Lady Madonna

Regardless of how much you admire Madonna’s ability to reinvent herself over the last 20 years, there’s a point at which you see her on your TV screen for the millionth time and snore. No matter how many expensively-produced albums and impeccably orchestrated world tours Madonna churns out, no matter how many new styles and images and ideas she borrows from bohemian or gay or alternative culture, no matter how many times she makes headlines by giving birth or learning to enjoy a frothy pint of Guinness in an English pub or buying a new mansion or changing her hair color, at some point, she just doesn’t seem that interesting or relevant anymore.

But, like a relationship that ends suddenly, you don’t realize the feeling’s gone until it’s way too late. For me, it happened right before the release of Madonna’s latest album, American Life. She appeared on an MTV special called Madonna On Stage & On The Record, and despite the fraudience of hard-core fans assembled to gasp and swoon and hang on her every word, she looked sort of awkward and unspectacular. Even as she hit every mark like a career politician, providing just the right answers to each difficult question from the crowd, she averted her eyes and seemed uncomfortable with the role she chose for herself way back when she was a teenager.

Still, it’s strange to even contemplate a downward slide in popularity for Madonna when, just a few months ago, it seemed certain that her new album would be a hit. Her video for the title track, a montage of military images paired with an unapologetic attack on the crass commercialism of American culture, seemed both unnervingly in step with the times and remarkably bold, considering that so few artists saw fit to express their contempt for the hawkish shift in the public’s consciousness since September 11. In an uncharacteristically self-conscious move, she pulled the video, lest it be mistaken as a crassly commercial move to profit from the war in Iraq. While many have proclaimed her wise to do so, it signaled a more sensitive, caring Madonna. The question is, Do we really want a more sensitive, caring Madonna?

It seems that, while we weren’t looking, Madonna has become a little too evolved to be interesting. Her relentless flow of so-called exclusive interviews reveals a woman whose bluster and delusions of grandeur have dissolved into circumspection and philosophical musings, whose focus on the Kabballah has turned out to be more than the passing interest most initially assumed it would be. We’re all happy for her, of course, for finding religion and for having a seemingly satisfying family life. But the sad truth is that a mature, measured Madonna will never be nearly as exciting as the slutty bride who rolled on the floor singing “Like a Virgin.” As much as we learn about the perils of materialism and the joys of enlightenment and the evils of American arrogance, all delivered in that eerie British accent that makes you want to shake her until she snaps out of it, Madonna was a lot more fun when she wasn’t quite so intent on appearing healthy and well adjusted. While there’s still something unnerving about watching her calmly outline her newfound openness and spiritual rebirth on MTV, all the while barely masking her disdain for the fawning teenagers around her, such undercurrents of emotional dissonance hardly compare to the woman who, in her 1991 biopic Truth or Dare, interrupted a visit with her very Catholic father by dashing into the next room and flashing her boobs for the camera.

Setting aside her obvious skill for co-opting the underground, dysfunction has always been a big part of Madonna’s appeal. From “Papa Don’t Preach” to “Live to Tell,” her image and her music are an elaborate acting-out against her parents, society, overbearing men, and a parade of other demons. Her blatant hunger for fame and power at the start of her career, her vanity and self-involvement and shallow concerns in Truth or Dare, her isolation and paranoia and disdain for her fans during the filming of Evita, the masochism of her relentless, punishing exercise schedules—the contrast between her invincible image and such hints of mental and emotional weakness were tragicomic and mysterious and unfathomable. We felt privileged to understand Madonna better than she understood herself. And, like Princess Diana, despite her omnipresence in the media, Madonna’s weaknesses gave us the feeling that she needed our support.

Granted, there is some satisfaction that comes from seeing Madonna deriding her own bad taste and shallow interests, as she now does regularly, flinching at her big hair and shameless attention-seeking. But as much as her honesty might reflect a newer, healthier Material Girl, her evolution as a person may not coincide with an ability to maintain her dominance as an artist, considering we loved and embraced the sleazy, whiny, obsessive, out-of-control Madonna more, not just because she was more entertaining, but because she truly required our love more than this toned, centered, pitch-perfect specimen we now see before us.

Madonna, for one, doesn’t seem concerned about the price she might pay for evolving. When MTV’s John Norris asked her if she felt a responsibility to her audience to give them what they expect from her, she answered, “I think that my fans tend to be pretty expansive-thinking people who are always themselves looking for something new and something different, who are adventurous. So, I think we’re on the same wavelength. I think we’re feeling each other, so I don’t have to keep them happy; I think they’re on my journey with me.”

As expansive-thinking as such an answer may be, Madonna can’t ignore the fact that she designed herself as a multi-media pop artist, formed around images and gossip and grandiose visions and hints of emotional turmoil far more than around talent. While it’s perfectly fine for Beyonce not to boast and flounder and flaunt herself publicly because her appeal lies in her talent, for Madonna, talent has always been entirely beside the point. Her voice is remarkably trained and polished but never that rich or interesting, her dancing, when it’s not painstakingly choreographed, leaves much to be desired. That said, her knack for hiring talent is legendary. With the help of a revolving door of quality musicians, producers, choreographers, stylists, and designers, she manages to create the kind of spectacle—both in her videos and her stage shows—that’s absolutely irresistible to the public. Add to that an uncanny ability to stay in the headlines, paired with a skill for crafting tunes so catchy you can absolutely hate them on first listen and still find yourself humming them seconds later, and it’s clear that Madonna will always find a way to stay in the public eye.

Even so, every star has to fade eventually. Like Michael Jordan retiring for the third time or Celine Dion staging another fake-out farewell tour, Madonna’s turn as mild-mannered, spiritually fulfilled, middle-aged mother may be the one reincarnation that doesn’t spark the public’s interest. Her latest role may bring her happiness, but it does seem less likely to bring her fans.

Does that mean Madonna should give up what she believes just to maintain her popularity? Of course not. In fact, losing her power of celebrity may be the final stage of Madonna’s personal journey toward happiness. And I’m happy to see Madonna happy—as long as I don’t have to see her quite so often.