The maturing of the Material Girl


As the hottest thing going round this summer, Madonna on the Drowned World Tour sent me spiraling back to an observation on her sociological significance.

"What I like about her is her utter defiance. She knows all the rules and stereotypes, and always takes them a step further to poke fun at them. Madonna has made a brilliant career of playing on many of the old myths about women to create a new one -- the siren who is clearly in charge, clearly calling the shots in her own life."

That was me, dear reader, writing in 1990 in the Chicago Tribune. I said then that she was "a new kind of icon for the '90s: the smart blonde, not the dumb one, anything but a Marilyn Monroe-style victim."

It was truer than I knew that Madonna was no meteor, but a force here to stay on the world stage: a constantly changing force, which has always been part of her charm.

Even now, that's difficult for some to grasp, like the Washington Post critic, David Segal, who began his review of her August concerts with a trivializing tone: "People, people, we must accessorize!"

Say what you will, David, but as a peer who witnessed Madonna go through the 30s journey and up, I can safely say there's more substance to her sassy style. The voice is richer, with more resonance, and the songs are truer, with more meaning than "Material Girl." And let's not overlook the new element of guitar playing, which gives her both the aura and the authenticity of musicianship. In short, she has reached a peak new season -- summer, let's say -- of her performance art.

And isn't it encouraging, not to say empowering, to women of all ages, to see Madonna ripening and deepening, in top form at age 42 in art and beauty? You bet.

I witnessed this at work during the Aug. 10 Washington concert, in which she changed costumes from Scottish kilt to a Japanese kimono to a cowgirl get-up. The crowd was rip-roaring, on its feet straight from the first line ("I traded fame for love / Without a second thought") becoming a universally acknowledged object of desire, even to straight women and gay men.

An inspiration to women

Yet it wasn't that simple. Women, especially, seemed to draw inspiration from this refreshingly confident character, a Catholic schoolgirl who once told the pope's men that he could come see her show in Rome if he wanted to meet her.

"As long as we can be here, I'm already fulfilled," said Dena Bubrick, 24, of Bethesda, bubbling over before the music and the curls of smoke even started up.

Another noted the revolutions of self over the years, from the brassy vixen in the 1980s to the thoughtful, searching voice in Ray of Light and Music, her most recent albums: "The incredible softening of her," said Lynne Hauff, 49, of Ellicott City. "Since the early songs, her voice, her persona are so different."

For one thing, in the latest batch of songs, Madonna shows a tenderness that was never in the act before. When she sang "I Deserve It," for example, a genuine smile crossed her face as she played the guitar solo, singing a nice play on words: "This guy was meant for me / And I was meant for him / This guy was dreamt for me / And I was dreamt for him." Guy is, of course, the name of her new English husband, the movie director Guy Ritchie.

Her rules on what makes a family work are refreshing: whatever works. Note the utter defiance of social norms is intact, since Ritchie is 32, a younger man by 10 years. And her young daughter and son have different fathers: not a stigma, just a fact of her love life. And Madonna herself seems to have mixed motherhood into her music in a mature way that integrates life and art.

Beyond a lullaby written to her daughter, another song, "Mer Girl," narrates a haunted run looking for her own late mother's tombstone ("And the Earth took me in her arms"), a wrenching drama she performed on stage without losing her focus and energy.

What was striking, though, is that Madonna allowed herself to be seen as sad onstage as she re-enacted the childhood tragedy of her mother's death. Not only sad but ugly, in a video montage that showed images of her as pale, bruised and ghostly. Truly, this was a new face. And it's clearer than ever that Madonna's not just a pretty one.

With guitar, more feeling

Toward the end, she played a song from the past that only served to heighten how changed she is in the present: "La Isla Bonita," an early light song from the 1980s album, "True Blue." It's about tropical breezes and a boy and girl falling in love, pretty simple stuff in the old days. But when she took guitar in hand, along with salsa dancers and rhythm, she sang it more lyrically and feelingly, giving her old music a new sound.

So let the record reflect, doubting Davids: now, like then, Madonna writes the words to her songs, and they have more autobiographical depth. She's still quite the dancer with a troupe to back her up. Then there's the body sculpture and aerial acrobatics, the clever costumes and personas, the lighting, timing, flirting -- not to mention the singing -- all done with timing, zest and joie de vivre.

All as if to defy and skip over cultural stereotypes about the 40s.

Hey, I loved the three Js -- Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell, who aged more predictably -- as much as anyone growing up (Madonna says she loved Mitchell's Court and Spark album), but Madonna is singular. Nobody else like her in this global village of ours.

There's more substance to her sassy style. The voice is richer, and the songs are truer.

On television

What: 'Madonna Live! Drowned World Tour'

When: Tonight at 9

Where: HBO

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