Forty-five seems like a little old for an adult to decide to grow up, but it's better than never. In an interview with ABC last week, fading pop star Madonna addressed the fact that she's been less than a role model in her career. She looks back on her provocative act over the last two decades and concedes it was meaningless.
She told interviewer Cynthia McFadden: "I did spend at least a decade taking off my clothes, and being photographed; saying bad words on TV ... And I thought I was liberating mankind. But like I said, I wasn't really offering an alternative."
Madonna, however, is Madonna, so don't think she writes it all off as a mistake. She just denies it had great meaning: "I don't regret it, but it's just ... everybody takes their clothes off now. And then what? ... I was saying, 'look, you know, why do men only get the job of objectifying women in a sexual way? I wanna do it, too.' There was an element of that, but there was also an element of being an exhibitionist and saying, 'look at me,' you know. It wasn't that altruistic. I can admit that."
It's almost amusing -- it should be oddly comforting -- that Madonna is stricter with her children than she has ever been on herself. They are not allowed to watch TV, Madonna's natural home, where she has offered her corrupting influences to millions of other people's children for decades. They are not allowed to swear, which is also something Madonna loves to do, including on stage and in videos if allowed -- again, in front of millions of youngsters who aren't her own. She complained last year about her atrocious video for her flop single "American Life" that "we had to edit it for time. Then we had to get rid of all the F-words."
Some of this newfound reflection may come as Madonna's children grow. Her daughter Lourdes (known usually by her nickname "Lola") will be 8 this year, and is surely growing savvier about what it is that her mother does for a living. McFadden asked how Lola processed Madonna kissing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on MTV in her most recent attempt at televised infamy: "She doesn't think anything of it. She's like, whatever, I kiss girls all the time on the lips. I say hello, goodbye, whatever." That's one weird house if people kiss hello by slipping tongue.
Another reason for Madonna toning down the provocative stuff a bit is her budding career as an author of children's books. The newest one, titled "Yakov and the Seven Thieves," is her third and -- don't laugh -- most "spiritual" work. She calls it "a story about how all of us have the ability to unlock the gates of heaven -- no matter how unworthy we think we are."
This follows from her study of Kabbalah, the trendy Jewish offshoot, which, all the fashionably inclusive theology aside, at least has her focusing on the question of how God would like her to act. She told ABC that one spiritual teacher advised her, "when in doubt, act like God ... all loving, all giving."
From that teaching, she now looks at her career and draws the conclusion: "I choose to look at myself as, like, a person who is now awake, um, and a person who is now trying to be part of the order, not the chaos of the world." She admitted that in her personal dealings she brought "Lots of chaos. I think I brought a lot of chaos to people's lives because of my selfish behavior."
That's a nice message, but Madonna's "Reinvention" tour, now heading around the country, is still brown-wrapper stuff. While critics have noticed that her wardrobe is more conservative and she's skipping the constant sexual grinding (that's all left to Britney and her other copycats now), the show still has the F-words and nudity. The Washington Post reported that her concert at the MCI Center was filled with creepy screen images of naked bodies, all of them quivering and distressed through an editing technique "familiar to anyone who's seen a Marilyn Manson video."
But parents should be grateful when the aging envelope-pushers drop their campaigns to make a name on shock value alone, even if they're not sending their kids to the concerts. At least in some venues, the MTV-addled popular culture at large is taking a few less body blows, and selfish indulgence is being balanced, if even just a tiny bit, with a more charitable and eternal perspective.