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Like a Steady Virgin: The years roll on, and Madonna manages to keep her persona and her music relevant.

The Girl Who Sang The Blues

Madonna's 'Music' continues to advance even while respect for her artistry lags

By Gina Arnold

BLESS ME FATHER, for I have sinned. When an advance copy of the new Madonna record failed to appear on my doorstep in time for me to review it by deadline, I downloaded the entire thing from Napster. I know, I know. According to Metallica and the RIAA, using Napster ("napping," for short) isn't file sharing, it's out-and-out theft--the equivalent of walking into a record store and shoplifting the CD, only worse, because the CD in question hadn't even been released yet.

But do I really have to apologize? For one thing, "napping" isn't illegal ... yet. (Oct. 2 is D-Day in court for the San Mateo-based company, which is currently fighting an injunction that claims its service violates copyright laws.) For another, I wasn't going to have to pay for the disc anyway.

And let's face it. Whatever one thinks about the rights and wrongs of file sharing and copyright law--and I've heard arguments ranging from the idea that file sharing should be protected by the Fair Use statute to the idea that copyright law itself constitutes a form of illegal protectionism--it is practically impossible for an ordinary mortal like me to feel bad about not having put an extra dollar in Ms. Ciccone's pocket.

It is true, however, that Madonna is exactly the type of artist who has to worry about Napster and the many other online file-sharing services. Like Metallica and other platinum-selling artists, her sales figures are more likely to be appreciably diminished than those of less-well-known acts, for whom Napster is a nice promotional tool--particularly when the album hasn't even hit the stores yet.

But even if you believe that file sharing is theft (and I'm withholding my judgment), my sin seems less grievous than that of the guy on Napster who ripped his advance copy of Music (meaning, turned it into an electronic file) and put it up on the server in the first place. He wrote his file topic like this: "Madonna--BUY THE RECORD--Music." But talk about conflicted! If he thinks we should buy it, why did he rip it? What is up with that?

No doubt, the powers that be at Warner Bros. and Madonna herself would be appalled to know how easy it was to hear Music before the official release date. But they should have more faith in the naturally acquisitive nature of all us so-called thieves. I'm actually a little surprised myself, but the impulse to buy CDs is apparently too strong to resist.

For example, the other day in my Spanish class, we had to learn the words to a song by a Colombian singer named Shakira (because the words were all in the preterit tense). After class, I went home and napped it--and liked the song enough to purchase the entire disc.

I might do the same for Music, even though I've stuffed it into my hard drive, because the CD blends some of the trip-hoppity aspects of Ray of Light with some of the more balladic notions of Bedtime Stories. Thankfully absent are the boring spiritual questing and the insistence on the saintliness of motherhood that made Ray of Light such a pompous exercise.

Music has jettisoned all the Motherhood Superiority while retaining the supermodern technics of ambient music with mainstream pop balladry. Particularly fetching is "Don't Tell Me," which has a simple acoustic guitar riff akin to that of "Secret," and "Do You Know What It Feels Like for a Girl?" which has a smooth, lovely melody and heartfelt lyrics. (One of Madonna's strengths is her lyric-writing: she can raise the level of banality just that tiny bit needed to make a pop song sound profound.)

On the other hand, "Runaway Lover" and "Impressive Instant" repeat the club-hit tactics that made Ray of Light such a big hit. They're probably fun to dance to, but those processed-techno rhythms invariably make one's head ache when heard in one's own sitting room.

But the song that succeeds best is "American Pie," the 1972 hit by Don McLean (which has been available as a single or on the import version of Music--or you know where). In a way, this cover offers the perfect metaphor for Madonna's particular talent. On it, she swallows up McLean's ethos whole, appropriating his allegories on the death of Buddy Holly and replacing them with a much more personal interpretation.

All of a sudden, "Do you believe in rock & roll/Can music save your mortal soul?" becomes a statement of career intent. "The girl who sang the blues" is Madonna herself, and even the three men she admires most (the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost) are just an extension of her own vastly egocentric world view. And yet, as monstrous as this may sound, the song itself is beautiful: head and shoulders above the cheesy version that McLean created, with its torturous couplets on the history of rock. It's a visionary interpretation, and a great example of Madonna's singular artistry.

THE FACT IS, Madonna has consistently turned out some of the most enjoyable music of the last 16 years. Indeed, it's hard to think of another artist working today--not even Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young--whose newest work is invariably considered his or her best, but Madonna has improved with each of her eight LPs, and Music is no exception.

Will that make it the record that causes Madonna to get the respect she deserves? Most unlikely. Although she's long since outgrown her youthful tendency toward cheese, exemplified by songs like "Like a Virgin" and "Material Girl," people still have the nerve to call her talentless, at the very least implying that whatever her talent is, it isn't music-making.

Indeed, the word "bimbo" hovers unspoken over most conversations about her, while the topics of her age, outfits and the parentage of her two children dominate most discussions. Part of the problem surrounding any dialogue about Madonna is sheer sexism.

For instance, articles on Madonna now never fail to mention that she is in her 40s. "A 40-year-old Madonna took home her first Grammy," the paper will say, although it doesn't preface a remark about Eric Clapton or Santana with the same ageist factoid. Given our culture's fear and loathing of women who are over the age of puberty, that's not really so surprising. But some of the problems with Madonna's PR are not entirely due to such 20th-century prejudices.

It's easy to appreciate the idea that Madonna isn't one of the chosen, beautiful, privileged inner circle of automatic stars, but instead has worked her butt off, through some fairly hardheaded and unfeminine business decisions, to become what she is. This is part of her appeal, but it can also be a big turnoff.

SOMETHING ABOUT HER persona has always exuded a level of coldhearted calculation that goes well beyond mere sexuality: after all, sexy singers are nothing new, and Madonna has never even topped the list of the sexiest. She certainly doesn't now that Britney Spears, Toni Braxton and Lil Kim walk the earth. Those women might point to Madonna as the person who opened the door for their sexual emancipation--allowing them infinitely more license (and licentiousness) on national television--and it's true that, prior to Madonna, sexy female singers like Donna Summer were a great deal less erotically charged.

But to blame Madonna for the upping of sex content in music is specious, since her career coincides exactly with the invention of music videos. If it hadn't been her, it most definitely would have been somebody else. Besides: Madonna's cultural contribution is secondary to her undoubted musical excellence. She pretty much stands alone in her ability to create pop hits year after year, ones that blend seamlessly with the current musical climate.

To date, she has charted 32 Top 10 singles--and 12 No. Ones--over the course of 16 years--a number that rivals Elvis Presley and the Beatles. You can put that down to the fact that she hires well: producers like Babyface, Nile Rodgers, William Orbit and now French dance-pop sensation Mirwais Ahmadzai, who co-wrote six of the tracks on Music, have contributed to her albums. But there must be something that she herself is injecting into this music, or her body of work could not display so much continuity, nor would it be so instantly recognizable. It always sounds like the work of a single artist.

Another thing that must be said in her favor is that, unlike so many other pop superstars, Madonna is not a drug addict, a recluse or maniac. The most shocking thing she's done in the last decade has been to make mild fun of Kevin Costner in the movie Truth or Dare and to say "fuck" on national television. (I draw a veil over her misguided reverence for Eva Peron, a woman who was a fascist Nazi sympathizer.)

She seems to have almost no private life, since she's a workaholic, and the few gleanings of her private obsessions are merely that she is a collector of rare paintings by Frida Kahlo and likes to go out dancing. In short, compared to many of today's stars, she's a relatively dignified artist, albeit one working in a rather unconventional field.

Madonna's sins aren't so much ones of commission as omission. She has not offended the world so much by her overt use of sexuality to sell records but by her refusal to pay the proper amount of fawning homage to the male psyche in both her lyrics and her videos. A feminist would say that in every frame ever shot of her, she looks like she's in control of her own orgasm. An unfeminist would say, "She uses men."

However, at a certain point, such old-fashioned viewpoints have got to change, and why not now? It's the 21st century, after all. Attitudes about Madonna--and, incidentally, about file-sharing technology--are going to have to lighten up, or the world's going to grind to a halt. Both are just too useful and too fun for us to shut--or even put--them down.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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