Black and white

Madonna isn't a failed icon; she's a failed artist

This year's Madonna is equal parts Mary J. Blige and Karyn White with some Jade and Janet thrown in, a white girl who fancies herself a soul singer but without the voice or talent to pull off such a feat. Where once she dominated her albums, her just-above-average voice defining the material often written by others, now she's even more inclined to sit far back in the mix, a generic nothing filling in the gaps of generic material. Madonna once had a great talent for using black music to hide her whiteness; now, it only highlights the blindingly obvious.

She relies on the sounds and words of others to get her through, sampling old and new works (from Lou Donaldson's "It's Your Thing" and Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" to Aaliyah's "Back and Forth" and Main Source's "What You Need") and leaning on the production and songwriting of such top-notch R&B names as Dallas Austin, Babyface, and Dave Hall (the last being famous for his work with Mariah Carey). There's not one distinctive or memorable song among Bedtime Stories' 11 tracks; they are all funky in spite of her, songs on which the singer is incidental to the arrangements.

That's perhaps why Warner Bros. Records has released Bedtime Stories with little fanfare or promotion: a new Madonna record is no longer an event to be anticipated, just another indistinguishable CD to be shoved out there for consumption. Same thing happened to Prince with Come, a record that went from the number 2 position on the R&B charts to the 52nd slot in less than two months--slotted just underneath Babyface's own For the Cool in You, which has been on the charts for more than a year. Yesterday's genius superstar is today's old fart who can't keep up with the competition; where Prince and Madonna once set the musical trends, now they struggle just to maintain the pace, their "genius" limiting their "growth" until they become passe and quaint. (Which explains why, on November 22, Warner Bros. is releasing Prince's much-bootlegged Black Album six years after the label deemed it too experimental and raunchy for general consumption.)

When held up against 1990's The Immaculate Collection--an album that, love it or hate it, defines almost every single pop (culture) moment of the past decade--Bedtime Stories is two stumbling steps backward, an album of "romantic" cliches and self-referential moanings. Throughout her career, she has managed to avoid separating her myth and her music, using one to foster the other but never as a prop. But now, she has linked them in the breathy affirmations of a superstar who sees herself as a "Survivor" who says that "if you give me respect / then you'll know what to expect."

She makes explicit the things she only once implied: "I'm not sorry," she sings on "Human Nature," "I couldn't talk about sex / I musta been crazy." And then, with the very next line, she addresses her detractors and those who would dismiss her by wondering, "Did I stay too long?"--a rare moment of introspection, perhaps, a dropping of her guard, but then she dismisses it with casual sarcasm: "Oops, I didn't know I couldn't speak my mind / What was I thinking?"

Certainly, all of Madonna's work is linked with her private-public life; it's impossible to listen to any of her songs without conjuring up its accompanying video or recalling the failed marriage to Sean Penn or her various relationships that border near parody (from Sandra Bernhard to Vanilla Ice to Dennis Rodman--who's next? Debbie Gibson? Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez?).

But the two remained separate entities, the product of a woman who said she would never allow her image to consume her music. That would be too easy and too lazy--two things you would have never associated with Madonna just a few years ago.

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