Madonna: Who's that girl?

She is back, with another number one hit - and, inevitably, yet another new look. So we asked our experts to deliver their verdicts on the many makeovers of Madonna
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The Independent Culture

Andy Gill, The Independent music critic: Madonna had a knack from the start for picking hot producers, the first being Jellybean Benitez, with whom she made her 1983 breakthrough hit "Holiday" and whose effortless progress from clubland to chart would be repeated for many of her subsequent singles. By her second album, she was already playing with themes of sexuality ("Like A Virgin") and capitalist ruthlessness ("Material Girl") for which she would become best known through that decade.

James Sherwood, fashion writer: Slutty tutus, rubber bangles, lacy bras and cut-off tights were the uniform of New York's dance students in the late Seventies and Madonna took it mainstream. She knows how to dip into subcultures - gay, black, whatever - she's not fussy - and extract the commercial essence. When the wannabes got the Desperately Seeking Susan look down pat, she morphed into Marilyn Monroe.

Mark Borkowski, public relations expert: She was a very sweet New York disco diva who appeared to come out of nowhere. From the start she positioned herself to be in the right place at the right time: her image appealed to both the gay disco scene and also the suburban kids. And she had the right body and the right look. Ever since she has had this amazing ability to anticipate the zeitgeist and re-invent herself.

She says: I want to conquer the world.

The Disco revival

Andy Gill: Madonna has never really strayed far from the dancefloor, so it was hardly a volte-face when she hooked up with William Orbit for 1998's Ray Of Light. But motherhood resulted in something softer than hardcore rave anthems. The disco theme continues on Confessions From The Dance Floor album.

James Sherwood: The leotards and cut-off tights she wore in the video for 'Hung-Up' are going back to the early disco days. Only she would dare revive the 70s flick hairdo and make it look credible. As a fashion moment, this glossy late 70s Pan's People look will not be her last. Or her best.

Mark Borkowski: What other 47-year-old pop icon would be able to make this look work? It may be a mediocre launch for a mediocre album, but as ever, it her ability to move on to the next thing, to re-invent herself again and keep ahead of the cultural trend that counts. She's a class act.

She says: It was the same state of mind when I made my first album: work very fast, not overthinking things. Just that feeling of loving music, loving to dance.

The spiritual Madonna

Andy Gill: Anyone who calls their compilation The Immaculate Collection has a canny grasp of the promotional power of religious outrage. The "Like A Virgin" video played teasingly - some said blasphemously - with her youthful Catholicism. Sadly, the same pranksterish spirit is entirely absent from "Isaac", the more recent musical embodiment of her Kabbalistic interest.

James Sherwood: The shamanic witch look gave way to a more prosaic Madonna seen leaving Kabbalah centres wearing Chavtastic Adidas tracksuits and gormless towelling hats. She probably caught the geeza look from Guy - it's a mistake.

Mark Borkowski: It is uncanny how she manages to pick the right religion at the right time. She embraces Kabbalah mysticism, just as half of Hollywood is getting into it.

She says: 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.

The sex goddess

Andy Gill: Madonna shocked fans' parents with the explicit moanings and groanings of "Justify My Love" and two years later capitalised on her new earthy reputation with 1992's SEX coffee-table book and album Erotica. Despite the hilariously pompous tone of both, she cemented her position as the queen of pop carnality.

James Sherwood: The Blonde Ambition Tour showed Madonna in her prime. Bawdy, arrogant and profane, she knew she could get away with anything - thus Jean-Paul Gaultier dresses her like a cyber stripper with conical gilded tits and fishnet tights.

Mark Borkowski: Sex sells. She has always known that. Madonna has a body which appears to have actually got better with age - without the slightest suggestion of botox or surgery. The SEX period had the benefit of focusing attention on what she did when some iffy stuff from her background was emerging. So she created a fire to divert attention.

She says: Sometimes I was being overtly sexual for the sake of it. One minute I was saying "believe in yourself" and the next I was saying "be sexually provocative for the sake of being sexually provocative". Now that's confusing.

The actor

Geoffrey MacNab, film critic: Her acting is so blighted by embarrassing flops (Swept Away, Shanghai Surprise etc) it's easy to forget how lively she can be on screen. Her range is tiny but as long as she is playing characters not too far removed from herself - divas and hustlers - she can usually pull it off.

James Sherwood: Eva Peron is the role Madonna was born to play. Evita was basically Mussolini in a Christian Dior suit. Her bleached hair pulled into a knot and signature red lipstick suit Madonna's equally glacial, unforgiving personality.

Mark Borkowski: When she appeared in the West End, it didn't matter to the people in Hollywood that the London critics didn't really like it. And though her films haven't always worked, you cannot deny the fantastic work ethic she brings. Swept Away was a disaster because she was in love with the director. And she's moved on, so it's not a problem in terms of her image.

She says: I found my voice in doing Evita, because I had to study extensively with a vocal coach. And I found range, and parts of my voice that I never knew I had. I'd only been using "this" much of it. It's a good find, by the way.

The English Countrywoman

Peter York, style guru: Not an affectation. London is now the centre of the world and Madonna wants to be there. Smart American girls have always found it easy to move into upper-class British society and with Guy Ritchie she married into such a family. It's clear from hearing her speak what circles she is now moving in.

James Sherwood: Period costume suits Madonna, especially Fifties Mitford sister aristocratic style - to match her country estate. Enchanted as I was by Madonna feeding chickens dressed in Alexander McQueen cardigan and pearls, I'll bet she swore like a Bronx cab driver when she fell off her horse. At heart, she's a tramp, and dressing like Grace Kelly won't disguise that.

Mark Borkowski: Fantastic market positioning. In Hollywood, everyone is chasing bigger and better; she side-steps all that. In Britain and to the Daily Mail, upper-class life is commonplace, but to trailer-trash America and People magazine, which is where her audience lies, she's having an unbelievably exotic lifestyle.

She says: If I hadn't married Guy, I'm sure I wouldn't have grown to appreciate the beauty of the country. 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.

The children's author

Lesley Agnew, leading children's bookshop owner: Her books [the fifth was published earlier this year] haven't sold very well at all and we have very little demand for them. They seem to be the kind of thing adults buy for other's people's children - it's the name recognition. I find the tone rather sickly and over moral.

James Sherwood: More glamorous than J K Rowling, Madonna looked pretty when she read from The English Roses dressed in floral. But the schoolteacher look on a woman who used to swear like an Osborne and simulate masturbation onstage is about as convincing as Pamela Anderson trying to impersonate Pam Ayers.

Mark Borkowski: It is the only thing that seems out of sync. It seemed more a marketing exercise - to show she can do anything she wants. It was also a bit of a punt, to see if she could do it.

She says: It felt really good to publish a book ... and to start reading letters from children who read The English Roses and wrote things like: "You know, when I read your book it made me think of how horrible me and my girlfriends were to this girl in school." I thought ... I'm helping kids, and I never thought I'd be doing that.

The cowgirl Madonna

Andy Gill: By 2000, the one time Material Girl, Sex Queen and Hippy Mum had reinvented herself as an Urban Cowgirl doing line-dance to more techno-pop grooves. She relied heavily on fast disco beats, loping synth basslines and the briefly fashionable vocoderised vocals that swept any unnecessary traces of humanity out of millennial dance music.

James Sherwood: Madonna's Music incarnation may have been cowboy-inspired but it wasn't down home. Her jeans and checked shirt were by Dsquared and her ruby rhinestone heels were copies of a Ferragamo shoe made for Marilyn Monroe. I approved of the country phase because it came at a time when she couldn't flog S&M any more. The look re-connected with middle America: simple and clean, it gave the aging Madonna dignity.

Mark Borkowski: The Cowgirl was about flexing her creative power in a male-dominated entertainment world, saying this is hip again. It connected with both British and American roots, where it had a different resonance. The key question is did it sell? And the answer is yes.

She says: 'I've never wanted to make the same record or do the same thing twice'