Immaculate misconceptions Like we even had a prayer of talking to Madonna about turning 40. Instead, here's an admirer's birthday bouquet.



When she was 20 years old, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone trekked from her native Michigan to the middle of Manhattan with nothing but the clothes on her back, the baggage from her suffocating Catholic family and peroxided blond ambition.

Ever since, she's been in the middle of the pop-music scene, and in the middle of controversy.

Today, she's officially middle-aged.

Madonna's 40th birthday seemed the perfect time to talk to her about her extraordinary career. What regrets does she have? What's still in store? Where exactly is La Isla Bonita?

But mostly, why, even after 15 years of staggering success, do naysayers still dismiss her as little more than a peekaboo-midriff Marilyn wannabe?

"She will do anything, say anything, wear anything, mock anything, degrade anything to draw attention to herself and make a soiled buck," the New York Post's Ray Kerrison wrote of her in 1991. "She is the quintessential symbol of the age: greedy, self-indulgent, sacrilegious, shameless, hollow."

Then there was Luc Sante in the New Republic in 1990: "a bad actress, a barely adequate singer, a graceless dancer, a boring interview subject, a workmanlike but uninspired songwriter."

Indeed, Madonna's peculiar style - lustily exploiting herself, constantly changing images, and all the while remaining firmly in control - has not been to everyone's taste, and clearly has been a barrier to her acceptance as a serious artist and creative force.

But now that she's 40, it's hard to argue with her success. She's more than the little ingenue that could; she's a self-made mogul who has shaped a career as strong and efficient as her famous figure.

"She's talented," says senior MTV newsman Kurt Loder, who knows Madonna and her career better than almost anyone. "If she were just a hype, if she was just somebody who takes her clothes off, she'd be on 'Baywatch.' We wouldn't even be discussing her."

Loder was nice enough to sit down recently and talk about Madonna at 40. Good thing. Getting in touch with the middle-aged Material Girl herself is something else altogether:

Voice-mail message left, 10:15 a.m.: Uh, this is Tamara Ikenberg from the Baltimore Sun, and, ummm, I was wondering if I could talk to Madonna about her 40th birthday.

Voice-mail message returned, 10:25 a.m.: Madonna will not be available for an interview about her turning 40. Thanks so much for your asking, though!

Whatever. Like she even got the message.

So in lieu of an interview, I offer the following: an extensively researched, well-reasoned and impartial analysis of the immaculate misconceptions about the Madonna phenomenon.

OK, so it's more of a droolingly awe-struck birthday card, or possibly even a thank-you note, fueled as much by blind adoration as pesky facts.

So she didn't return my call; she still gave us "Get Into the Groove," didn't she?

Thanks are in order.

1. Madonna is a talentless tart

There were plenty of acts in the '80s that relied solely on image and gimmick; on hair, mascara and the like. But the likes of such Madonna wannabes as Regina, Stacey Q, Elisa Fiorillo, Kylie Minogue and other New Romantics and New Wavers like Kajagoogoo, HAIRCUT ONE HUNDRED and Spandau Ballet have disappeared into the pop Bermuda Triangle of '80s compilation discs. Madonna hasn't.

"People whose fame is just built on novelty and hype come and go," Loder says. "They lose their fan base. The fans move on to the next novelty."

And it's not as if Madonna is living off her classic material. She has said she never intends to sing "Material Girl" or "Like a Virgin" live again.

"If you do that, then you're in danger of becoming a nostalgia act," Loder says. "She's not some young crumpet. It would be ludicrous to be singing 'Like a Virgin.' "

The quality and endurance of her work, in fact, has redeemed her from some potentially disastrous career moves. There was the "Sex" book, of course, and her bleep-fest on Letterman, to name just a few.

If she were just an image, an empty, calculating controversy hound, such media missteps might have destroyed her. But she always lands on her feet after these falls from grace. It's hard to stay angry at an artist who's produced such an ebullient, satisfying body of work.

It's highly unlikely that Forrest Gump could balance motherhood, mega-stardom and a multimillion-dollar empire, while still fitting in time for yoga class.

2. Madonna is a has-been

Wake up and smell the peroxide, people!

This year, Madonna leads the number of nominations at the MTV Video Music Awards, blowing away all other acts, pre-Madonna, mid-donna and post-Madonna. The birth of her daughter, Lourdes, and her new New Age weirdness have put her back in the spotlight - Vanity Fair cover story, "Oprah" appearance and all.

With 11 No.1 singles, she's the most successful female pop performer in history. Loder calls her new album, "Ray of Light," "her best record," explaining that it "partakes of all the stuff in the air."

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