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Shrine of the Polymorph Madonna

The Material Girl's latest identity crisis

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On "Sorry," the second single from Madonna's 11th studio album, Confessions on a Dancefloor (Warner; Rating: ** 1/2), she sings the words "I'm sorry" in French, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Hindi, Polish, Hebrew and Italian. And then mutters "Forgive me" in English. Of course, this isn't Madge's first appropriation of languages other than her mother tongue -- remember "La Isla Bonita?" Call it ethnic-clash: The new song also samples grooves from the Jacksons' 1981 hit "Can You Feel It." With this polyglot treatment, Madonna continues her quest to be recognized as a global, multiracial person, not just a simple Italian-American girl from suburban Detroit.

In the two-plus decades since Madonna's rise to superstardom, we've become desensitized to her love/hate relationship with her own ethnicity. Her first image was as a dance-music loving punk with bottle-blonde locks and New York City attitude. Then she swung the vamped-up prom princess look at us as she made us wonder about her virginity. She sold herself as the All-American Girl in the "Cherish" era, then as a black Southern Baptist for her controversial video for "Like a Prayer." During 1990's Blond Ambition Tour, Madonna simulated masturbation onstage. And in 1992 she became the fetish-loving "Dita" with the release of her naughty Sex book and Erotica album. After a cooling-off period, she reincarnated herself as an R&B singer with the coolly-received Bedtimes Stories.

In the movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Evita, she channeled the beloved Latina politico Evita Perón. In 1998, she stepped back into the dance-music world with the William Orbit produced Ray of Light album, a critical and commercial triumph that heralded her first public foray with Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism. That year she also began dating director Guy Ritchie, a Brit of Scottish heritage. Ever since, Madonna has been everything from the British, twin-set-wearing housewife Madge, to a kilt-toting Scot, and a tweed-cap-wearing lorry driver. Not to mention coming on as a drill-sergeant mother who won't let her children watch television.

This not-so-cool Britannia bliss is causing Madonna to slip. Maybe she hasn't noticed, but she's starting to repeat herself. Last month, she released a documentary enshrining her pastoral complacency: I'm Going To Tell You A Secret, a tame sequel to 1991's Truth or Dare, that aired on MTV. Now with Confessions, she wants us to believe -- again -- that she's a gay dance queen. (Remember "You Can Dance"?) Has the queen of reinvention run out of personas to exploit? Does this mean we'll finally get a glimpse of the real McCoy?

Not likely. In a recent Vogue interview, Madonna announced that, at 47, she's finally done reinventing herself. Her marriage to Guy Ritchie and her two children (Lourdes and Rocco, talk about ultra-ethnic names) have grounded her. She's happy frolicking in the English countryside, and the Vogue snaps telegraph a chintz-and-corgyn idyll far removed from Madonna's days of getting freaky with black subcultures and her prized colored bucks Dennis Rodman and Carlos Leon. Last summer, while playing this newly mature, pious "Lady Madge" (including haughty accent), she fell off a horse, breaking several bones. Did anyone think that maybe, just maybe, she wasn't made for that world?

Imagine what it would be like if Madonna moved back to Detroit today: She'd hang with Aretha by the pool, fending off Kid Rock by keeping him loaded. Her kids would become gangstas and Ritchie would finally make movies worth seeing again by mining the trashy bounty of Eminemland. For her next CD, she'd remake Motown favorites as dance songs. Best of all, she and the White Stripes' Jack White could take high tea and get tearily nostalgic over the 19th-century days of minstrelsy. Madonna would become true Detroit royalty, just like she thinks she is in jolly Olde England. But, the Lady Madge delusion is hollow, since she apparently hates London too. On Confessions track "I Love New York" she laments: "Other cities always make me mad/Other places always make me sad/No other city ever made me glad except New York/I love New York."

Public or private, Madonna's personae are ultimately what make her interesting. Yet her last look, ludicrous Che-chic -- accompanying her worst-selling album American Life (2003) -- flopped. And so Madonna must, metaphysically at least, return to the hardcore, multiracial dystopia of the Big Apple -- like black-and-white Detroit, the wellspring of her art. Confessions is a ploy to rekindle her gay following circa 1990. At this point in her career, the product's appeal is really limited to longtime fans (lucky for her, that still amounts to millions sold). Don't be surprised that Madonna isn't truly revealing anything on the dance floor, except more of the same old peroxide porn.

Madonna's Confessions on a Dancefloor was released on November 15. The Special Edition will be released on December 13. Visit www.madonna.com for more.

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