Material whirl

Music - Robin Meltzeron why Madonna is back in vogue

Julie Burchill does not like Madonna. "Most talentless people disappear quite quickly," she wrote in a recent column, "very few hang on decade after decade."

Proof of Madonna's ability to hang on comes with this month's release of her latest album, Music. The single of the same name reached No 1. The album will probably do the same; when it does, just about the only person to make a scene about it will be Burchill.

Britain is in the middle of Madonna idolatry. It is sometimes said that we are a couple of years ahead of America when it comes to what's cool, but, in Madonna's case, we are about a decade late. At 42, and no longer the material girl, she has "mellowed" with motherhood and impending middle age, or so the press tell us. As if in return, Madonna is snapped in sunnier climes wearing a T-shirt saying "I love" followed by a Union Jack. What next - keep the pound?

According to her current homely English image, when the album chart is announced, Madonna will be casually lounging around her Kensington home (which she rents because London house prices are, she says, "extortionate" - see, she really is one of us). Then she might disappear to a local pub to sup the night away with the Brit-flick director and rather long-term boyfriend, Guy Ritchie, who is the father of her second child, Rocco. The image of Madonna partying in gay clubs has been replaced by that of Madonna celebrating in SW7 domestic bliss.

It is interesting, then, that her new album does not quite gel with this safer, more respectable, image. If anything, Madonna is edgier than ever, and images of lesbianism and sex clubs are back in the promo video for the single, which features the ultimate exponent of British irony, Ali G.

Those around her say that Madonna is in supreme control of her career, and always has been. It therefore stands to reason that it is not by some fluke that she has made a trendy Y2K album with the help of some extremely hip British producers. Music appeals directly to the clubbing generation. In 1990, it was the song "Vogue" that captured Cool Britannia's imagination; now it is "do you like my acid rock?" (the hook line from "Music").

With "Vogue", Madonna introduced to the mainstream the dance and mannerisms of what was essentially a small culture of gay, black New York men. It came at the tail-end of a ludicrously successful Eighties career, and it pushed her fame into the stratosphere because, along with a banned Pepsi commercial (essential to get people to notice you), and the tour she embarked on at the time, it left Madonna in the blissful position of being able to choose whatever she wanted to do next in the knowledge that everyone would be staring. The consequence was her least successful album (downright flop, actually), Erotica (1992), and her most provocative lyrics were, therefore, not heard as widely as the inane ones that granted her a voice in the first place.

She recovered with 1998's Ray of Light album, which, while innovative, was safe. The question now, as she gears up for a year or two of heavy promotion, is whether she can keep the British press in awe of her love for Britain while simultaneously beginning to regain the daring, sexually anarchic persona she had largely left behind. Madge (as Ritchie calls her) has always been about paradoxes, traceable back to the "Like a Virgin" video in 1984, in which she played both the vamp in punk make-up and the maiden in pure white wedding dress - but whether she can pull off this one will be fascinating to watch.

One could be forgiven for wondering why she should even want to. Looking back on Madonna's behaviour ten years ago, it is easy to forget exactly what all the fuss was about - why American universities set up degrees in Madonna studies, why she became the supreme gay icon, why she angered as many feminists as she delighted. It is tempting to remember that period of her life as one when she took her clothes off a lot, swore and danced with men in various stages of undress. Yet it is cliched, but true: Madonna irrevocably changed the media image of female sexuality.

Madonna reached the top in an industry that, in the Eighties, was even more patriarchal than it is today. Next, she used the attention she was attracting to turn the values of that industry on its head. What should not be forgotten about Madonna taking off her clothes is that she was not doing it on the request of, or even for the pleasure of, heterosexual men. She made herself the reason why she took her clothes off; she used her sexuality in a way that empowered her and no one else. In the video to "Express Yourself" (1989), a cat has the lead role and the men are seen in chains. When asked by the BBC's Omnibus in 1990 what the cat signified, Madonna giggled and said: "I guess what I was trying to say is that pussy rules the world."

On tour in Toronto in 1990, Canadian police told her that, if she "simulated orgasm" on stage, she would be arrested for lewd conduct. She refused to change her show ("Let them take me") and, later, it was Madonna who alerted the media to the police's presence by releasing a statement criticising the attempt to deny her "freedom of speech and expression".

Her outrage at what she saw as a denial of her civil liberties suggests that Madonna did not desire to be provocative for its own sake. The scandalous elements of the show may have been relentless self-publicity, but she also had a message of liberality and tolerance to spread, regardless of the effect on her record sales. Portraying women as owners of male slaves, and promoting respect for gay people, Madonna had a fairly progressive agenda for someone who was supposed to epitomise the mainstream. It is the "new Madonnas" - the Britneys, the Spice Girls - who are the cynical exploiters of youth. Every gimmick they employ is an empty gesture. Madonna had a message, but many found it easier to cast her off as an irresponsible young vixen. She addressed this later. "Ooops. I didn't know I couldn't talk about sex," she sings in "Human Nature" (1994), a song that ends with a spoken phrase: "Absolutely no regrets."

There is a moment in In Bed With Madonna when her father visits her backstage after seeing the tour. He says that he thought certain parts of the show were unnecessarily rude. "You can't get to one place without going through another place," she replies. In those days, she would hold a press conference in order to criticise the Roman Catholic Church for attempting to ban her tour. She began that statement with a warning to the assembled journalists: "If you interrupt, I'm leaving." Compare that to this year: with pictures of Madonna pregnant and rolling in mud on holiday, we were told by tabloid editors that she looked "radiant". "Pregnant women may roll in mud if they so desire" was hardly as exciting a message as the free love and unity that she was throwing in the face of the Vatican ten years earlier, and there was something sad about that - an inevitable decline into terminal approval.

But now comes Music, and the sudden possibility that Madonna's plan over the past five years has been to make it easy for the press to like her in order to sell more records of the kind that she really wants to make. You have to go through one place to get to another, and all that. What would be remarkable is if, this time, she can maintain the commercial success, too. If Madonna becomes controversial and defiant again, will people start to notice what she is doing, and will they still care? And if they are no longer outraged, does that mean victory or defeat for Madonna?

Music is released by Maverick/Warner Bros on 18 September

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Let the poor seek a place in the sun