March 31, 2003 10:00 AM

Will Madonna’s new album be the ray of light she’s hoping for?

The Material Mom is looking for a hit, having bombed last year with her and husband Guy Ritchie’s “Swept Away” and her most recent CDs having failed to capture the excitement — and sales figures — of her earlier albums, say industry observers.

Madonna, 44, has generated $200 million in sales of CDs and other products over her career, reports The New York Times. But 2000’s “Music” sold only 2.9 million copies and 1998’s “Ray of Light” sold 3.7 million. These figures are nowhere near the more than 10 million copies that sold of 1984’s “Like a Virgin.”

On April 22, Madonna’s label, Maverick/Warner Brothers Records (which, like PEOPLE, is part of AOL Time Warner), will release her 10th album, “American Life,” and it will need to compete with the work of such hotter, younger female pop vocalists as Avril Lavigne, Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera.

“There is some question of how much she appeals to kids,” Robert P. Burke, vice president and managing director at Friday Morning Quarterback, a radio trade publication, tells the paper. “But she deserves the benefit of the doubt.”

Added Judy McGrath, president of MTV Networks Music Group: “People will pay attention to Madonna’s new album when it comes out … They will be interested and curious. But I’m not sure that 17-year-olds will go out and buy her CD. And that’s the audience she really needs to capture.”

Still, there’s optimism in the Madonna camp. “People are always interested in what she does,” spokesperson Liz Rosenberg tells The Times. “She has had an unprecedented success as a musical artist. I don’t know anyone else who has accomplished what she has. Her staying power is there. She has interesting and provocative things to say. She is not afraid.”

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