Act of Contrition

Back when Madonna was deep into her silly season—starting as early as "Like a Prayer"'s bombast but really spinning out of control during the months of Truth or Dare, "Erotica," and (as we grade-school teachers call them) the picture book—it seemed to be an article of faith, certainly among pop writers, who were now paying closer attention to her than ever before, that she was this endlessly fascinating person whose every last public utterance merited some kind of analysis. You weren't supposed to be just a fan of her music anymore, and if that's as far as your allegiance (and attention span) extended, you were missing the bigger picture. Madonna was first and foremost about "transgression"—of taboos and assumptions surrounding sex, gender, race, religion, celebrity, the whole litany. She was debated on Nightline; the Pet Shop Boys, who put their name on more cerebral records, never even made it onto Sunday Morning With Charles Kuralt.

That was one version of Madonna, that she was slyly and perceptively rewriting the whole culture, but for me she was instead the ultimate slave to what one writer dubbed the John Waite Rule. In brief, the John Waite Rule says that John Waite and Bruce Springsteen hit upon a great record in exactly the same way: by trying this, that, and the other thing until every now and again, purely as a matter of luck, they hit paydirt. You can argue about specific cases, but for the great bulk of stuff out there, the rule is unassailable. And if anybody has made a career out of trying this, that, and the other thing—with this and that looking pretty foolish, while the other thing produces terrific results—it's Madonna.

Flash back to her infamous Letterman appearance, an emblematic souvenir of the Madonna Spectacle Industry. It's difficult to pinpoint chronology, but if memory serves, her obscene needling of Letterman came during a lull of some kind: in the months leading up to Bedtime Stories, or after the first single had run its course and faded—a point where nothing much was happening. As Madonna let loose and I sat there squirming, the embarrassment was double, not only for what seemed like her most desperate attempt yet to kick-start the publicity cycle, but also for the lurking suspicion that it would work, that there'd be a whole army of acolytes who'd interpret her Andrew Dice Clay impression as a brilliant affront to the Midwestern sensibilities of Letterman, his touristy audience, and that sweet old couple in the front row the camera kept cutting to for reaction shots. Instead, Letterman seemed to mark the end of Madonna's Camille Paglia period—or maybe it was "Human Nature," where Madonna petulantly complained that she didn't know she wasn't supposed to talk about sex, a little hollow at the precise moment when Adina Howard sat in the top 10 with the most outrageous fuck song imaginable. Sex talk on the radio had been commonplace for years; it was all those bald hermaphrodites and sadomasochistic Chihuahuas in the videos that left some of us mystified.

Ancient history by now, but for anyone who believes "Crazy for You" will long outlive "Justify My Love," a quick look back serves to underscore how gratifying Madonna's reemergence into normalcy has been post-Evita(one good song: Antonio Banderas cooing, "I know your name's Evita/'Cause your perfume's smelling sweeta/ Since when I saw you down on the floor"). Ray of Light,"Beautiful Stranger," and the new Musicare the work of someone worth rooting for again: a little older, a little humbled, happy just to enjoy the party and let others wear the lampshades, a bit of an underdog even. Motherhood, yes, but it would have happened anyway. When there's no one left to scandalize, you move on.

Musicbreaks down neatly into three discrete sections, on which I'll hang the very technical names the dance part, the good part, and the dirge part. The good part, so named because it's really good, accounts for half of Music's 10 songs, conveniently nestled into tracks four through eight inclusive, so you can play that section over and over again without interruption. (A moot point, perhaps, as CDs can allegedly be programmed according to your specifications anyway. Sounds complicated.) And seeing as some of the good part can be danced to and some of the dance part's good, just about any listening configuration should play well.

Nonetheless, "Impressive Instant," with its munchkin voices, elastic bassline, and impressive flashes of alliteration ("wingy-wingy-wingy" 's especially euphonious), would have been a better opener than the title song, which has already dashed inexplicably to number one. Anything purporting to celebrate music's powers of transcendence should be epic and transcendent itself, something along the lines of the O'Jays' "I Love Music," or that one about getting into the groove. "Music" instead gives you Daft Punk knob-twiddling and a thump-thump Teutonic beat, neither of which is going to transport anyone anywhere. "Impressive Instant" also shares some useful inside information should you ever run into Madonna at a club: She likes to samba and rhumba, so don't bother trying to win her over with an invite to do the Jackie Gleason.

After some more generic stalling, you're plunged into "I Deserve It" 's two strummed chords like you've accidentally wandered into some faraway singer-songwriter album from 1971. The transition is dramatic, hinting that Music's finally ready to mess around some. Both "I Deserve It" and its companion piece, "Nobody's Perfect" (a/k/a "Farewell, Bubba," a ready-made mea culpa for Bill's memoirs), are excellent variations on a genre Madonna does better than anyone: the Memory Song, à la "Live to Tell," "Oh Father," "This Used to Be My Playground," "I'll Remember," and other scattered ruminations on people and places she carries around in her head. On the assumption that "Nobody's Perfect" lifts its title from Some Like It Hot's famous closing line, I've gone ahead and conceptualized the video: Madonna (who was at her best on SNLsinging "Happy Birthday" to Phil Hartman's Clinton) as Marilyn, Kevin Spacey and Vince Vaughn in drag, meticulous shot-for-shot re-creation from Spike Jonze.

It was disappointing last year to see "Beautiful Stranger" lose year-end polls to a pleasant bit of nothing like "No Scrubs." I count it as Madonna's masterpiece, her own "Erotic City," with a hypnotic abandon that a friend correctly identified as rooted more in Creedence Clearwater than "Ray of Light" 's electronica. "Amazing" is another tale of obsessive-compulsive behavior with an equally unlikely texture—strip away the vocal and you're left with one of the faster numbers on Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures. What amazes her, incidentally, is what a boy can do to a girl, a powerful hold that will forever remain a mystery to the boy because he'll never really know "What It Feels Like for a Girl." Which happens to be the name of my favorite song of all, the perfect answer record to The Virgin Suicides(where boys indeed stand on the side of the street looking uncomprehendingly on girls), thanks in no small part to the gossamer-like synthesizer percolating in the background (Air bubbles?).

No point in dwelling on the dirgey stuff, except to observe that Madonna's more fun going locothan going Nico. If you plan on taking in Musicpiecemeal via the radio over the next few months, hang around—better and weirder things are on the way. Meanwhile, should Madonna do anything really dubious in the next while to draw some attention to herself, please disregard parts of this review.

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