It's never been easy being Madonna, a fact both her fans and her detractors rarely acknowledge. She's as self-created a star and musician (the order is important) as pop music has produced, and her career depends upon her repeatedly reinserting herself into the culture at precisely the right moment to be maximally effective. Thus, releasing an album called American Life, complete with a first single that critiques the indulgences of stardom and an accompanying first video emphasizing Army-fatigues green would seem to prove her granite-ab gut instincts as infallible as ever.
But the times, they are a-changin' too fast even for a woman married to a jump-cut junkie like director Guy Ritchie. And so the clipped rap that commands the most attention near the end of her 10th album's title song -- a yammered list of celeb perks: trainer, butler, assistant, ''three nannies,'' ''a bodyguard or five'' -- seems, at first, not like the clever self-twitting she clearly intended, but rather a facile confirmation of her haters' most knee-jerk conviction: that middle-aged Madge does not have a worldview beyond her next Pilates appointment.
However, ''American Life'' and other songs are refreshingly -- hell, shockingly -- earnest. There are unironic arguments for substance over style, family over isolation, long-term love over flighty romance. Collaborating again with Music's coproducer, Mirwais, Madonna has developed a mixture of acoustic and techno, of full-throated crooning and tight-larynxed hectoring, in lovely songs such as ''Love Profusion,'' ''Nothing Fails,'' and ''Intervention.'' The downright thrilling ''Nobody Knows Me'' deploys a shrewd little form-versus-content paradox: She uses the technophile studio trick of rhythmically distorting her vocals to make technophobic arguments (anti-TV, pro-privacy).
All that said, I don't think ''American Life'' is going to dent mass pop consciousness in any appreciable way, and, of course, mass penetration is an absolute fundament of Madonnaology. Which is to say, just as ''Die Another Day'' -- the flat James Bond theme included here -- was neither Madonna Classic nor Diet Madonna With Lemon (no buzz, not tangy), so does this album fail to do what radio-ready pop must now do: provide future ''American Idol'' contestants fresh anthems to belt out with mindless enthusiasm. Which should count in her favor, shouldn't it? I mean, here's something to chew on, Madonna-haters: She's become beside-the-point in part because she's meditated, exercised, and exorcised herself into the thoughtful, humble (well, okay, striving to be humble) star-musician you never thought she had it in her to be.
As for that pulled video for ''American Life,'' I think its retraction had less to do with fear of being the latest chick to be Dixie-fried (c'mon, unlike blindsided, otherwise-mannerly country acts, Madonna thrives on -- indeed plots -- her controversies) than with the fact that current events imposed an interpretation on its images that this meticulous performance artist didn't intend. It's true: War in Iraq has altered the context of her new music in a way that's not always flattering, but since when did Madonna crave flattery?
You can give her a Razzie, you can try sweeping her away with dismissals of irrelevance in a 50 Cent world, but you can't count her out. At its best, her new album offers blunt, questing, decisive music at a chaotic time. At its weakest, she sounds like a gal who's grown content with hubby and kids and the hard-earned privilege of hiring the help to keep herself at tip-top tautness. If that's the worst manifestation of the decadence of her American life, I'd say that's pretty admirable, and also no reason to deny that she occasionally ekes good music out of her pampered self-awareness.