She expressed herself in controversial 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 avaricious Material Girl or the slutty bride vamping in Like A Virgin. Though distances from those personas, she insists they 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 exorcises 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 aggressive 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 during 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.”