ether, a strong melody or an irresistible hook blows the fog away. The tempos, meanwhile, put the accent on sensuousness: The title track, which doesn't skimp on bpms, is enjoyable, but it pales in comparison with "Nothing Really Matters," in which danceability is mated with a luscious tempo that coaxes a listener along rather than seizing him by the scruff of the neck.

The spirituality at the heart of the music and lyrics on many of the numbers is overt: Madonna claims to have gotten into Hinduism, yoga and the Kabbalah, and she wants everyone to know it. But her dabblings in this arena aren't entirely cringeworthy. "Shanti/Ashtangi," with lyrics in Sanskrit taken directly from the Yoga Tarovali, is so obviously dilettantish that it's mildly embarrassing, but "Frozen," the full-length's initial single, blends Middle Eastern melodies and Western pop to alluring effect. (In the latter, she sings, "Mmmmm, if I could melt your heart," and then proceeds to do just that.) Other couplets--like, "I traded fame for love/Without a second thought/It all became a silly game/Some things cannot be bought," from "Drowned"--champion the transformative powers of motherhood in an echo of countless Redbook cover stories. Scribes who find it easier to write about words than music have charged Madonna with hypocrisy for this stand, but by doing so, they're playing into her hand. Only Ms. Ciccone could shock people with the declaration that having and raising children can be a positive experience.

The adultness of Ray of Light may limit its commercial prospects: While it's arguably the first Madonna offering that sounds as good from beginning to end as it does song by song, most of the tunes are not as accessible as her biggest hits. But even if it doesn't sink the soundtrack to Titanic or move tens of millions of units, the CD is just what Madonna needed at this point in her career--a solid album that is grown-up without being staid, mature without being old-fashioned. Madonna couldn't have planned it better--and plan it she did, no doubt. Those of you who are hoping for the disc to flop and for Madonna to vanish from the scene will almost certainly be disappointed. Because she's not going anywhere for a long, long time.

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