Imagine Madonna in the most unlikely position she could take. Perhaps this: Alone in a silent room, lying face up on the floor in a yoga pose known as the corpse, crying uncontrollably. The 39-year-old singer, notorious for being the pre-eminent quick-change artist of her generation, found herself in this odd and vulnerable situation more than once in the two years that led up to the release of her new album, “Ray of Light.” She was not engaging in a kinky sex rite or a new performance style. She was doing what had not come naturally, she says – confronting herself.
“As my body was opening up and I was going into places that had been locked for so many years, it was releasing emotional things,” she said on a recent afternoon in her Manhattan apartment, drinking ginger tea after her daily yoga session. “I’d be lying in sivasana” – the totally prone corpse pose – “and I’d be weeping. Or I’d do a forward bend and tears would come to my eyes. I’d sort of get embarrassed and think, why is this happening to me? But I realized that I was going through a catharsis.”
Meet the newest new Madonna – a woman prone to uttering pearls of wisdom like “If you want something, give something,” who admits that in the past she has been “selfish and disturbingly petulant,” who has given over her impossibly taut physique to a discipline oriented toward letting things go. After the Caesarean-section birth of her daughter, Lourdes, two years ago, she tried yoga because her old regime of running and lifting weights was too painful. She just wanted to stay in shape but found the practice offered deeper lessons about, as she puts it, “desire and detachment.” She started studying Sanskrit, the language of the yoga chants, and the Jewish mystical art of the cabala. These new interests inform “Ray of Light,” an hour-plus look below the surface that will horrify those who prefer Madonna down to earth and out to win.
She expects negative reaction. “There are still a lot of people who are really uncomfortable with these topics, and they’re going to go, ‘We liked her better when she was hitchhiking naked in Miami. Where’s the fun Madonna?’ But I think that I have the ability now to have more fun and be happier than I ever have in my life.”
It is tempting to view Madonna as just another star calling narcissism enlightenment. Famous seekers have proliferated since the 1960’s, from the Beatles kneeling at the feet of the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi to Scientologists and Tibetan Buddhists like John Travolta and Richard Gere hawking their life styles today. Such explorations have given the world Shirley MacLaine’s memoirs and the albums Bob Dylan made in his fundamentalist Christian phase. The average person struggling to grab a moment of reflection between work and family cannot help noticing that stars tend to take the higher path only after securing a good spot on the lower one. In this context, an inner sea change wrought by an exercise regime may seem no more than the luxury of a rich woman bored enough to keep looking for something, despite having it all.
But Madonna is not like other celebrities. If a deity can be defined as a force illuminating the world, then she is a secular goddess, designated by her audience and pundits alike as the human face of social change. Intellectuals have described her as embodying sex, capitalism and celebrity itself. She was a presence discussed on “Nightline,” enraged the Vatican and inspired countless articles and books – even one devoted to her appearances in people’s dreams.
The last few years have seen Madonna’s symbolic impact wane, along with her record sales, but lately she has landed at the center of another preoccupying public question: the uncertain maturity of the 1980’s yuppie class. A generation that spent its young adulthood pursuing self-centered ambitions now faces questions of purpose and fulfillment. Madonna’s recent moves – proudly becoming a single mother, expanding her career as president of her own label, Maverick Records, exchanging rock-and-roll outrageousness for the vaunted respectability of show tunes – have been scrutinized as signs of a new style of growing up.
“People have always had this obsession with me, about my reinvention of myself,” Madonna said. “I just feel like I’m shedding layers. I’m slowly revealing who I am.” “Ray of Light” is her testament to that process; not simply an inward-looking album, it is an inquiry into the nature of introspection itself. In songs flecked with phrases taken from proverbs and sacred texts, Madonna explores the terrain of the spiritual as she once investigated eroticism and social ambition. Once she borrowed sources and styles from gay drag queens and vintage Hollywood; now she mines Greek legends and “The Autobiography of a Yogi.” As always, she presents her own journey as a parable, something larger than herself.
“Even if I write about things in a personalized way, I also write about them in a universal way,” Madonna explained. Madonna Ciccone, the individual, seems to have taken a genuine risk in opening herself up to self-examination and accepting that there is more to life than her own ambition. But “Ray of Light” is a risk for the other Madonna, the artist and star, whose genius has always lain in erasing the difference between her “personal” and everyone else’s “universal,” causing people to see themselves in her. Icons are flat surfaces; they do not have interior lives. Madonna’s new music tries to imagine what it might sound like, and feel like, if one did. The woman who served as a channel for cultural myths about carnal pleasure and worldly accomplishment is trying to do the same for that most abstract and idiosyncratic of human yearnings. Stepping into a role that some will surely think is beyond her, Madonna is now manufacturing a fantasy of the soul.