If you've been reading between the lines in the coverage of Madonna and Alex Rodriguez, you might be inclined to believe that the pop star is not to blame for the breakup of the baseball player's marriage.
And if you have noticed the images of Madonna that have blanketed the news, dominated by a photograph taken in May at the Cannes Film Festival showing her in a pink silk Stella McCartney dress with a big bow at the neck, so plain and unrevealing it could have been cut from the Yearning for Zion prairie-dress pattern book, you might even have thought that the ultimate provocateur had been chastened – the Mama Madonna.
For a performer who has spent 25 years shocking audiences into submission through her lyrics, actions and attire, Madonna's latest stylistic reinvention – timed to the start of a new tour next month – is mostly shocking for not having teeth. The new Madonna look, as seen in paparazzi photographs taken on the streets of New York over the last couple of weeks, evokes a kind of athletic, campus-casual blandness, as if designed for anonymity at the gym.
In one photograph, taken on her way to dinner, she is wearing a loose blouse with saggy satin shorts and what appear to be cut-off sheer tights, maybe a pair of Miu Miu heels and a Louis Vuitton bag from last season. It is an eccentric look, but boring in light of the ever-changing styles Madonna created in the past.
“I think she's looking like Christie Brinkley going to court,” said Betsey Johnson, the fashion designer and a longtime proponent of tutus, fingerless lace gloves and party dresses, what could once have been described as a Madonna signature. “She looks pretty straight now, right?”
One could argue, at the risk of sounding ageist, that performers like Cher and Barbra Streisand began to lose their fashion potency at the point they set out on what seemed like never-ending farewell tours.
Madonna, who turns 50 on Aug. 16, plans to remain on the stage for the next decade as part of a recent deal with the concert promotion company Live Nation, raising the specter of an aging audience grown exhausted of chasing the latest trend in conical bras, henna tattoos or cowboy hats.
Last summer, Madonna's positive Q score, a measure of familiarity and appeal, was 13, compared with an average positive score of 17 for most performers, and her negative rating (representing people who were turned off by her) was 39. That reveals a slight decrease in her popularity since 2000, when her positive rating was 14.
“It makes the point that her fan base hasn't changed,” said Steven Levitt, the president of Marketing Evaluations, which puts out Q scores.
On the cover of her new album, “Hard Candy,” Madonna is, appropriately enough, repackaged as a fighter. She is dressed like a contestant on “American Gladiators” from Team Dolce & Gabbana, in a black bodysuit, championship belt, above-the-knee patent leather boots and what appears to be a mullet. Her makeup is pale and alien looking. In the first video releases, “4 Minutes” and “Give It 2 Me,” she dances in sheer tops and more high boots, here with labels like Chanel and Roberto Cavalli.
Yet neither video yielded a breakout Madonna look, nothing like her instant personas of the '80s and '90s, which is confusing to her fans. On the street, she has been wearing silk shorts trimmed with lace and tees from Ed Hardy, a label more often associated with Pamela Anderson and the Gastineau Girls.
“She doesn't seem to have found a particular look for this album,” said Clare Parmenter, a 35-year-old biomedical scientist in London who maintains a fan site called Madonnalicious.com. “It's a bit – I don't know how to say it – it's nondescript.”
Parmenter was hooked by the Madonna of “Desperately Seeking Susan,” the 1985 movie that defined the manic plastic look of fashion of the decade. The mounds of plastic bracelets, the lace gloves and the hair – dyed with peroxide, roots showing, tied up in old dance tights – became the inspiration for mall fashion and, at one point, an in-store boutique at Macy's.
Her “Blond Ambition” tour in 1990, which included Jean Paul Gaultier's conical bras, established, for better or worse, the use of innerwear as outerwear. The aftershocks of her adoption of cowboy attire for the 2000 release of “Music” are still being felt.
“Hard Candy,” not so much.
“We're still seeing a lot of cowboy hats in public,” Parmenter said. “But I'm not going to go around wearing a boxing belt. There's nothing you can really grab on to this time as a definite image from the album.”
Jay Engel, 29, who runs the Web site Absolutemadonna.com, asked why, from a branding perspective, the boxing theme from the album cover was not carried over to the videos. “Right now, I would say she is in a transition,” said Engel, of Toronto. “Maybe she's uncomfortable and trying to figure out who she is at 50. I hate to say it, but I wouldn't say she feels very comfortable right now.”
But Mauricio Padilha, a partner in the fashion production company MAO, is in her corner, even posing in a boxing belt for his birthday party invitation. “The whole look is about empowerment,” he said. “It's sort of like what she used to wear when she was starting out, but she's cleaned it up. Now she's wearing just one necklace with a cross on it to remind you she is Madonna.”