NEW YORK – Madonna certainly has been the embodiment of the adage, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

For years, she expertly used controversy as a sales tactic, as she challenged sexual and social mores with her outlandish antics, defiant attitude, outspoken nature – and, of course, her music.

And it always seemed to work – until she got political.

Her last effort, 2003’s “American Life,” trumpeted the star’s opposition to the Iraq war, complete with a violent video that included a spoof of President Bush. It drew the usual cries of outrage from her detractors, but for the first time in her two-decade career, sales were lackluster.

“Of course I was disappointed,” she says, the bitterness still present in her voice and her eyes. “I sort of knew it already, but if you’re an entertainer, you’re not allowed to have an opinion. … if you go against the grain, you will be punished. I thought there would be a lot of people who agreed with me.”

Madonna is decidedly less opinionated on her new record, “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” out Tuesday. An effervescent celebration of club life, the disc recalls the exhilaration and exuberance of some of her biggest hits, like “Music” and “Vogue.”

But while some may see the album as her attempt to re-establish herself as a pop queen, Madonna – who at 47 has become an icon, selling more than 60 million albums in the United States alone – says the quest for more fame is a low priority. What’s paramount to Madonna now, besides her family and spirituality, is creating music that reflects her evolution not only as an artist, but as a person.

“I’m constantly changing and growing, and hopefully my work will always reflects that,” she says. “Some things people will be able to relate to and they’ll be popular and accessible, and other things they won’t, but I’m not going to let that stop me. I didn’t get into this business because I wanted people to like me instantly and be my best friend.”

While becoming Miss Congeniality may not have been Madonna’s goal when she entered the business, her quest for success was undeniable – and well-documented. Her 1991 documentary “Truth Or Dare” was a testament to her blond ambition, which she pursued with reckless abandon.

But on her new CD, the former Material Girl expresses disillusionment with celebrity. On the song “How High,” she wonders how much fame is enough – and what it’s all worth in the end. And her new documentary, “I’m Going To Tell You a Secret,” which premiered on MTV last month, shows a Madonna more interested in her family life and the lives of her dancers and friends than in living in front of the cameras.

“I’m a totally different person now,” says Madonna. “It’s the natural progression – most people just grow up (after) having children, being in a grown-up relationship, having so many years of life in the spotlight … having fame and fortune (and) realizing it’s not what everyone thinks it is, and what it’s all cracked up to be.”

Not that she doesn’t still play the part of the trendy pop star. On this day, she looks like a fashionista, dressed in a stylish outfit accented by golden pumps. And the blitz to promote the album is as massive as her previous efforts – she blanketed MTV’s airwaves and has made high-profile appearances on behalf of the disc. But this time, there’s no major reinvention from the woman who has made it her career – from Madonna the disco queen to Madonna the vamp to Madonna the mother to Madonna the spiritual goddess and back again.

“I think for her, this record is sort of a retrospective of her career … it’s very self-referencing,” says Stuart Price, who wrote and produced much of the record with Madonna. “I think the reinvention this time is not so much of a reinvention as an embracing of what it is and what she does.”

MTV Networks President Van Toffler says Madonna still matters to the MTV audience and beyond.

“I remember probably about a year or so ago, Madonna was here and 50 Cent was in the studio. And 50 was dying to get introduced to her, and then he walked away and said … “She kissed me!”‘ he recalls.

But while Madonna remains keen on keeping up with trends, it’s clear it’s no longer her focus. She’s unlikely to be in the clubs these days because she has to get up early and tend to her family. Married to director Guy Ritchie, Madonna spends most of her time with him and their two children at home in Britain; her free days revolve around her kids’ activities.

“My daughter (Lourdes) dances, she loves ballet,” Madonna muses. “I like to go and watch her dance. My son (Rocco), he does martial arts, because that’s what my husband does. … They’re pretty busy, they do lots of afterschool activities. I like to do those things with them.”

She says her children get much of the credit for the kindler, gentler Madonna that’s emerged in recent years (the “Sex” author has even penned children’s books).

But her devotion to Kabbalah, the Jewish mysticism that has gained popularity in recent years, also has been a factor.

Her ties to it have drawn skepticism, and some people have even labeled it a cult – which makes Madonna bristle.

“I think that people are bothered by it because it’s unfamilar to them,” she says. “If you’re someone that people look up to, and you’re doing something that doesn’t fit into the expected behavior of a pop star, some people are going to be suspicious about that. But, you know, it’s not like I’ve joined the Nazi party!”

Instead, she says it’s only added to the continuing development of Madonna – the person, not the superstar.

“It’s made me grow up and it’s made me ask more questions and made me understand that I have a responsibility in this world that goes beyond me,” she explains. “It’s the realization that we’re responsible for each other in the world (and) we’re not accepting that as a sound bite but living it.”



On the Net:

http://www.madonna.com

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