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Madonna's recent items of chipper publicity line up like triumphant trophies in the pop star's English manor: the adoption of David Banda, a blazingly lucrative contract with Live Nation, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But within the past week Madonna's maternal, do-no-wrong image has flung far from the flattering covers of Vanity Fair and Elle, landing facedown in the headlines of tabloids that allege she and baseball player Alex Rodriguez had an extramarital "affair of the heart."
The inescapable media blitz brings back notorious, and titillating, memories of the late '80s and early '90s, when Madonna regularly adorned supermarket tab fronts. While fording streams of flashbulbs, she often strode unapologetically and hooked arm in arm with Sean Penn, Dennis Rodman, or Warren Beatty. Now, as Rodriguez's newfound involvement with Cabala and divorce from wife Cynthia implant suspicion into sports and music fans alike, even the casual Perez Hilton reader must wonder if these tabloids present a persona that reflects how many pop culture consumers still want to perceive Madonna: sexually adventurous, scandalous, and thrilling.
In one way the idea feels absurd, considering Madonna's self-conscious evolution into a more cerebral artist (starting with Ray of Light -- perhaps even Bedtime Stories, technically) and family-based person. But in another way that progression provokes the public to perk up when her marriage hits the rocks or when she's caught in an affair. The public at large doesn't connect with Madonna anymore; not her intermittent British accent, her enduring marriage to Guy Ritchie, or her strides toward humanitarianism and countryside contentment.
The headlines -- which so far have included "Justify My Glove" from one blog and, concerning Madonna's marriage, US Weekly's more direct "It's Over!" -- hint to us that as long as Madonna lives we'll still think, or hope, she adheres to the protocol excesses of Material and Venereal Girls, and not the high road of diplomacy and domesticity trodden by Angelina Jolie or Nicole Kidman. Even if Madonna's rep, Liz Rosenberg, released a statement to People stating the A-Rod rumors weren't true, the point of public interest lies within the belief that Madonna would indulge in an extended, decadent fling. It's especially juicy now that her image is less brazen whore and more aristocratic muscle machine who's richer than God. (continued below)
Madonna's onetime connection with the gawking populace didn't totally transcend the passage of time, but that ebullient carnality still exists within many longtime Madonna observers and fans. It just remains unreciprocated, considering that Madonna's most outrageously sexual stunt in recent years -- the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards kiss with Britney Spears -- came off like a hokey, ill-conceived plea for relevance instead of a genuine extension of intelligent, unwieldy eroticism.
Face it, even the sexual politics (and raunchy album cover) of her newest album, Hard Candy, don't seem fresh, with all their mentions of "candy galore" and "I can go on and on." They sound obligatory, like the talking points of a woman plainly dispensing expected come-ons and naughtiness. While her CD is playing as forced to many fans, the caterwauling headlines of US Weekly pick up where her career doesn't. Now, within the mysterious confines of the Rodriguez scandal, Madonna finds herself providing unintentional answers to those who wonder "what happened" after she started producing children, children's books, and "Spirituality for Kids" online advertisements. The tabloids construct their own conclusion -- that Madonna's just hiding her scheming and hypersexualized self -- and in recasting her, these tabloids give the public back the sexy, exciting Madonna they couldn't take their eyes off of... no album-cover crotch shots required.