Madonna

updated 12/28/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/28/1992 01:00AM

Intriguing: suggests an air of mystery. Madonna: does everything in public but floss her teeth. Intriguing: wrapped in enigma. Madonna: not wrapped in anything. Intriguing: means doesn't appear on-camera in romantic encounters with Evian water bottles. Madonna: does.

OK—so what's so intriguing about somebody who lets you know that her lovers require a five-cent deposit?

For one thing, she made ya look. Consider Sex, the photo book in which she had her picture taken doing everything but blushing. Besides proving that a naked Madonna could arch backward over a pinball machine without mussing her hair, it also pushed the envelope out to the size of a circus tent. And when the crowds came pouring in, there she was at center ring, cracking her whip.

It only served her purposes that Sex earned sniffy reviews like "The Empress Has No Clothes" and that it was banned in places such as Japan and Ireland. Coming on the heels of her summer film hit, A League of Their Own, the fuss over her book helped to launch her new album, Erotica, and primed the movie audience for her next assault on their sensibilities, Body of Evidence. Her success at getting the world to subsidize her sexual preoccupations—to say nothing of her mammoth self-absorption—is what makes her worth the $60 million deal she cut this year with Time Warner (the parent company of PEOPLE). Madonna is not the first star to find the bucks in buck nakedness. But no one before her has capitalized so well on human willingness to have our fears and desires repackaged and sold back to us.

Yet this most public of women still strains to be a mystery. This year she went through more faces than Lon Chaney—one minute in Baby Jane pigtails, a cupcake from hell; the next in sour milkmaid gear, Heidi with a mean streak. Her changing gallery of faces is one reason that she's a sex symbol who inspires a lot of heavy breathing from intellectuals. One landmark of the 1992 publishing list—The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Sub-cultural Identities and Cultural Theory. You didn't get this sort of thing for Petula Clark.

But does she really throw such a mysterious light on our culture? More likely it's just the glinting gears of a giant publicity machine. Yet the sheer magnitude of her achievement in that regard is, well, intriguing. And the grinding of those gears is surely too loud to be ignored. "I'm a revolutionary," she once sighed. "And yes. it's a burden."

Sometimes it's a burden for her, we sigh in return, and sometimes for us.

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