When Madonna released the title cut from her album Music this summer, New York Press critic Armond White wrote an essay lambasting the song, as well as the performer and proud mama, for making a soulless statement: "Music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel." White's response can be boiled down to a simple word: bullshit. The critic accuses the Material Girl of further cheapening pop music, reducing it to a synthetic tool for making money. White then cites the O'Jays' disco inferno "I Love Music" as an example of artists who understood the connection between music and real life. "With "Music,' " White writes, "Madonna proclaims her role not as person or artist but as scenemaker and market-tester -- and that's her doom."

But Madonna has always been a scenemaker and market-tester. She's never been considered a Serious Artist. She has never had to suffer for her art -- if you can call it that -- the way, let's say, Ani DiFranco or Victoria Williams has. This is a woman who flew out the birth canal looking for fame and fortune. Madonna has been the glowing definition of a pop star, an entertainer immersed in her celebrity. You end up wondering, Does Madonna truly exist, or is she an elaborate ruse set up by a couple of ambitious, manipulative record execs? (No musical artist has ever had it this good.) So people never can judge the gal by her art; we've all gone beyond that. The least that audiences can do is to view her by how well she stays with the times. She may be proclaiming a universal message and showing she can still get John Blaze with Music (both the album and the single), but it's a very small feat.

Music is part two in Madonna's search to find the perfect beat, an expedition she began a couple of years back with Ray of Light. With William Orbit as her co-captain, Light had her trekking through various genres of techno. Music feels more like a companion EP to that album, with its collection of ten neat-and-tidy tracks that, with the exception of the aforementioned title track, doesn't make a loud fuss.

If anything, the title track can best be chalked up as an efficient 21st-century dance number. The energetic production work from Madonna and DJ Frenchman Mirwais Ahmadzai shows the Material Girl is getting her material from the right sources. It's just a shame the tracks that follow it seem to be generic attempts to appeal more to the global club crowd. Tunes like "Impressive Instant" and "Runaway Lover" possess a pleasant blandness -- you can bounce to them, but not that long.

The second half of Music exhibits more momentum. The self-aware "Nobody's Perfect" has her dipping into mellowness, while "Don't Tell Me" is a nimble, up-tempo ditty heightened by acoustic guitar breaks. "What It Feels Like to Be a Girl" is the best track of this quintet. Steadily handled by Madonna, Orbit and Mike "Spike" Stent, the song is cool in its rhythm and deep with emotion. You can practically see teenage girls closing their eyes and swaying to the beat as Madonna sings exclusively to their pain ("Strong inside but you don't know it / Good little girls they never show it").

If there is something substantial to gain from the unevenness of Music, it's that we got a kinder, gentler Madonna on our hands. She has said that now as she eases into motherhood and middle age, the same gal who five years ago sarcastically sounded off on critics in the song "Human Nature" ("Oops, I didn't know we couldn't talk about sex / What I was thinking?") doesn't feel the need to exploit anymore. "Selling out / Is not my thing," she utters on the album's final track, "Gone." (Excuse us if we have a hard time believing that, Ms. Ciccone.) However, it's in the track "Nobody's Perfect" that we get Madonna's most honest declaration of herself: "What did you expect / I'm doing my best."

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey