Don't let Madonna's cool front fool you: Being pronounced dead by the media spooked her deeply. Just listen to the way she snipes back at the press on her new album, Bedtime Stories. ''You punished me for telling you my fantasies,'' she complains in ''Human Nature,'' ''and held me down and tried to make me break.'' In the title track, the press drubbing nearly crushes her. Fed up, Madonna murmurs, ''I will never explain again.''
She won't have to after Bedtime Stories. More than any previous Madonna album, the latest finds the singer telling us the truth about her life. In various songs, she not only unloads on the media but also details a troubling and deeply personal view of romance. Never have her lyrics been this autobiographical.
Her music strides into new territory, too. Perhaps inspired by her brush with media-death, Madonna has found a whole new way to express herself.
On one level, the album extends a pattern from her last work, 1992's Erotica, by living for the groove, pop hooks be damned. That's not good news for anyone carrying a torch for the chirpy old pre-Erotica Madonna sound; they'll barely find a single track here to cherish.
Even those who swoon for records ruled by rhythm will have to get used to Bedtime Stories' radical departure. On Erotica, Madonna explored the stripped, shadowy bass beats of the underground gay dance genre known as ''sleaze.'' Bedtime Stories replaces Madonna's gay alliances with her ongoing obsession with black culture. On tracks produced by Dallas Austin, Dave Hall, and Babyface, the album co-opts the latest wave of new-jack R&B. As befits men who have overseen artists like Mary J. Blige, TLC, and Joi, Madonna's numerous producers stress sumptuous bass hooks over conventional melodies. They also push mid-paced, looping rhythms over brisker beats; not a single number mounts the fast track. Even the album's strongest call to the dance floor (''Don't Stop'') forsakes the exuberance of old club hits like ''Into the Groove'' for a measured grind.
If that sounds like a drag to older listeners, it's right in step with today's youth. Madonna has eagerly adopted the sound that now regularly shoots artists like Xscape, Changing Faces, and Aaliyah up Billboard's Top 100 singles chart, a style geared toward audiences young enough to still buy singles. Such a move might seem opportunistic, but Madonna takes to the sound far more credibly than did Michael Jackson (who tried a similar update with producer Teddy Riley on his Dangerous album).
Better yet, Madonna winds up subverting the genre. Male artists normally control new jack swing, using women as their sex puppets, but Madonna kicks that formula in the groin. Not only could she never be considered any boy's toy, but in a way, she could actually be viewed as new jack swing's godmother. Her early work presaged new jack's central belief that there's nothing separating raw sex from true romance. And that's a far more radical view when it comes from a woman than from a man.
To increase the threat, Madonna's lyrics mingle sex and romance in more personal ways than ever. Previously, she wrote largely in characters and slogans; now she writes, more complexly, from the heart. In several songs she exposes an emotional perversity with the clarity she once had reserved for her sexual kinks. In ''Forbidden Love'' she dismisses any relationship untouched by taboo, in ''Love Tried to Welcome Me'' she fetishizes rejection, and in ''Sanctuary'' she aligns love and death in a way her shrink may want to seriously examine.
In fact, she's on far surer ground thrashing through such neurotic (if not uncommon) views of relationships than she is trashing the media. In striking back at her critics, Madonna simply sounds self-righteous and smug. ''I didn't know I couldn't talk about sex,'' she sneers in ''Human Nature.'' ''Did I say something true?'' Yes. But tooting your own horn about it just sounds petty. For Madonna, luckily, revenge needn't lie in such squabbles. She wins through the catchy bass hooks and clear persona of the music.
Longtime Madonna fans may still pine for the ecstatic buoyancy of her early hits. And even open-minded listeners may find that the new tracks work less as individual songs than as a sustained mood suite for the boudoir. But seven albums into her career, there's no denying that Madonna keeps moving forward and crossing barriers this time, helping another kind of black music further penetrate into the mainstream. Apparently, pop's most shameless exhibitionist still has something to reveal. B+