The tabloid hyenas say she's lost her way. Not so, says Suzanne Moore. She knows exactly where she's going
IT IS a strange thing to be nearly 40 and still find yourself dancing around in your bedroom to a pop record, especially when that music is made by a woman of much the same age, who was never, ever going settle for mere 15 minutes of fame. Madonna has been famous for 15 years. During that time she has grown up a lot - and so have I, but clearly not enough to feel unexcited by the release of her best record in years, Ray of Light.

There are, of course, the begrudgers. Madonna, we have been told recently by interviewer after interviewer, isn't as beautiful as you think she is. She is not even sexy. She wore a blanket for one encounter with the press, for goodness sake. She has gone grungy, her hair is a mess. She looks positively crusty. She has become a hippy. I have read all these things in the last few weeks. The sub-text to all this is that a successful women can never be truly happy, and worse - the most dreadful thing that can ever happen to a woman has happened to her - she has let herself go.

Well, yes, she has let herself go, but not in the way that the tabloid hyenas mean. Madonna is freer than she ever was and she looks amazing. Don't tell me that this is simply because she has been photographed by Mario Testino, the man who reputedly produces a post-coital glow in every woman he snaps. She looks fabulous because she is fabulous. Motherhood has not ruined her - if Testino's recent Vanity Fair pictures of her with her baby, Lourdes, are anything to go by, it may have even made her relax a little. The queen of the treadmill has taken up yoga. Maybe she is even becoming a little more flexible.

Madonna's embracing of the ethereal rather than material side of life has been rubbished, too. She has gone all cosmic because spirituality is the fashion accessory du jour. Yoga, the Kabbalah, hennaed Sanskrit symbols on her hands? Is it any different to her Eighties interest in corsetry? Is all this going with the New Age flow any deeper, any more meaningful than Edina Monsoon's chanting and crystal healing? What next - Liam Gallagher becomes a Quaker? Is she guilty of just doing that mid- life pop star trip, like every other superstar before her, of getting a religion, preferably an Eastern one, to stave off a mid-life crisis?

But for Madonna an interest in faith and mysticism is hardly new. She was formed entirely by her Catholicism and every move she made, every symbol she dangled in front of us was her way of publicly losing her religion. Long before she became an icon herself she understood the value of iconography, hardly surprising in one named after the blessed Virgin herself.

The charge, as always, is that she is not to be taken seriously, that she is a fake. If this is true then she has been faking it for so long that we wonder if even she can tell the difference any more, because there is no one on the planet who knows more about image and artifice than this woman. For all these years she has teased us with the prospect of showing us the real Madonna, of opening her heart as well as her legs to the world. While she shed one veil of femininity, she mysteriously draped herself in another.

Yet the more she revealed, the less we knew. The one thing that I was sure of after having seen the movie In Bed with Madonna was that she was more real performing on stage than when she was "being herself" off it. We saw just what she wanted us to see, and Warren Beatty's famous remark that she was not living if she was "off camera" stuck in our heads, because at the end of the day we knew that Ms Ciccone, control freak extraordinaire, had allowed that remark to be recorded on camera.

It is this determination both to exploit and explore her own fame and its consequences that makes her so utterly compelling. The nature of fame is a subject that our artists and novelists still struggle with - the meaning of celebrity, the life examined and examined yet again. And here in the eye of the storm, the most famous woman in the world is doing it for herself: "I traded fame for love", is the first line of the new album. Ray of Light is a collection of songs about love and loneliness and the impossibility of making intimate connections when you are carrying around the baggage of mega-stardom. It is also about what it is to both lose a mother and to become a mother. Some critics may have described it as sixth-form poetry, but these lyrics were never meant to be poetry; they are pop songs alive with the great wash of mood and rhythm and life force that only music can bring. Madonna knows in her very soul that the dance floor is a magical place, not because she belongs to the chemical generation, but because she knows about the alchemy of sex, ambition and female desire that drove her there in the first place. "Only when you are dancing can you feel this free..."

It is this knowledge that is the source of her power, what makes her so irresistible to women and so unsettling for her detractors. When Madonna, a woman so obviously in control of her own destiny, spoke of desire, she did so aggressively in conical bras, in masturbatory dance sequences, in her flaunting of Latino lovers and joyous fag-haggery.

When she decided to turn herself from a sexual subject into a sex object for her book Sex, a work she now regards as an act of rebellion, she was derided. It was thought that she revealed too much, as though showing her naked body was the same as baring her soul. The critics held up before us the holy trinity of failure - the over-hyped sex book, a contrived catalogue of taboo busting, the mediocre Erotica album and a disastrous role in Body of Evidence.

Then she did something truly shocking. She learnt how to sing. She made Evita and then she had the much longed-for love-child.

Not for her the passive Bridget Jones-style ticking of the biological clock. She would have a baby even if it meant being a single parent, and like Jodie Foster she is rich and famous and clever enough to do it by any method she damn well pleases.

We love Madonna - as we loved Princess Diana - because of her flaws, because she bangs on about her unhappy childhood, her failed relationships, about the sheer loneliness of the long-distance celebrity. We see a woman who, like Diana, has it all but who says sometimes she feels empty inside.

And we see a survivor. Madonna has made mistakes, looked bad, looked good, has been too poor to take the Subway, too famous to leave the house. She is a star and will be for a very long time. Her sexuality is a work in progress. Suddenly she is cool enough to appear on the front of NME - she is the mother of all pop - and even shine on the cathedral of tack that is the National Lottery show. She even got away with singing Andrew Lloyd Webber songs. Here she is again at number one, the ethereal girl still pushing more product than ever.

To see woman free from the need for approval is still a rare and beautiful thing. She does exactly what she wants, when she wants. It doesn't really matter what we think of her. "Nothing really matters" she sings on Ray of Light, and you know she means it. Which is precisely why she continues to matter so much.