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POP MUSIC

Back in the saddle

It's a heady week for Madonna as fans buy her return to dance hall.

November 19, 2005|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

IN the category of "compliments that might go unappreciated," we're pleased to inform Madonna that this week she is absolutely the oldest person getting regular airplay on KIIS-FM (102.7), the Los Angeles pop powerhouse that influences radio stations nationwide.

"She's the oldest, by far," in fact, according to John Ivey, vice president of programming for KIIS and the Clear Channel Los Angeles chain of stations. All this is not to crassly count candles; it's only to emphasize the challenge facing the 47-year-old Madonna and every other veteran artist who wants to climb the Billboard Hot 100. It's also to acknowledge that Madonna is, again, one of a kind.

"She's pretty much the exception, the one mature artist that can find a spot," said Ivey, whose station is on the front edge of the Top 40 trajectory leading away from pop and dance and toward hip-hop and R&B.

Madonna is having a triumphant week by many measures. In recent days her new album, "Confessions on a Dance Floor," was No. 1 on iTunes and Amazon.com, and its early retail sales have it on pace to debut near the top of the pop album chart next Wednesday. In addition, she is getting much love from critics for a return to a core dance sound.

Pop radio has been stingier with its bouquets. KIIS has been playing the Madonna single "Hung Up" in the afternoon -- when the kids are in school. Still, that is an accomplishment. Santana, Rod Stewart, Elton John and Celine Dion, for instance, can still find buyers for their concert tickets, but Top 40 radio would rather give its airtime to the young rapper of the moment or the latest "American Idol."

There is plenty of Madonna-style success in pop right now, but the problem for the veteran is that much of it belongs to newer generation stars -- Gwen Stefani, for instance, has clearly taken a lot of notes from the Material Girl's guide to style and success.

"She is as much of an influence as ever. If you need convincing, all you need to do is look at any twentysomething female singer on MTV; they are all indebted to Madonna, whether they acknowledge it or not," said Georges-Claude Guilbert, who teaches American literature, gender studies and popular culture at the University of Rouen in France. Guilbert wrote the 2002 book "Madonna as Postmodern Myth."

Madonna, as might be expected, is not sitting around fretting about radio programmers or acolytes. She is making the media rounds. She's already hit "Late Night With David Letterman" and "Prime Time Live," and an appearance on "Nightline" is on deck. There's the glamorous new Rolling Stone cover photo and interview too. Most important, perhaps, she has done extensive appearances and promotions with MTV and VH1. On MTV, Madonna's dance-floor vamp video "Hung Up" has been in heavy rotation, and this week that helped it grab the No. 1 spot on the station's "Total Request Live."

"She was willing to do many different things this time around, things that she had not been open to in the past," said Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks. "I think after the experience with the last album she was perhaps willing to embrace new notions now.... U.S. radio is not an easy fit right now, and I think she saw that. To have a compelling video on MTV and VH1 is helping sell this album right now."

The album hit stores Tuesday, and early retail reports suggest that it is on track to sell more than 300,000 copies in its first week, which may be enough to claim No. 1 on the pop sales charts. Its predecessor, "American Life," though, opened at No. 1 on the U.S. charts in 2003 by selling 241,000 in its first week but quickly hit a wall -- it has sold just 661,000 copies to date, a career low for her.

Madonna is celebrated as a pop chameleon, but after the last misstep, she skipped the reinvention routine and returned to familiar territory. The new album is a throwback to her dance career origins and has garnered upbeat reviews.

Reviewing for The Times, Richard Cromelin called it "disco with a vengeance, a whomping, unapologetically airheaded engine of stroboscopic beats and succulent textures" and gave a nod to Madonna for "singing with more strength and sharper intonation than ever." The Washington Post weighed in that it is "worthy of praise as Madonna's best album at least since 1998's 'Ray of Light' -- and possibly since 1989's 'Like a Prayer.' "

It's not clear whether Madonna is the oldest artist to secure the top spot on MTV's "TRL" -- it is evidence of the show's emphasis on the next-big-thing that MTV executives don't have a reliable list of past No. 1 videos. But how many "TRL" heroes were on "American Bandstand"? In January 1984, Dick Clark asked the young star what she wanted to be doing in 20 years. Her famously spiky answer: "To rule the world."

She is famous and rich and influential, but does she rule? Ivey didn't sound so sure.

"I can tell you that radio hits are tough to come by, so if she pulls one off it's a big deal. We're not the same Top 40 station we were just a handful of years ago," Ivey said. "These days when a Madonna song comes out, radio will put it in but won't be banging it. Things change."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Madonna

Madonna has sold nearly 23 million albums in the U.S. since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking retail music sales in 1991, but the marketplace increasingly has been a challenge for her.

Madonna's Last Decade

(unit sales in millions)

"American Life" (2003): 0.7

"GHV2 (Greatest Hits Vol. 2)" (2001): 1.3

"Music" (2000): 2.9

"Ray of Light" (1998): 3.8

"Something to Remember" (1995): 2.1

Source: Nielsen SoundScan

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