What a surprise: Madonna's new single stirs up a controversy. But does anyone care?

By Andrew Essex
February 13, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
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She’s back.

After dropping off the pop-culture radar for a year — that’s like a decade in Material Girl time — Madonna is again set to strike a pose. In the next few weeks the 39-year-old star will release a new record and new videos, start work on a film, and unleash a wave of publicity (including the first portraits of daughter Lourdes, 1, in the March issue of Vanity Fair). Let the games begin.

But in a world where even Dan Rather riffs on oral sex, does Madonna still matter? Can a woman who’s based her entire career on one shocking transformation after another shock again? Especially when the woman is a middle-aged mother who has publicly embraced family values. Just how much controversy can a soccer Madonna cause?

Part of the answer may have turned up in, of all places, Singapore. That’s where Warner Bros. Records made the Jan. 23 debut of “Frozen,” the first single from her long-awaited album Ray of Light on local radio. The off-the-beaten-track run was supposed to serve as a quiet warm-up to the Feb. 19 U.S. radio release (the CD hits stores March 3). But two days later, an unofficial fan page called The Singapore Madonna Link uploaded the song onto the Web, enabling anyone from Texas to Timbuktu to listen.

Officially, Ms. Ciccone was a victim of Internet piracy. Unofficially, some visitors suspected the leaked single might be a Warner stunt. Despite a disclaimer on the slick site stating the song was reproduced “without prior written approval from the copyright owner,” a small note added, “Special thanx to Warner Bros. Records.”

“You’re not welcome,” says a testy Bob Merlis, senior VP of worldwide communications at Warner. “This is not a ploy — it’s stolen property. We will come down hard on anyone who offers our properties for free.” In fact, the label promptly issued threatening E-mail to the site’s Singapore operator, Jason Christopher Goh, 19. Goh, who says he takes sole responsibility for pirating the single, removed the link to the song three days after posting it. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Goh could have faced a $100,000 fine.

Still, it’s easy to see why Warner might want to whip up a little buzz. Light is Madonna’s first collection of original material since 1994’s Bedtime Stories. And although that record sold 2 million copies, it represented a dramatic drop-off for an artist whose Like a Virgin (1984) and True Blue (1986) cumulatively sold 17 million albums. Furthermore, Light marks Madonna’s first foray into electronica, which, despite being the movement of the moment, is commercially a hit-or-miss genre (witness U2’s less- than-titanic Pop). “People will buy it out of curiosity,” says a marketing exec at Virgin Records, “but I seriously doubt she’ll spend more than a few weeks at No. 1.”

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