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In Praise of Madonna

It's easy to understand why most critics are reluctant to praise Madonna. After all, practically everything she does can be read two ways--laudable or laughable. Take, for instance, Sex, a 1992 photo book that quickly spawned epic waiting lists at libraries across the country. Sympathizers saw the supposedly erotic shots of Madonna and a panoply of freaks, perverts, supermodels and folks who'd obviously spent too much time on their Stairmasters as a bold declaration of sexual independence that tossed aside outmoded taboos like a used condom. Naysayers regarded the project as the most pathetic act yet by a congenital publicity whore.

Ray of Light, Madonna's latest CD, isn't likely to inspire combatants on either side of the battle to raise the white flag. The relatively serious nature of its songs should cheer boosters, but the album's use of electronica, that most overhyped of forms, will suggest trend-hopping to some, and others may see "Little Star," a loving ode to Madonna's baby daughter, Lourdes, as exploitative. This last reaction illustrates just how willing plenty of observers are to believe the worst about Madonna. When John Lennon released "Beautiful Boy," a tune dedicated to his young son Sean and allowed photographers and filmmakers to capture image after image of him cuddling the lad, the majority of music fans were enchanted. But as soon as Madonna and Lourdes appeared on the cover of a recent issue of Vanity Fair, cynics began painting her as a promiscuous Kathie Lee Gifford trying to win over skeptics on the back of her child.

Such charges further cloud Madonna's reputation, which is probably fine by her: She long ago figured out how to use controversy to her advantage. But it's unfortunate that her detractors are so inflexible, because even they should realize that she deserves credit for many accomplishments. Over the course of more than fifteen years in the public eye, she has developed a unique persona: strong, smart, manipulative, cunning, witty, melodramatic, willfully contradictory and completely in charge. Among today's female luminaries, only Barbra Streisand exhibits similar characteristics. But whereas Streisand remains interested in celebrity of a traditional, conventional sort, Madonna wants to rewrite the rules--and she does so regularly. To denigrate her as the epitome of style over substance is to miss the point; when someone has as much style as she does, the quality becomes substantive almost in spite of itself. Put another way, it's entirely possible to have little interest in Madonna's music and movies and yet still admire the way she does business. At an age by which most pop musicians have long since lost their luster (she'll be forty on August 16), she shows no signs of dimming. Her finest creation is not her art but her life, and it's getting more interesting all the time.

Madonna's upbringing in no way explains her rebel streak. She was born Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone in Bay City, Michigan, and even though she was only six when her mother died, she hardly lived in poverty; her father, an auto-industry engineer, ably supported her and her five siblings. Neither was she prevented from taking an artistic path: She started studying dance when she was a teenager and focused on this discipline during a brief stay at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a stint with Alvin Ailey's New York City-based dance troupe.

Madonna's involvement in music was minimal until one of her boyfriends recruited her to sing and play drums for a band called the Breakfast Club (this was several years before the release of the John Hughes film of the same name). After working for a time with disco singer Patrick Hernandez, who's remembered for "Born to Be Alive," she and pal Steven Bray started writing songs that eventually came to the attention of Sire Records. Her first club smash, 1982's "Everybody," was moderately catchy, but "Burning Up," which followed it, was more than that--its drive easily compensated for its somewhat chirpy tendencies. Neither seemed striking enough to catapult her to fame and fortune, and they probably wouldn't have, were it not for MTV. The video medium was coming into its own as a marketing tool when 1983's Madonna, her debut long-player, reached retailers, and she used it brilliantly. Today the clip for "Lucky Star," an engaging wad of danceable bubblegum, looks goofy; it consists mainly of Madonna, scantily clad in thrift-store chic, shimmying and mugging suggestively. But both the little boys and the little girls understood. Saleswise, Madonna was a triumph, and 1984's Like a Virgin became a bigger one. She was on a roll, and her cheerful naughtiness--the video for "Like a Virgin" found her cavorting in a white wedding gown--made sure that she kept rolling.

The barrage of Madonna songs that charted were sneered at by the intelligentsia, but many of them were undeniably potent. "Crazy for You," from the soundtrack of the forgettable film Vision Quest, was lively dance-floor fodder, and "Material Girl" was far more conceptually sophisticated than it seemed at first blush. (For proof, look no further than the "Material Girl" video, a takeoff on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in which Madonna portrays a saucier, more astute Marilyn Monroe.) Moreover, her occasional ventures into shlock like 1986's "Live to Tell" didn't hurt her popularity. Far from it: Her personality was so indelible that she was able to satisfy her core audience even as she appealed to an older, stodgier one. This attribute has kept her accountants fat and happy. As the years went on, she was able to sell as many copies of her prime tracks ("Like a Prayer," "Express Yourself," "Cherish," "Vogue") as her lousy ones ("Oh Father," "This Used to Be My Playground") simply because of who she is. She doesn't have a grip on America's imagination; she has a stranglehold.

 

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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