Celebration; Madonna; Warner Bros.

Celebration; Madonna; Warner Bros.

“Who’s That Girl?” Seriously? Thirty-six songs on the two-disc version of Madonna’s otherwise groovy, career-spanning greatest hits compilation, Celebration, and she includes “Who’s That Girl?” If you’re going to bother with that largely forgettable movie soundtrack, why not include the vaguely danceable “Commotion,” instead?

Upon further consideration, maybe it’s a wise number to include—if not from a musical point of view, then from a cultural perspective. Because, when it comes to the Queen of the Dance Floor, these days, the question “Who’s that girl” truly burns for an answer. Burns, as in heartburn. Or is that heartbreak? Take a gander at Madonna circa 2009 and you might as well ask, “Who’s that face?”

Celebration invites reveling in Madonna’s vast achievements as a recording artist. Never a remarkable singer, early on she transformed her vocal shortcomings into assets that she married to unrelenting musical curiosity. Love that bratty sound she trademarked in the mid- and late-’80s, and songs like “Into the Groove,” “Open Your Heart,” “Dress You Up” and “Like a Prayer” flaunt her insolent, commanding attitude and her underlying don’t-give-a-shit playfulness. Oh, remember when Madonna promised to lead us through the wilderness with a witty, ambitious combination of disco sex appeal, businesswoman savvy and cardinal danger? Remember when she had her own cheekbones?

Starting with the cover art, Celebration insists that you remember. There she is, circa True Blue and Sean Penn, nostrils flaring, half-lidded insolent eyes daring you to reach her, insouciant beauty mark reminding you, as she made clear in the “Papa Don’t Preach” video, that Italians do it better. At this point, you may be thinking that your correspondent is an old school, “I Love the 80s” type of fan who parted ways with Madge about the time she hennaed her hands and wore that Indian princess outfit to an awards show. Not so! She’s had my heart from “Music makes the world go round” (“Everybody,” 1982) to “Music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel” (“Music,” 2000) and beyond.

But increasingly I think she no longer wants me to dress her up in my love. Let’s leave the whole Third World baby snatching out of the discussion. After all, if l’affaire Polanski proves anything it’s that reasonable people can disagree about whether an artist’s work can and should be separated from his or her personal life and behavior. We can restrict our evidence to recent collaborations and still cover plenty of ground in a discussion of how Madonna’s shepherding (or pimping) her ambitions these days. I fancy myself a little Justin Timberlake, just like any red-blooded female, but there’s something just downright embarrassing about listening to Madonna, nearly twice his age, panting about how she’s got only “Four Minutes” to save the world with him. Coming from a woman who was savvy enough to get William Orbit into the mainstream with the yogi-hedonist-mystical-techno record “Ray of Light,” teaming up with JT seems like a suggestion that came down from the suits in Marketing. Along those lines, Celebration features a new cut that pairs Madonna with Lil Wayne. You can file that one under “whatever.”

But let’s face it: There is only so much of Madonna the Woman that can be filtered from Madonna the Artist. Because she has made her body, her appetites, and her intelligent mining of female types the foundation of her work, we must return to personal matters. By which I mean, of course, the scary plastic surgery and the ridiculous modeling. (Crotch shots? Really? How to say this, Madonna: You have nothing to prove any longer in that department.) There was a time when you could justify my love, when I could open my heart to you, when you didn’t have to tell me to stop. But these days, my darling Madge, you seem like more of a beautiful stranger.

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