She expressed herself in contraversial songs and videos, exposed herself in an X-rated Sex tome, exploited herself for art and fame and exported herself to every corner of the planet.
Known for causing a commotion, Madonna is desperately seeking serenity. Ray of Light, out today, illuminates an icon disdainful of her earlier incarnations, newsly immersed in spirituality and self-discovery.
Another calculated makeover? Madonna, 39, no longer embodies the avaricous Material Girl or the slutty bride vamping in Like A Virgin. Though distances from those personas, she insiststhey weren’t pure concoctions, must mileposts of her evolution.
“The thing that amazes me is people’s obsession with my reinvention of myself,” she says by phone from her home in New York. “I’m not reinventing myself; I’m going through the layers and revealing myself. I’m on a journey, an adventure that’s constantly changing shape.”
The pundits and armchair psychologists for whom Madonna is a pop culture touchstone have continuously misunderstood her “because what they are judging, evaluating and analyzing is the most one-dimensional version of me.”
Her first pop album in four years exorcizes the demons of materialism and self-indulgence. On Drowned World / Substitute For Love, she sings: I traded fame for love without a second thought … And now I find I’ve changed my mind.
“It’s about my relationship with fame and how my image spiraled out of control,” she says. “I am responsible for courting that fame, but I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I convinced myself that it was going to be enough to take the place of real intimacy. I was incredibly naive.”
Shortly after the 1983 launch of her recording career, Madonna told American Bandstand host Dick Clark that she wanted to rule the universe. She quickly ascended to global stardom on a string of hit singles and videos, teasing and taunting the public with her agressive candor, racy bustiers and naked drive.
“Part of it was just being young and having fun,” she says. “The other part was a lonely young girl’s longing and search to be fulfilled. It’s basically taken me this long to figure out what I was lacking. I was trying to fill myself up with the wrong things.”
The arrival of daughter Lourdes 16 months ago tempered Madonna’s career ambitions and hunger for attention. She grew even more leery of the limelight after 1997’s celebrity culture shock, the death of Princess Diana.
“It has an incredible, dizzying effect on me,” she says. “As someone who had been pursued that way, so doggedly and so intensely. I fell wounded. I thought, ‘This is the most wretched time to be famous.'”
Madonna’s priorities began shifting suring a two-year spiritual quest incorporating yoga and the ancient mystical Jewish tradition of Kabbalah.
“Lots of people tried to get me into yoga,” she says, “but I had a weird attitude: I can’t sit still, so forget it. I have to do sweaty workouts that kick your a– and get the endorphin rush. I did that until I was six or seven months pregnant.”
She switched to prenatal yoga and learned how to meditate, then began a highly physical form of yoga while recovering from her C-section.
The resulting tranquility permeates Ray of Light. Several tracks have a romantic/spiritual duality that she likens to the poetry of 13th century Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi.
“He could be talking about a woman he is madly in love with, but they’re really all poems to God,” she says.
Swim dwells on redemption, rebirth, and the shedding of shame and guilt, a theme the old Madonna preached to her flock and the older Madonna embraces as a mantra.
“For years, I’ve been imploring people to express themselves freely and to not be ashamed of who they are,” she says. “But I was really saying it to myself, because I was raised with so much repression.”
Mer Girl revisits her mother’s death in morbid images of decomposing bodies and disturbed graves. She wrote it at a family reunion. Caught in a downpour, she ducked under a tree in a cemetery near her father’s home and watched the earth erode around tombstones. “My yoga teacher had told me about this Buddhist concept of putting death on your shoulder and making it your friend,” she says. “Mer Girl is about letting go of whatever pain I have over my mother’s death and also about understanding and accepting death. It’s a theme that runs through the album, the power of goodbye.”
Electronic music is the unlikely vehicle carrying Ray of Light’s somber freight. Madonna collaborated with British techno guru William Orbit to create sonic undercurrents that borrow from the flowering trends of drum-and-bass, trip-hop and ambient electronica.
“My intention was to marry that scene to something personal and intimate,” Madonna says. “If I have any complaint about so-called electronica, it’s the lack of warmth. I like the textures, but sometimes it sounds alienated and cold.”
Orbit had produced remixed for Madonna, but the two never met before Ray of Light. They were immediately in sync, and his enthusiasm delighted Madonna, whose earlier efforts to enlist such fresh electronic talents as Goldie, Tricky and Prodigy’s Liam Howlett ended in rejection.
“For the most part, they turned their noses up at me,” Madonna says. “It’s a very young British attitude: ‘We don’t work with pop stars.’ It’s a knee-jerk response. William has no pretenses and doesn’t care whether people think he’s cool or not.”
She toiled on Ray of Light all of 1997, twice as long as most of her albums. The deliberately relaxed pace proved artistically and emotionally fruitful.
“I used to be extremely goal-orianted,” she says. “This time, I was living in the moment and enjoying the journey and not thinking, ‘What am I going to get out of this?’ I was in free fall for the first time. Some days I went in and didn’t get anything done. It was worth it.”
“I’m very proud of this record, and obviously I would be lying if I said I don’t care if anyone else likes it. But if it sells 2 million copies vs. 6 or 8 million, I won’t be dissapointed.”
Madonna remains busy on all fronts. She has commited to a three-month tour (no dates set); she’ll play Velma Kelly in the film of Bob Fosse’s Chicago; and she’ll co-produce and star in Recycle Hazel. But no project takes precedence over motherhood. Since the birth of Lourdes, nicknamed Lola, Madonna has turned down four movie roles and kept a lower profile.
“I’m so happy to wake up in the morning and see her face,” she says. “I never imagined I would be that thrilled having her put arms around me and kiss me. And she just learned how to say, ‘I love you.'”
Madonna and Carlos Leon, Lola’s father, are no longer romantically involved, yet he’s a constant presence.
“We’re still close,” she says. “We’ve worked out a whole shedule, and he sees her and spoils her on a regular basis. She is Daddy’s little girl. I’m the mean disciplinarian.”
Despite career demands, Madonna and child have never been separated.
“My father is currently mad at me because I told him he could keep her when I went to Europe, and then I changed my mind,” she says. “I just can’t part with her yet.”
Though Madonna yearns for lasting love and more children, she has found fulfillment in Lola. She’s documenting Lola’s infancy in an elaborate scrapbook replete with birth certificate, mementos, medical data and photographs.
So who’s that little girl? Lola is turning into, well, a Madonna wanna-be.
“She loves to go through my jewelry and my shoes,” Mom says. “She sits in my closet surrounded by shoes, going ‘Wow!’ all day long. She goes around the house wearing 20 necklaces and bracelets, walking on her tippy-toes like she’s wearing high heels. It’s very sweet. She’s a real girl’s girl.”
Spoken like a real ex-material girl.© USA Today