[Part 1 on Shakira, Part 2 on Mariah Carey.]
Yes, there was a time when Madonna was neither slutty nor new age-y, although I'm too young to remember it personally. I recall hearing "Open Your Heart" and "Like a Prayer" when I was in elementary school, and by the time I started secondary school, she had just crossed the Rubicon of skankdom with Erotica and Bedtime Stories. Since then, it's all been pretty bad or mediocre compared to her earliest albums.
One thing worth clearing up is that she has never returned to her dance music roots -- I didn't know so many people thought so, but reading around, I find lots of references to Ray of Light and her newest Confessions on a Dance Floor as being dance music. No, they're more of a return to her techno/house megahit "Vogue." But techno, house, trance, ambient, and recent electronic music generally, are not crafted to facilitate dancing. It is overly repetitive, amelodic, lacking in vocal range, and has lots of percussion, most of which has a "marching in lockstep" rhythm: BOON-chick BOON-chick BOON-chick BOON-chick.
Now, to enjoy truly danceable music, you have to go back to her first, eponymous album. Just listen to "Holiday" -- a naive listener would guess it was a disco song, which is understandable since the album came out in 1983, right after disco's downfall. "Lucky Star" isn't quite as lively, but still works well. The year after her debut album, she released Like a Virgin, my favorite. The title track, "Dress You Up", * "Material Girl", and "Into the Groove" -- great dance-pop music.
The lyrics are sanguine rather than cynical,** celebrate long-term love over fucking and spanking, and focus more on the irrational helplessness and possessivenes of falling head-over-heels as opposed to the jaded calculation of a cougar on the prowl. The videos are basically slut-free, although there is the occasional instance of her acting like a dopey seductress. Even her infamous performance of "Like a Virgin" at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards is pretty tame. For all but the last 30 seconds, she's not doing much of anything, and then lightly humps the ground for a few seconds near end. She was hardly an ideal role model, but she wouldn't have been an awful one then either.
Now fast-forward to 1990: that's the year of the switch to house/techno music ("Vogue"), of the Blond Ambition Tour with its skeezy NSFW rendition of "Like a Virgin," and of the harbinger of much later S&M-themed videos (the NSFW "Justify My Love"). This latter video is as druggy as an Andy Warhol movie, and about as erotic -- the kind of goofy, fumbling attempt at edgy sensuality you'd expect from the goth kid in a freshman filmmaking class. After her sleazy phase, she turned into a new age spiritual flake,*** passed the torch of skankiness in saliva form to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, then released the obligatory "post-fame political manifesto" album like every superstar, and most recently put out the aforementioned non-dance album.
Nevertheless, in Madonna's defense, she deserves credit for not caving in to dissoluteness until as late as she did. Born in August 1958, she was nearly 32 when the Blond Ambition Tour marked her descent from dance-pop greatness. By contrast, the other two women I've profiled so far in this series -- Shakira and Mariah Carey -- were 28 and 27, respectively, when they sold out their earlier fun and nonchalant personas in favor of what they have become. It's possible that the difference is due to Madonna entering the spotlight much later in life than the other two -- she was 24 when her first album came out, while Shakira was 19 and Mariah Carey 20 when their first major albums came out. As another data-point, Janet Jackson began her foray into voyeurism and sluttiness when she was 27, having first made it big when she was just under 20.
I still think it's somewhat due to Madonna having a stronger character than Shakira, Carey, or Jackson, though. As a woman approaches 30, on some level she is aware that her youth is basically over. For example, even if she's on the attractive side, she won't automatically turn lots of heads anymore. She has to make a decision about whether to age gracefully, accepting that she's no longer a "pretty young thing," or to hurl herself headlong into the abyss of skankdom in order to maintain the same level of attention she's been used to. See Roissy's post "From kitten to cougar" for more detail.
In high school, Madonna got straight A's and go into the University of Michigan -- that takes a certain amount of IQ and conscientiousness. Hell, a weak person could never conquer the world of entertainment and earn the title Queen of Pop. Partly for this reason, Madonna's vulnerable period from 27 to 31 was much more dignified than that of most female stars. So, one cheer for her career overall, although she's pretty good if you focus on her pre-1990 albums, especially the first two.
* There's no music video for the song, and this clip had the best sound. I don't actually like Jem and the Holograms...
** "Material Girl" pokes fun at plotting, princess-y types; remember this was from her early, Cyndi Lauper-esque period. The music video makes that clear when she tells her friend that diamonds don't move her, and asks the friend if she wants the expensive jewelry a suitor has given her.
*** On some level, she must have been ashamed of her early-mid '90s sleazefest, and sought some form of redemption, but her look-at-how-spiritual-I-am image just shows how self-absorbed she had become.