Yvonne Roberts: Madonna, the exhibitionist who remains an enigma

Is she a porn toy, or is she revealing the power of the female to turn male lewdness against itself?
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Her Madge-sty has done it again. Madonna, Queen of Pop for 22 years, in her worldwide Confessions tour, is receiving the best reviews of her career - albeit delivered in a tone of half embarrassment, as if grown-up male and female music reviewers can't quite believe that they are giving her such an unequivocal endorsement.

"Ultra-slick and fantastically fake," wrote Owen Adams in this paper yesterday, of her first British performance at the Cardiff Millennium Centre at the weekend. "... this is pure and unadulterated escapism on a colossal scale ...Long will she reign." "A bravura multimedia stew," enthused Neil McCormick in the Telegraph. "Material Girl is the real thing ... better than any other entertainer in her league," judged Caroline Sullivan in The Guardian.

The key, perhaps, is in the word "entertainer" as well as in her much commented upon chameleon-like ability to defy gravity, ageing, osteoporosis and all the other ailments that beset the average (unpampered) 47-year-old to emerge - after shedding, snake-like, yet another persona - ever-more wrinkle-free and energetic.

In the 1980s, in videos for songs such as "Holiday" and "Like a Virgin", we had the nicely rounded, heavily made-up, thrift-store Madonna, wearing the contents of several cutlery drawers and not a few crucifixes around her neck. Several years later, came the conical bra, simulated masturbation on stage and muscles to which every female gym-freak unashamedly aspired.

In 1991, she stripped off her coat at the Cannes Film Festival to reveal a frighteningly lethal bra and corset; underwear as cocktail gear. Thus confirming her status as icon-in-the making, not so much because of how she performed or what she sang or wrote or said - but because of the many, many questions she provoked both then and now.

The other UK entertainer, Robbie Williams, can also hold an audience in the palm of his hand - but he has only two public personae: alcoholic stud boy-band member and recovering alcoholic stud solo performer. No matter how talented, his presence on life's great stage provokes only a couple of queries. Will he find love? And, can he stay dry?

Madonna, in contrast, with her great skill for marketing herself, plays a game of enigma variations. Attending a premiere in her underwear, is she old-fashioned cheesecake, a porn toy for men? Or, is she revealing the power of the female to turn male lewdness against itself. Is she, as many have pondered, saying: fuck me, or fuck you?

The contradictions and conundrums have continued into middle age. The canny girl who arrived from Michigan in New York with only $35 in her pocket and who is now a sophisticated superstar, still has a juvenile desire to shock on stage. During her Cardiff performance, she suddenly yelled of Blair: "You can go to Texas and suck Bush's dick!" These days, hardly enough to cause even a nun to twitch.

At the same time, in private, when not wrapped from head to toe in a towelling burqa on the beach; she dresses like an advert for the post-war Scottish tweed industry and rears her two children as if they were living in a time capsule in the 1950s. Able to take her pick of men, she marries Guy Ritchie, a man who displays not even a fraction of the maturity of the latest Big Brother reject. So, what's it all about Madge? It's the pick 'n' mix variety of her personal life and the questions that help to keep us hooked.

Perhaps, too, there's another bond between Madonna and her fans: namely, her deification of excess. Tickets for the Confessions tour range from £80 to £150 each. Madonna has issued a fact sheet explaining why a little entertainment costs so dear. Glitter ball, laser lights, 350 roadies; a crown of thorns (what else?); 22 dancers and video of famished Africans. (Madge has never been strong on irony. The thoughts of Quentin Bell come to mind about the billions of dollars that might be spent making the thin fatter, instead, are devoted to making the fat thinner.)

The price tag has also paid for 4,000 Swarovski crystals embedded in Madonna's belt. Is it really necessary? "Because you're worth it", The Star seems to be telling her fans, exploiting the advertising theology that turns excess into a virtue.

For some, Madge is the woman who has it all. By which they mean, (the 47-year-old, hands apart), she is in a Groundhog Day of her own making - forever young. Except, of course, what is left out, is the answer to the one question that hurts. How does she do it?

An exhibitionist with a huge talent, she is prepared to sacrifice many of the pleasures of life for a punishing regime of denial that has to be, Madonna, the work in constant progress. Can she keep going? Disco star; prophet of plastic pop; punk princess - what will Madonna do next? Or, might she, like Cher and Tina Turner before her, icons in their own way, eventually find that the effort of holding back the clock, to be worshipped by strangers, no longer has appeal?

At the beginning of the Confessions show, Madonna dismounts from the back of the male dancer who wears a bridle and bit, and in black riding gear, whip in hand, she asks the audience, "Are you ready to ride with me?"

So far, apparently, the answer is an orgasmic, yes, yes, yes.