Madonnica

Imagine The Wizard of Oz but with Madonna in each of the climactic roles: she is the infinitely mighty Wizard, oohing and awing her subjects; she is the flawed, human-sized figure revealed behind both the curtain and the vast machinery of her own projection; and finally she is the girl redelivered from the profound Technicolor fantasy into her real life--now with a woman's wisdom.

This is, more or less, the narrative leading up to and incorporating Ray of Light, all of it meant to establish the new Madonna as older and wiser, human sized and recovered from grandiose mania. She's dishing up Sanskrit coffeetalk on her new album, and speaks these days of capital-K Karma and her Zen yoga practice. It makes sense, sort of. Buddhism's about effacing the self, and she's been chipping away at her primal self--Madonna the Pop Singer--all decade.

Her five '90s records have been left-handed projects: the pointedly indifferent Bedtime Stories; a ballad compilation; and the troika of Erotica, I'm Breathless, and Evita, each the soundtrack to an outside text. Okay, it's not exactly achieving No Mind, but at least she's not erecting colossal Madonna statues in the Third World. Nor merely marking time, plutonium clock--style, by the decay rate of her own fame. So instead she's an author, she's a mogul, she's an actress, she's a mom.

But if the fictional public, of which we're all a part, might have yearned to buy the allegory of Dorothy and the Wiz back in the day, in '98--with big radio and bigger video, with pure fame beamed real time into every home on the range--it's the sort of okeydoke no one goes for. There is no return of the real, really.

Still, you can't blame a girl for trying. There is no way to compete against the Eighties Pop Singer. Madonna's carefully post-shameless these days: the glossies capture her as "immaculately understated" with a haircut that says "don't notice me." She swears she'll never ever perform "Like a Virgin" again. On the new record, she just wants "to deal with my truth right now."

The problem is, she still has to compete in the marketplace--she can run from True Blue, but she can't hide from Celine Dion, whose cyborg bombast will crush Ray of Light like a bug. We know this; for the first time, we expect it. Madonna returns as the most successful underdog imaginable. Hey look, it's Single Working Mom vs. the Celinator!

In the dream of rehumanizing, boredom also is on her side. She took self-referential stardom to realms that would turn Andy Warhol's hair white, but by now she's pretty much played: Madonna, sexual politics, discourse of fame, yawn. Never mind that Lourdes kid--the Spice Girls are her true daughters, laughing at themselves all the way to the bank: feminism, girl power, blah blah blah.

Madonna once wore the audience's fanaticism and the crit/cult hysteria like a wedding dress and veil; now she's naked on the radio. Well, not really--she's never gonna get to the magic zero of context-neutral, of a bunch of sounds we can freely love or hate or ignore. But we can at least try to hear it, sitting in the listening room she's cleared out against the vast architectural ruins of her own phenomenon.

And the first thing we hear--almost inevitably, given her self-effacing vibe--is the stunning but ultimately misguided production of William Orbit. An early player in the ambient techno game, Orbit's served as Madonna's 12-inch mechanic on and off since "Justify My Love." Here he gets the keys to the jeep--there are almost no other musician credits--and proves that size counts, at least in budgets. Ray of Light sounds fathoms deeper than his own albums (recorded under 43 different noms d'electronica). It's musical mercury: inhumanly reflective surface over restless pools of swoon and swoop, shimmery and temperatureless. For the objectivist soundhead, the processed acoustic guitar at the beginning of "Swim" is worth the ticket alone; one of the three great guitar tones in memory (along with Mudhoney, "Touch Me I'm Sick," and the sampled riff in N2Deep's "Back to the Hotel"). Similarly thrilling touches pop up all over the disc: the Dopplered tom'n'snare in the lead single "Frozen"; the building and beguiling charts for "Drowned World (Substitute for Love)." That song is a production wonderland: drum'n'bass drowning in a river of Valium, while a different ultrasheen six-string sweetens the mix with digitized arpeggio. And hey, you get a vocal track too!

Ay, there's the rub. While it's true that Madonna's voice carries more depth and a richer timbre than in the past, the new sincerity is sort of a disaster. Back when she made fake so big there was no beyond, she could survive dopey lyrics. They were part and parcel of the moneymakin' pop/art joke, balanced over the lowest common denominator of the dancefloor. That was then. Nineteen ninety-eight's politics of meaning, her "truth right now," weighs heavier on the ear, wavering between therapy chitchat and Kahlil Gibranisms: "Never forget who you are, little star. Never forget how to dream, butterfly." Stop, you're hurting me. I suppose now's a good time to mention that Rod McKuen has a writing credit in here somewhere.

Yet it can't be true that there's no room in the musical universe for a serious Madonna. That argument's always been hooey; I take "Like a Prayer" as serious FM preaching and it moves me unfailingly. Hoodwinking the Andrae Crouch Choir into recording what a holy fuck ought to sound like may be over the top--but where else do you go when your idea is not that "2 become 1" but that two become all? A Madonna record that thinks the thoughtfulness lives in the lyric sheet is born into a semi-doomed life; and William Orbit's elegantly under-the-top sonics miss the point. Someone needs to remind her that she's a gospel singer.

She's never had the pipes of the great crossover gospelists, of Aretha, or Chaka Khan, or Dolly Parton. But Tramaine Hawkins also sings circles around Ms. Ciccone; I'll take the latter's platters. Gospel shouting in and of itself isn't very interesting. It's all about the tension in playing churchy abandon against the secular grain. Madonna's dancefloor gospel, bridging sexual and religious shamelessness, derives most directly from Chaka's, by way of Donna Summer: orgasm as a joyful noise unto the Lord. It's the jubilation that sold "Lucky Star" but is now too trashy for "Little Star"; the ecstasy that oughta be selling "Skin."

"I close my eyes, I need to make a connection," she says in that song. It's boilerplate and she knows it: "Why do all the things I say sound like the stupid things I said before?" Gosh, Madonna, maybe because they are: "I hear your voice, feels like flying," she sang once. "I close my eyes." But "Like a Prayer" was mysterious and sweaty and ecstatic, all about union. "Skin" just hangs around sounding shiny and pretty, and polite to the depths--a soundtrack nearly dissociated from the twice-told tale it's meant to accompany. Despite a vocal hook or two (for which we're grateful), the same dissonance renders "Frozen" a non sequitur: no matter how much she swears "You're frozen when your heart's not open," the music never wavers from absolute zero at the bone.

Such a chasm between sound and vision mirrors exactly the no-woman's-land the world provides for 39-year-old pop singers--lost to the hormonal urgency of youth, still a way from the mortal keening that lands you gigs at the Vatican. And it would be pleasing to end in suggesting that she's found something new in that wasteland, or conveyed its wastedness. But finally, she's at her best when she sneaks back into the old house for a few minutes in the title cut. She sells herself utterly to the big beat, like for now she's forgotten about introspection, the problem of the self, credibility, motherhood, Pre-Raphaelite coiffures--everything not currently rocking the disco cathedral. This one's between her and heaven: "Got herself a universe," she says, or maybe "goddess of a universe"--we'll believe either way. For the moment we'll believe anything, and we can hear the sound of her belief; for the only time on the record, she breaks into wails, loses language altogether. Then it comes back to her: "And I feel," she hollers, "and I feeeeel like I just got home."

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