For Madonna, ''image'' isn't a noun, it's a verb a very active verb. Over the past seven years, since her first album, Madonna has been unavoidable. We've seen her almost constantly, for reasons both trivial (her hair color) and serious (her troubled marriage). She's one of the most recognizable entertainers working today. And that's curious, because we seldom see the same Madonna twice. Her chameleon-like approach isn't common; most stars want to ensure their recognition. But changeability actually lies at the core of Madonna's appeal. ''The great thing is that she's always evolving,'' says Francesco Scavullo, the high-fashion photographer who has been shooting Madonna since 1983.
What she has done in the past is nothing, however, compared with what she is about to do. Even veteran Madonna watchers who have observed her through countless image changes as singer, performer, actress, and star cannot be prepared for the coming juggernaut. It's. . .Madonna 1990! Bigger, better, more profound than ever! Higher notes! Deeper cleavage! Real acting! Over the next few months you won't be able to miss her! Don't even try!
On stage: On May 4 in Houston, Madonna's Blond Ambition tour will be launched in the U.S. after a three-week run in Japan. Between now and late June it will be seen in 12 cities. This is more than an 18-song, 90-minute concert. It's a richly detailed retrospective of one of the most successful recording careers of the last decade. ''I really put a lot of myself into it,'' Madonna told MTV. ''It's much more theatrical than anything I've ever done.''
On record: The single ''Vogue'' rocketed into the top 10 after only four weeks. The album I'm Breathless: Songs From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy, due out May 22, combines her own material with tunes written by Broadway's peerless Stephen Sondheim.
On video: The elegant black-and-white treatment of ''Vogue'' is all over MTV, which has already devoted two weekends of promotion to her and is sponsoring a contest for home-video voguers.
On film: Dick Tracy, the movie in which Madonna costars with her director and is-he-still-or-isn't-he? real-life romantic lead, Warren Beatty, is set for a June 15 release. She plays a nightclub singer who's trying to seduce the famous Crimestopper.
How can one mere mortal do all this? Easy: Madonna is no mere mortal.
At the age of 31, the multiplatinum singer clearly wants to accomplish greater things on the current tour. From the use of the high-powered French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier to the complex staging of the numbers, she has taken the production far beyond that of the average rock show. Why? In part, because this is the first time she has toured since 1987, and she's promoting both her last album, Like a Prayer, and her upcoming I'm Breathless. But there seems to be more here than simple commerce. The show, with its retrospective quality, puts all of her work fun and serious in a different perspective. For a woman who has such popularity, all of this effort seems like a grab for respect. As a title, concept, and pun, Blond Ambition says it all.
The show draws from each phase of her musical career and is meant to be a recasting of her video work on the stage. ''This is Madonna's every fantasy come true,'' says Vincent Patterson, the tour choreographer and codirector. ''It's one hallucination after another.''