Black and white

Four years ago, Madonna sat in her lush Beverly Hills hotel suite holding court with a handful of reporters who drooled into their microphones as they surrounded "the world's most famous woman," as one writer said upon introduction.

They came to ask her questions about Truth or Dare, the documentary that revealed, among other things, that Madonna's conversations with her acquaintances and co-workers are no more interesting than our own. But the questions asked of her that afternoon, by journalists who fawned over the superstar with the flush of adoration and fantasy, failed to penetrate the myth that Madonna and the media had conspired to create. Rather, the whole affair was like a parody of an interview, with Madonna on one side, telling the writers that the documentary was filmed in black-and-white to "hide my zits," and the journalists asking such questions as:

"What inspires you?"
"Do you feel isolated because of your fame?"
"There have been a lot of parallels between yourself and Marilyn Monroe. What do you see those parallels as?"

"If you could live at any other time in history, what time would that be and who would you be?" (Answers: the '20s, and dunno.)

"Do you consider yourself a goddess?" (To which Madonna answered an unexpected no.)

There was little discussion of her music, ostensibly the thing that had made her a superstar at first; it's difficult to believe there once was a brief moment, before she became synonymous with MTV, when her fans adored Madonna for the words she sang and the music she made instead of the rapid-fire images and disguises she projected.

When the discussion did turn toward her albums, she appeared momentarily taken aback. A writer asked her if she was worried that the media's--and, by implication, her own--tendency to make her into an icon would overshadow her music. Clearly, it was taking place even as the question was being asked; other writers in the room, disheartened at the line of questioning, began interrupting the question as it was being asked and cut off her thoughtful response.

"I suppose I have that fear, but it doesn't paralyze me," she said after a 10-second pause. "It basically...I mean, I sort of live with it, then I go on with my work. Maybe that makes me fight harder."

Not long after that came the Sex book fiasco, the laughably un-sexy Erotica album, failed attempts at acting in the R-rated sex-films Body of Evidence and A Dangerous Game, and the appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman where she uttered the word "fuck" like an extra from GoodFellas. If this was her attempt to battle the media-perceived image of Madonna as the seductress of shock and soft-porn, the fight must have been fixed before the bell rang. She did not heed the words of Jane's Addiction's Perry Farrell, who said that nothing is shocking--not even feigning a blow-job with one of Letterman's cigars on late-night TV.

But it is not so easy to dismiss Madonna as a washed-up icon whose value has diminished with each failed star turn, any more than it's simple to cast off Prince as a genius who's run up a tab that far exceeds his credit limit. In this age of instant celebrity, when people like Charlie Sheen and Steven Seagal and Anna Nicole Smith and all those supermodels and direct-to-video has-beens get the best tables at Planet Hollywood, we far too often forget that there are those icons who became famous because they once had something to say and a seeming abundance of talent that transcended mere fame-for-fame's-sake.

The Madonna of 1994 and of Bedtime Stories, her seventh album, is not nearly as interesting--as a singer, as a songwriter, as a performer, probably as a human being--as she was 11 years ago, when she released her eponymous debut album. Back then, she was a disco-queen reborn in the '80s, reclaiming a much-ridiculed and by-then long-forgotten genre for an audience that never stopped boogie-oogie-oogying. Her image--the Catholic-school boy-toy tramp selling pre-pubescent sex fantasies to boys and girls--never for a second overshadowed the music; she was a complete package in her earliest days as a lower-case star, a woman who flashed skin ("I'll do anything," she sang on "Burning Up," "I have no shame") and this tremendously wise knowledge of and use for pop and dance music that subverted both into some unidentifiable hybrid.

If Madonna was to be loved (or hated), she needed the musical material to justify her career, and she often delivered the goods. As her career evolved, so did her work: 1989's Like a Prayer was her most complete and fully realized album, more daring than a thousand photos of her hitchhiking in the nude. It was at once art-rock and funky, filled with lightweight froth about love ("Cherish") and self-serious ruminations about religion; if Madonna was a bundle of contradictions, then for the first--and, since then, only--time in her career she admitted them in music and lyric.

And then she resumed the star-trip, a road filled with ditches and break-downs and fiascos and embarrassing moments, all of which leads back to here, the starting point: Bedtime Stories, an album very much like Madonna's debut 11 years ago--recapturing the disco of the moment, top-40 R&B, and packaging it in a tight and shiny outfit that accentuates the flab of age. And surprise, Madonna has reinvented herself yet again--this time as a one-dimensional version of herself, as what she isn't instead of what she is. For a woman who, as Letterman says with facetious humor, likes to shock people, here's the Madonna that's most shocking of all: one that's surprisingly bland and familiar, a blatant knockoff of so many black female singers who straddle the fence separating funk and slick R&B.

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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