Queen of the comeback

Icon, lover, mother, mogul: Madonna has done them all and, along the way, defined stardom. As she reinvents herself again (on stage, naturally), Nick Duerden sifts her greatest hits and misses
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Some time later this evening, Madonna will walk out on to a Los Angeles stage, clad only in Chanel and essence of kabbalah, for the first of what promises to be the most extravagant series of shows she has yet undertaken. Given that all pop stars of global appeal invest much of their neuroses in the eternal need to come back bigger-better-more, this isn't a particularly surprising boast, but given that this is Madonna - the Queen of Pop, lest we forget - we should take the claim seriously. As, presumably, should the British fans who have forked out up to £150 for the privilege of seeing the show when it reaches these shores later this summer.

She's called it the Reinvention Tour, and to suggest that it will be lively is a little like suggesting that Everest is a tallish mountain with some snow on top. According to a mysteriously unidentified source (but let's take a stab in the dark and guess that it's someone on her payroll), the show "will make people's hair stand on end. Madonna has pulled out all the stops to make it her most controversial yet. The concerts are going to cause a stir on the same level as her Sex book and the Erotica album."

The tour's production is massive, costing more than £1m to stage. It will feature Rolling Stones-style pyrotechnics and the kind of special effects not normally seen outside a Texas penitentiary: at one point, Madonna will be strapped into an electric chair that will, we are told, "frazzle" her.

Presumably she won't die, because there's more. Her single "American Life" will be re-worked into an anti-war anthem, with images of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq being shot to pieces. In her rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine", she will spontaneously break down in tears in front of pictures of starving children. Every night.

If this all sounds a little too Michael Jackson, fear not. This is Madonna, after all, and there will be lots of bare flesh and bad language. She'll be indulging in some lesbian sex because - well, why the hell not? And for the climax, she will rise from the dead, something her namesake never managed.

Tickets for the Reinvention Tour have sold out with an alacrity that the woman herself must find a considerable relief. Over the past couple of years, Madonna - wife, mother, Mini Cooper-driving superstar - has flexed her artistic muscles right across the media, with wildly varying results.

Her private life, never out of the public eye, is reportedly in turmoil. She might not act again, and is being held responsible for killing her director husband's promising career stone dead. The tabloids have it that the couple are fighting like cat and dog: over children, over the former footballer Vinnie Jones, over whose turn it is to pacify the paparazzi. She is delving into the teachings of kabbalah, the Hollywood-friendly religion into which she has allegedly poured several million pounds to help fund and publicise.

If ever there was a time Madonna needed to be reminded of her enduring popularity as, if nothing else, the greatest pop star who ever lived, that time is now.

The pop star

In the past 20 years, Madonna has sold more than 250 million records. From the pure pop of her 1983 debut Madonna to the sophisticated majesty of her finest album, Like a Prayer (1989), and with several bizarre diversions - such as 1992's Erotica, in which she panted, sexually, towards hyperventilation - Madonna has always been music's most forward-thinking visionary.

But most fans will only ever associate her greatest moment with the point in 1983 when she burst through the celebrity stratosphere as the decade's quintessential "Material Girl". For all the sophistries of her later incarnations, many remember her most fondly, and with no small amount of nostalgia, for the days in which her sartorial ensemble consisted of nothing more designer than a DIY dye job, scarlet lipstick and a yard or so of tulle.

Others champion 1986's True Blue as her finest moment: for this, she sheared her frazzled locks and sported a short platinum crop. The album, which included the seminal "Papa Don't Preach", sold 19 million copies and made No 1 in 27 countries. And where, artistically, she may have failed to score points for the lyrical poignancy of Erotica, Madonna still managed to win most critics round by judicious disrobing.

In musical terms, it's hard to pinpoint anything where she got it completely wrong, although most would agree that her decision to record "American Pie" was perhaps the most misdirected decision of her career so far. Ray of Light would have been a very respectable point at which to retire gracefully from the music scene, but last year's American Life heralded yet another new beginning for the Material Girl - as white rapper. "I do yoga and Pilates/ And the room is full of hotties/ So I'm checking out the bodies and you know I'm satisfied," she raps triumphantly on the title track of an album that some consider her best yet.

So, while she may not be selling records in the same vast quantities, she remains the most interesting, challenging and innovative artist of her generation. Each album features another cutting-edge producer taking her in new directions. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but whatever she comes up with is worth listening to. That is no small achievement.

The film star

Back in 1985, Madonna could do no wrong. Having performed so seductively in the videos for "Like a Virgin" and "Papa Don't Preach", she thought she'd do likewise on the big screen. Desperately Seeking Susan, however, suggested that she'd be wiser sticking to pop videos.

But Madonna was never going to be so easily thwarted. She married an actor (Sean Penn) and appeared in a string of films - Shanghai Surprise (ghastly), Body of Evidence (gruesome) and Dick Tracy (grim) - turning in performances that suggested she was no more an actress than she was a zoologist. But Evita brought a modicum of actorly respect, and dreams of Oscar glory never quite receded.

When she married Guy Ritchie, many feared they would do what married couples should never do: work together. Temptation proved too much. Madonna was apparently convinced that Swept Away, billed by some fool as a "romantic comedy", would be the role of her life. Instead, it was a gossamer-light tale of a rich socialite's wife who gets shipwrecked on a desert island with an unctuous but handsome Italian man who bullies her, demeans her and tries to rape her before true love intervenes... as true love so often does.

It is difficult to say anything positive about Swept Away, because it's the worst movie ever made. The script is painful. The acting, Madonna's in particular, is appalling, and Ritchie's flash directorial flourishes are nowhere to be seen. The film was slaughtered in America, and went straight to video in the UK. It seems Madonna has now seen sense and stuck to the roles of wife, mother and spiritual guru. However, only time will tell whether Madonna's weakness for the big screen will see her in another disastrous film role.

The wife and mother

Once pilloried by church and state for her wanton sexuality and evil ways, Madonna's reinvention in 1996 after the birth of her daughter Lourdes marked one of the most spectacular image transformations ever. Meanwhile the father, her personal trainer Carlos Leon's role was largely played down by the Madonna team. Her single- parent status culminated in a Vanity Fair spread, in March 1998, in which she resembled Mother Earth made flesh.

Her subsequent marriage to Guy Ritchie, with whom she had a second child, Rocco, sealed her status a celebrity family woman, making her the UK's official spokesperson on motherhood, education, the NHS, child-rearing and shearing (she dictates how children's hair should be styled) and any other subject of family interest she cares to lend her opinions on.

The religious guru

Madonna Louise Ciccone must be one of the world's most famous lapsed Catholics. Ever since she pleasured herself on stage in 1990 with a crucifix, the Pope has taken a very dim view of her art. She has since taken her spirituality elsewhere, stopping temporarily at the temple of Buddhism before settling upon the teachings of the kabbalah, as taught by the 4,000-year-old religion's self-styled "world's foremost authority", one Rabbi Philip Berg, a former insurance salesman. Under a headscarf and the pseudonym Ethel, she attends weekly teachings of the kabbalah in London. She is now as recognisable for her faith as she was, 10 years ago, as John Paul Gaultier's conical-bosomed muse.

Kabbalah, she has explained, teaches one the art of self-healing. Followers are apparently able to promote a "positive flow of energy" that can aid everything from fertilisation to slowing down the ageing process.

One of the requirements of the religion is that followers spread the word. This she has duly done. David and Victoria Beckham are recent converts, as is Britney Spears, each under Madonna's tutelage. This shouldn't come as a surprise: Madonna has always been a trendsetter, a leader of sheep and even, sometimes, a converter of cynics. Her husband is a convert to kabbalah and, as a result, no longer mingles with landed gentry and no longer accompanies Vinnie Jones on pheasant shoots. Jones is said to be unimpressed.

The novelist

Having once sung about bedtime stories (on the album of that name in 1994), Madonna has turned to writing them. If this seems a little incongruous for a woman whose only previous foray into literature was a coffee-table sex book in which she was photographed getting physical with Naomi Campbell, so what? Madonna's dictum is that there are, simply, no rules.

And so, last year, she signed a deal to write a series of five children's books, each re-telling a kabbalah morality tale. The first, The English Roses, which shifted 100,000 copies in its first week, was published last year. Grown-ups were cynical, but children loved it. "I like the book because when you read the first word you are hooked," says Celia Hulse, nine, from Manchester. "You can't wait to find out what happens. My mum said she has never known me to keep quiet for so long." She's hardly JK Rowling, of course, but Madonna's transition into the teller of children's stories is perhaps her greatest reinvention yet.

The brand

The Reinvention Tour travels America over the next two months and arrives in the UK in August, by which time Madonna will be the Madonna of old all over again. The world's most famous woman will once again dominate the red-tops. Columnists, talk-show hosts and members of Parliament will throw up their arms at the electric-chair stunt, the gratuitous nudity and the unnecessary profanities. Is this, they will ask, any way for a 45-year-old mother of two to behave? Is Madonna trying too hard?

Of course she is - but then Madonna has always tried too hard. And it is precisely this that makes her such a fascinating figure, such an enduring icon - in short, still the greatest star in the world.