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Madonna at a crossroads

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Whoever said size matters obviously never met Madonna.

In person, the most durable and deconstructed pop icon of the past two decades is a wee slip of a thing. The face that launched a thousand trends is delicately featured, the yoga-toned frame so slight that you wonder how Madonna could have emerged intact after tumbling off a horse in August, on her 47th birthday.

The singer did break four ribs, her clavicle and bones in a hand and shoulder as a result of that accident, which took place at the estate she shares with her husband, filmmaker Guy Ritchie, and two children, 9-year-old Lourdes and 5-year-old Rocco, in the English countryside. But nine weeks later, Madonna is cast-free.

"I feel good," she says, perching daintily on a sofa. "But then I try to exercise or do something, and I realize that my bones aren't completely together yet."

The woman who coined the term "blond ambition" is not, however, going to let a few aches and pains interfere with her work. Madonna is in town to promote Confessions on a Dance Floor, her first album since 2003's American Life, which arrives Nov. 15. The first single, Hung Up -- a thumping, shimmering confection that samples the ABBA hit Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) -- was introduced last week on MTV's Total Request Live and will be featured on crossover episodes of CBS' CSI: Miami (Nov. 7) and CSI: NY (Nov. 9).

MTV also premiered Madonna's new documentary, I'm Going to Tell You a Secret, last Friday. The film, which will re-air on the VH1 and Logo Networks, follows the star on and offstage during her 2004Reinvention Tour, juggling concert performances with footage of Madonna clowning around with her dancers and crewmates, and with Ritchie and the kids. There are more serious moments as well, with Madonna reflecting on how her life and views have evolved.

"It's like me keeping a journal, but it's visual," says Madonna, whose recent projects have included a fifth children's book, Lotsa de Casha, and a kiddie clothing line inspired by the "very opinionated" Lourdes. "But I never intended (Secret) to come out at the same time as my new record. It took me twice as long to edit as I had expected."

Accentuating the personal

Secret does share with Confessions an unabashedly personal tone. Madonna has described the latter as an unapologetic dance album "about having a good time straight through and non-stop." Dig beneath the buoyant beats and neo-disco arrangements, though, and you'll find wistful undercurrents in both the music and lyrics.

"That's why I called it Confessions on a Dance Floor," Madonna explains. "Most people equate dance music with being fluffy and superficial; it's just about having fun. That's fine, but I can't write 12 songs about nothing. My feelings or point of view inevitably sneaks in."

Like 1998's Ray of Light, the first album Madonna released after becoming a mother, Confessions juggles state-of-the-art production -- Madonna co-wrote and produced the songs with Stuart Price, musical director for her past two tours, with additional help from American Life producer Mirwais Ahmadzai (also Madonna's collaborator on 2000's Music) and others -- with age-old spiritual questions, albeit filtered through a modern star's perspective. "Should I carry on? Will it matter when I'm gone?" she asks on the introspective How High.

"I'm constantly trying to figure out what my place in the world is," she says. "That search was obviously instigated by the birth of my daughter. In my film, I talk about how I woke up one day and thought, 'my God, I'm about to have a baby; how am I going to teach my child what the meaning of life is when I don't know myself?' If she asks why she's here and who is God or why are people suffering, I want to have answers. And I want to ask those questions, too."

One song, the Middle Eastern-flavored Isaac, has already generated controversy in the print press and online. "Jewish mystics to Madonna: Lay off our sage!," screamed one headline, a reference to certain Israelis' outrage over the singer's supposed decision to allude to that movement's founder, 16th-century mystic Isaac Luria.

But Madonna claims Isaac was actually named after Yitzhak Sinwani, a Yemeni singer who appears on the track. "The album isn't even out, so how could Jewish scholars in Israel know what my song is about? I don't know enough about Isaac Luria to write a song, though I've learned a bit in my studies.

"But I've never heard that it's blasphemous for anyone to mention the names of catalysts. That's just a religious organization claiming ownership of something. 'This is our information; you're not Jewish and you can't know about it,' or, 'You're female and you can't know about it.' That's religious thinking ."

Religion vs. spirituality

Madonna, whose Catholic upbringing also continues to inform her work, is keen to distinguish such thinking from the kind of reflection that drew her to the Kaballah. "I like to draw a line between religion and spirituality. For me, the idea of God, or the idea of spirit, has nothing to do with religion. Religion is about separating people, and I don't think that was ever the Creator's intention. That's just people's need to belong to a group and feel good about themselves.

"Just about every war that's ever been started has been started in the name of God. It's, 'I belong to this group; my group's better than your group, so if you're not in this group, we're going to kill you.' For me, religious thinking is synonymous with tribalism. You're not thinking for yourself; you're doing things because that's what somebody else did, orit's how your family taught you to behave and think."

With her own family, Madonna says, she encourages a more inclusive approach to spiritual education. "Because I study Kaballah, my children are exposed to it. We go to a Torah reading every Saturday morning. And my daughter goes to spirituality-for-kids classes. But it's non-denominational; there are kids who are Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists, whatever."

Lourdes and Rocco also seem to have absorbed their mother's love of dance, though with very different results. Madonna's daughter has been taking ballet lessons since she was 4. "I didn't start till I was 12, which in the world of ballet is late, and I moved from ballet into modern and jazz. (Lourdes) has more of a ballerina's body, with these beautiful ballerina's feet.

"No lessons for my son, though. His style is sort of street. If I ask him to dance for me, he never will, but if there's music on in the playroom, he'll dance by himself. I have to sneak up on him. He loves R&B and hip-hop, and he dances that way. It's very funny. I don't know where he got it from -- I mean, he goes to the Lycee (Francais School) in London. But I think things like dancing, and what you're drawn to musically, are instinctual."

During the school year, Madonna, her children and Ritchie are based in London. "We go to the country house on weekends, or in the summer," she says. "I'm a city girl. If I hadn't married Guy, I'm sure I wouldn't have grown to appreciate the beauty of the countryside. There's an idyllic peacefulness there you couldn't find anywhere else. Now I can tolerate being in the city because I have a place to escape to, where I can leave the door open and my children can run outside. It's the one place I can feel like everybody else."

Well, almost like everybody else. Of reports that she doesn't allow Lourdes and Rocco to watch TV, Madonna first says, "I was raised without television. They watch films, and my daughter always has her nose in a book. I don't get the sense that they feel deprived. I don't know why that's shocking."

But Madonna also admits she is concerned about the impact too much contemporary pop culture could have on her offspring in particular. "TV is horrifying," she says. "Everything is so celebrity-obsessed, and I'm a celebrity. Why confuse my children with that?"

As things stand, of course, Madonna's kids "get photographed everywhere they go. There are so many more paparazzi now. Because of the Internet, there are all these new agencies. It's created a whole new line of work for people, where you've got to follow people to the end of the earth and climb fences."

Survival tactics

Such comments may seem ironic coming from someone whose rise and continuing fame have been credited at least in part to masterful marketing, and who is widely considered the first superstar made by, of and for the video age. And Madonna doesn't want to bite the hand that has fed her.

"As you go on making records, everyone keeps predicting your demise," she says. "It almost seems like they want you to fail. You have to find a way to be creative and have the freedom to do what you want to do, while also being aware of what the market demands and what people like. It's a fine line to walk, and there's a lot of competition."

Certainly, Madonna's imitators and inheritors are legion, from teen upstarts to Britney Spears to 36-year-old Gwen Stefani, whose solo album featured virtual homages to her obvious idol. "She ripped me off, so we mutually agreed that I could rip her off," Madonna quips of Stefani. "We work with a lot of the same people. She married a Brit, she's got blond hair and she likes fashion. But I don't mind. I think she's very sweet and really talented."

Besides, Madonna still has a few role models of her own. She continues to feel a strong connection to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. "Her work was very confessional, and told you a lot about what was going on in her life. But you never knew exactly what was true and what was false and what she was overdramatizing. She was creating a myth about herself. But she used it as an educational tool for herself and, I think, for other people.

"That's how I think of my work. I do self-portraits. People put me into all different categories: I'm a material girl, a sex goddess, a mother, spiritual. But I love contradiction. There's always a mystery, always a whole other life going on."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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