So, today the Paper of Record put on its bitch cap and reamed the aging Madonna for ceasing to fight the good fight, fashion icon-wise. Her current incarnation, states Eric Wilson, lacks "teeth." Rather than Madonna's transgressive Desperately Seeking Susan/Marilyn/Blond Ambition/geisha/cowgirl/pimp etc. incarnations, Madonna's new look, says the Times, "evokes a kind of athletic, campus-casual blandness, as if designed for anonymity at the gym." Normally I'd feel bad for anyone subject to this kind of public pillory. But the truth, as we all know, is that Madonna is different.

More than twenty years ago, she made a very public deal with the devil, or the world, or whoever, and as everyone knows those things don't come cheap. Basically, Madge said, "Here's the bargain. I want to be famous. Word-famous. Iconic. I want to make a living off of being the world's most unabashed narcissist. I'll tell you right now: I'm going to be a mediocre singer and an abysmal actress. I'll frequently be absurdly self-serious. I'll be gratuitously provocative and my system of belief will change all the time. But I will never bore you. You'll be able to set your watch by my reinventions, each of which will be archetypal enough that a drag queen can create a new stage show and the audience will still know he's Madonna. And as a result of this, you and I and the world will never get old or die. Deal? Deal."

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So, Madonna, you see, does not have the option of getting boring. She always knew what she was getting herself into. She always acknowledged the fickleness of celeb culture - hell, she created it, she reveled in it, she manipulated it - so there's no pleading ignorance here. Sure, if she wants to retire she can do whatever the hell she wants - wear a muumuu, like the rest of us. But as long as she's making new albums? No.

That said, there's something telling about the outrage of these legions of fans who are at sea without Madonna pioneering some new trend so they know who to be. Says one fan, '"We're still seeing a lot of cowboy hats in public. But I'm not going to go around wearing a boxing belt. There's nothing you can really grab on to this time as a definite image from the album." ' And really, you could argue that there are no barriers left to break: laregly thanks to Madonna, everyone dresses absurdly, everyone's a trendsetter, and there are legions of ambiguously famous celebrity polymaths queuing up in their eagerness to be exhibitionists. You'd say she could capitalize on this by going in the other direction, but Madonna already covered elegant restraint in her Evita period.

But i don't think that explains away the Times' uncharacteristic cattiness. I don't think this is only about Madonna failing to craft a distinct new persona for her new album, although that certainly marks the end of an era. Frankly, I don't think people are feeling the whole A-Rod thing - affair, involvement, scandal, whatever the hell it is. Whatever her many incarnations, this doesn't fit into any of them - an earnest, not-too-bright-seeming jock leaving a wife and young children to fall under Madonna's Kabbalah-scented sway? Not fun. Not hip. Definitely depressing. A-Rod, however talented an athlete, is quite obviously not in Madge's league, and the 'pained C-Rod' (as The Post would have it) keeps the whole salacious story from feeling sexily boy-toyish or entertainingly transgressive. Perhaps the most disconcerting element (from an anthropological standpoint; the kids are obviously the bottom line in real life) is that Madonna does not seem to have control over the situation - his whole infatuation seems to kind of embarrass her, and she clearly didn't really intend for things to blow up this way. For Madonna to have lost control of a media-driven situation like this is new and shocking. Her "boring" "saggy satin shorts" are really the least of it. Madonna's broken her covenant with the public, and they will be avenged.

Who's That Girl?[New York Times]