If I could make a Madonna video, it would be this: Madonna strolling with Lourdes on her back, singing into the camera as she cruises a city street. Her dress is casual, cool; her hair is down, maybe a little wild, colored a natural brown with a few streaks of gray. Lourdes is the happiest baby in the world, and her mother is a glowing icon of all that being an over-40 mom can be. Heaven knows, the world could use the information. From the TV to the movies to the magazines the message is clear that a woman over 40 who looks her age is facing a life sentence of joyfully pre-soaking kids' muddy shirts and administering heartburn medicine to her grouchy husband.
So far, Madonna is avoiding the issue. Her most recent album, Ray of Light, is promising in this vein, but only obliquely. More than ever, Madonna's lyrics concern process, not product. Moving beyond static concepts -- a dance floor, a lost love -- she's focusing now on potentially boundless ideas: spiritual growth, the expanse of love. As her mind opens, her persona expands correspondingly, and in copious magazine articles and TV segments, Madonna the virgin/whore/movie star/sex symbol has slowly been incorporating hints of Madonna the seeker/adept/explorer/mother.
There's something false, of course, about the whole thing; there's a smell that accompanies any middle-aged star's self-proclaimed self-discovery. Madonna, a child of L.A., parades her study of Ashtanga yoga and Jewish mysticism, both trends sweeping the spiritually challenged of Hollywood. But that isn't really the point. Madonna the real-life trendoid has always been but a sideshow to the main attraction.
The Madonna that concerns the majority of us is the Madonna who projects her imagination, life-size, into every home. Nonverbal communication has always been her strong suit. Videos are her primary tool; music and lyrics are background and her life in the downtime is research. When she got interested in S/M, we got "Justify My Love"; when she became obsessed with Marvin Gaye, we got "I Want You." So, while Madonna's intriguingly mature lyrics are encouraging on Ray of Light, the true test of her commitment to the idea of growing older in public is in her videos.
Madonna has glamorized unwed teen-age mothers, sex workers, and religious hallucinators, but middle-aged women have yet to feel her golden touch. See her cavorting in high Bollywood style in this month's Rolling Stone, her skin airbrushed back to pubescence. Her Ray of Light videos have been just as resolutely -- irrationally -- youthful. In "Frozen," Madonna presents herself as a lithe goth princess. In a flowing, black gown befitting a Victorian maid in mourning, she bares the scars of time in the world-weariness of her tone and words, but never in her appearance. "You're frozen when your heart's not open," she scolds her lover. The "Ray of Light" clip is even more frustrating. It stars Madonna's smooth tummy -- nary a stretch mark in sight -- as she hovers over a city bustling to the beat of her William Orbit house anthem. She's styled like a Sheryl Crow-wannabe, looking all of 25, and when she appears at the clip's end, sweating with the beautiful people on the dance floor, it's an age-defying, not embracing, moment.
Is it really fair to expect Madonna to show off her wrinkles in a time and place when such things are considered, for all intents and purposes, deformities? Would it even be possible for her to make a video looking her age without committing career suicide? The few pop women of her generation occupy very different niches: Stevie Nicks is still active but something of a punch line; Kim Gordon operates most successfully as a band member -- and music, not videos, are their main strengths. Cher, with her collagened lips and infrequent hits, seems grasping. Tina Turner's intense, Madonna-like physicality might be a model, but her persona retains our respect precisely because she doesn't attempt pop relevance.
And that is the irony. Madonna's success as an ever-varying image, which appears to give her the freedom to morph infinitely, actually limits the degree to which she can transform herself. She is dependent on her image for her success, and the success of her image is dependent on those who consume it. And the odds are that consumers aren't ready for an older, wiser, varicose-veined Madonna. So, for the moment, it appears that the battle for acceptance of a reality-based image of women over 40 will be fought on a more subtle level. A further irony is that it is Madonna's battle, and she'll be fighting it every day that she continues to age and continues to desire to remain in the public eye -- two natural forces of approximate equal strength.