You Don’t Know Madonna

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Unlike a lot of people in my generation, I was never all that interested in Madonna. I knew about her, of course (how could anyone not?) but I didn’t really want to know, and over the years this forcible knowing engendered in me a blustering sort of resentment. Why do I have to keep hearing about this woman? I wondered, sometimes aloud, jabbing a finger at yet another picture of her yet again transmogrified visage. Part of my problem was that except for a few songs (“Into the Groove,” “Justify My Love,” “Vogue”), I didn’t much like her peppy, tuneful music. And the scandals over the videos for “Like a Prayer” and “Justify My Love,” along with the infamous Sex book struck me as the cheap stunts of a publicity glutton. The birth of Lourdes, with the attendant honeyed photos and MADONNA AND CHILD headlines made me faintly nauseated. And as for the Kabala studies and the mystical face doodles, please. Will she ever go away? I asked. And asked and asked as the years kept passing.

Then something happened. I’m not sure how or why or even when–the past couple of years?–my antipathy toward Madonna began to ease. It wasn’t that she disappeared, because of course she hasn’t disappeared. But at a certain point I was startled, in response to some new bit of Madonna lore, to feel rustling within me a grudging affection, even admiration, for the woman. Maybe it’s nostalgia: Madonna’s career as a pop star now spans twenty years, roughly my whole adult life. I was in college when I saw Desperately Seeking Susan; I remember arguing with my boyfriend’s sister over whether it was a feminist movie (I thought it was). By the time I got to New York, in the late ’80s, with a lousy manuscript under my arm that I hoped was a novel, there was a Madonna section at Macy’s and my mother had tickets to see her in Speed- the- Plough. And in all the years since, she’s been there. Remaining a pop phenomenon for twenty years without dying or lapsing into self-parody is quite a feat; the Rolling Stone Readers Polls of the past twenty years (most of which include Madonna) look like program notes at a memorial service for pop careers: Cyndi Lauper, George Michael, Sinead O’Connor, Milli Vanilli, M.C. Hammer, Prince, Whitney Houston, and on and on. There are other survivors, to be sure: Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Neil Young, Patti Smith, David Bowie, many of whom outlap Madonna musically by many miles. But as global cultural icons, none of these people can touch her.

And so this woman who has long irked me has come to embody a mystery: How did she do it? It seemed time for an examination of not just Madonna’s oeuvre and the reams of patter she’s inspired from the halls of academe to the pages of People magazine but also my own gripes: the things I’ve always held against her. Is she an idol despite these many failings, or have I been wrong all these years?

1. Madonna has no real talent

I‘m hardly the first to have thought so; many have remarked on Madonna’s less- than- stunning abilities as a singer or a dancer. Luc Sante captured the basic attitude in 1990: “Madonna, then, is a bad actress, a barely adequate singer, a graceless dancer, a boring interview subject, a workmanlike but uninspired (co-) songwriter, and a dynamo of hard work and ferocious ambition.” Madonna’s only talent, according to this line of reasoning, lies in the realm of self-promotion, that magical zone peopled by the likes of Elizabeth Hurley and Anna Kournikova, where lack of achievement is parlayed into ubiquity. Hence those overused terms one finds everywhere in Madonna discourse: calculating, chameleon and reinvent.

The “no talent” argument is an old one. It’s also, I think, an argument of the old. I include myself in this category although I’m four years younger than Madonna, for the simple reason that I grew up in the ’70s, so I entered early adulthood with a definition of “rock star” that overlapped very little with what Madonna had to offer. Rock stars (my favorites included the Who, Patti Smith, Pink Floyd and Iggy Pop) produced raw, spontaneous music that sounded completely different live than on your turntable. There was something random and dangerous about that sound. Patti Smith ranting the words to “Horses” as if she’d been recorded midseizure or the horrifying scream on Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma— just try to imagine those moments filtered through a sieve of vocal coaches and songwriting teams. As for live performance — well, anything could happen, or that was the feeling. Pete Townshend’s guitar smashing might have been calculated, but compared with Madonna’s hyperchoreographed aerobic chorus lines it looked like primal scream therapy.

Unlike the music of the ’70s performers I loved, Madonna’s early sound was bubble-gummy and devoid of mystery, the slick live versions virtually indistinguishable from the studio recordings. Yet there was another facet of Madonna’s musical creation that was lost on me, pre-MTV teenager that I was: the music video. I still find these pretty cheesy, having missed the apparently crucial indoctrination phase of lolling around stoned after school on someone’s den floor, ogling the latest VJ. So while I can’t agree with Norman Mailer, who, in a 1994 interview with Madonna, likened her videos to poetry, I will allow that they can be strange and suggestive — mysterious, even — in ways that her music is not. The choir and weeping statue in “Like a Prayer,” Madonna’s passionate kiss with a black saint — to me, these images are far more lasting than the song itself. Or the hyperactive urban imagery in the “Ray of Light” video, interspersed with Madonna jittering like a piston; when I hear the song, I see these images and they enhance it.

It seems unlikely that a woman with fifteen American top-five hits to her credit — more than Elvis Presley or the Beatles–has no talent other than self-promotion. Especially when, as opposed to ’70s giants like the Stones or Elton John, Madonna has yet to settle into nostalgic wallows through old material. In fact, her two most recent albums have been her most critically acclaimed; Ray of Light won three Grammys, including Best Pop Album. And while the exact nature of Madonna’s songwriting contributions has never been clear, no one disputes that she’s in complete control of every aspect of her career.

Still, Madonna herself said in Truth or Dare, “I know I’m not the best singer, and I know I’m not the best dancer. But I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative. In being political.” In other words, music per se has never encompassed the full range of Madonna’s aspirations; she’s a creator of effects, of extravaganzas, and she does this using imagery, sound, her voice, her body and anything else she can scare up. Her gift for making spectacles is obvious, not just from her videos and performances but also from the pageant of her career itself: a multimedia onslaught of sensation. In 1992, for example, she released a CD, Erotica; a book, Sex; followed by a movie, Body of Evidence, all of which dealt in some way with the power of sexual fantasies. The fact that Sex (which sold 1.5 million copies worldwide) was lampooned by critics and Body of Evidence bombed both critically and commercially hardly matters; the publicity and controversy generated by these multiple efforts pushed buttons — Madonna’s goal — and jacked up her fame another notch.

If, as music critic Gerald Marzorati once suggested to me, the biggest pop stars tend to change in some way the nature of what it is to be a pop star, Madonna’s contribution has been to usher in the phenomenon of star as multimedia impresario. These diversified stars are defined less by any single talent or pursuit than by an array of projects and endeavors whose combined impact expands their personae exponentially. Others who have followed successfully in this vein (and whose merchandising efforts dwarf Madonna’s) range from Puff Daddy toMartha Stewart. Whether one appreciates this new stripe of celebrity — I don’t, especially — is a separate question.

2. Madonna is narcissistic

Clearly and resoundingly true. And yet the very word sounds old-fashioned in the context of Madonna–a bit like bum-rapping cities for being crowded when compression is precisely what a city has to offer. For Madonna, narcissism is more than a personality trait: it’s a m�tier, a creative vocabulary and a bridge to the culture at large. John Fiske once wrote of her, “Madonna knows well the importance of the look. This is a complex concept, for it includes how she looks (what she looks like), how she looks (how she gazes at others, the camera in particular), and how others look at her.”

In other words, Madonna has a heightened awareness of seeing and being seen. But what exactly is unusual about her self-consciousness? After all, the very nature of performance, not to speak of celebrity, involves being watched by many people who don’t know you. Celebrities react to this scrutiny in various ways — with avoidance (Sean Penn), with rage (Russell Crowe), with concerted “naturalness” (Britney Spears), with weird and possibly criminal behavior (Winona Ryder), with despair and self-immolation (Kurt Cobain). Madonna, on the other hand, appears not merely to enjoy scrutiny but to presume it and control it. She turns being seen from a passive experience into an active one — the peep-show worker she portrays in her “Open Your Heart” video is a dynamo of glamour and vitality compared with the embalmed-looking men who are her audience. Madonna knows we’re watching; hence her winking air of don’t pretend you’re not looking that can be so aggravating — in part because if you’re there to catch it, then she’s right.

I’m not denying that there can be vanity, egotism and even real ugliness to Madonna’s self-exposure. One thing that makes Sex such a squirmy book to look at, and Truth or Dare such an uncomfortable movie, is Madonna’s obvious and unwavering complicity with the camera — an allegiance that seems to outrank any other bond she might ever form, sexual, professional, even familial. We’re watching her watch herself, is the feeling — there’s no one else in the room. In this sense we, the viewers, are complicit in her narcissism–essential to it. In his seminal book, The Image, Daniel Boorstin wrote, “Man fulfills his dream and by photographic magic produces a precise image of the Grand Canyon. The result is not that he adores nature or beauty the more. Instead he adores his camera — and himself. He is impressed, not by what he sees. . .Rather by the extreme and ever-growing cleverness of his ways of seeing it.”

Madonna is a narcissist — and so are her fans, including those who hate her the most. This is what Nell Bernstein meant when he wrote, “Madonnaism is ultimately less about the star than about the fan. The idea is not simply to look at Madonna, but also to look at yourself looking at Madonna.” So it is with all celebrity worship. It’s no accident that Madonna’s first and most rabid fan base consisted of teenage girls at an age when total self-involvement is a basic condition of life. They were wild to play their part, mimicking her dance moves and clogging up their arms with rubber bracelets. For the rest of us, it was easier to point the finger and say Madonna started it.

The great surprise of Madonna’s career is that she’s fared so poorly as a movie actress. Yet the reason is hardly a mystery; conventional acting involves erasing all traces of one’s self-awareness, while Madonna’s performance strength consists of letting us know that she knows what she’s doing, even as she does it (New York’s Stage Deli offered a sandwich fittingly called the Madonna Tongue n’ Chic). She’s at her best playing wisecracking dames like Susan in Desperately Seeking or Mae in A League of Their Own, characters for whom jokey self-mockery feels most natural. But in other roles (most egregiously as Rebecca Carlson in Body of Evidence), the effort of keeping a straight face seems to flatten out all of Madonna’s usual animation. Her most recent film performance, in Swept Away (directed by her British husband, Guy Ritchie), contains both these extremes: Madonna has a field day vamping as the snarling, cartoonishly vicious Amber in the first half of the movie, but as the tame and devoted Amber of the second half, she’s blah. What’s missing is the savvy brand of narcissism that fuels Madonna’s vast energy. Without that, she’s just a person with limited acting skills in someone else’s movie.

3. Madonna isn’t sexy

According to my recent unscientific poll, this is a fairly common view among straight men; for every one of them who found her “hot,” there was another who claimed she was “hard” or “fake.” When I watched Madonna thrashing and flailing on a large bed in feigned masturbation during her Blonde Ambition tour, I was amazed by how unerotic her performance was. Roland Barthes captured my feeling perfectly. “Striptease,” he wrote, “is based on a contradiction: Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked.” What I didn’t grasp was that Madonna wasn’t trying to be sexy in the way I thought.

Madonna’s point was lost on me for a reason. Despite having grown up in footloose San Francisco during the libidinous era of hot tubs and feathered hair in a perfectly liberal-minded family, I managed to somehow emerge with a 1950s notion of female sexuality: Girls and women were sexy only to the extent that they didn’t realize it and weren’t trying to be. In other words, women had to be erotic by accident. Prince Andrei’s comparison in War and Peace between the beautiful but worldly Hélène and the ingenue Natasha perfectly illustrates my sexual values growing up: “. . .Hélène seemed, as it were, covered with the hard polish left by the thousands of eyes that had scanned her person, while Natasha was a girl appearing décolleté for the first time in her life, and who would certainly have felt very much ashamed had she not been assured by everyone that it was the proper thing.”

For the first big chunk of her career, Madonna’s goal was to rid the world of precisely the mind-set I was saddled with. “It’s really important to me that people look at life a different way,” she once said, “seeing that women can seduce and women can have sexual fantasies.” Having avoided boys in high school and remained a virgin until the age of 20, I was deeply wary of this message, although Madonna would certainly have argued that I was exactly the type who most needed to hear it. Of course, being an object of male desire has historically meant being an object — powerless and passive — which is why some feminists chastised Madonna early on for what they felt was a message to young women that they should use their bodies rather than their minds. But Madonna’s intent was to turn this equation on its head: to urge women and girls not just to own their sexuality but to revel in it, wield it — to be empowered by it rather than weakened.

Her method was simple. She retooled herself into a creature who was taut and voluptuous, a game sex kitten with the pecs and lats of a dominatrix. With this extraordinary physique, she enacted scenarios in which sexual desire was expressed in the form of power, even domination, over men. Whether or not you thought Madonna was sexy had a lot to do with how you reacted to this sort of power display: for some it was a turn-on; to others it was frightening, even grotesque. My brother, Graham, told me, “Madonna is fascinating to men because she has a set of balls herself,” which hits the point precisely. By combining sultry “female” traits with domineering “male” traits, she mixed people up. This helped make her a mascot of gay-male culture, as well as the darling of postmodernists like Camille Paglia, who celebrate fragmentation and contradiction. But to us traditionalists, male and female, she looked like a freak.

Several men told me recently that they found Madonna sexier now than in her bad old days. I would agree. Presently in her midforties, married with two kids, Madonna’s stats would suggest that the moment had come for a decorous withdrawal inside sweater sets. But she moons the stereotype of the frumpy mom with the same glee as she did the passive sex kitten. She looks fantastic — her body lithe as ever, her hair and makeup softer than before — as if she were daring you to try and saddle her with some lame middle-aged stereotype. “There’s nothing sexier than a mother,” she has said.

Interestingly, Madonna’s public sexual role-playing seems to have little to do with the way she conducts herself in private. She performed oral sex on a Vichy bottle with memorable brio in Truth or Dare, but in an interview with Carrie Fisher that same year she spoke frankly of her aversion to fellatio. Referring to her former lovers, she said, “They don’t tell me I give good head, believe me, because I don’t give it. . .Who wants to choke?” One of the few revelations in Andrew Morton’s biography is that Madonna was clinging and needy in relationships — calling lovers compulsively, overwhelmed by jealousy, even sexually passive. Her husband, Ritchie, is known to be a laddish sort; in interviews he has referred to Madonna (no doubt with his own tongue in cheek) as “the missus,” “the wife” and “my bird.” Madonna appears to savor the role of adoring wife; in an interview last year, she attributed her husband’s sexiness in part to his “super-macho ways” and has taken his surname.

These facts startled me at first, but they make sense — when it comes to sex, Madonna is an evangelist; she’s trying to puncture stereotypes, and she assumes a range of guises in order to accomplish this. And if one reason she’s been so avid to empower women and raise their sexual confidence is that she has felt in herself the pull of the traditional weak role and is fighting against it — well, that would make the most sense of all.

Lately I find myself looking at very young women and wondering: Are they less hung up than I was? They seem like it, with their tanned navels winking in the open air. A generation of young pop stars has clearly gotten the Madonna message; even the famously virginal Britney Spears seems comfortable faking sexual rapture onstage and in her videos. As a girl in puberty, I might have benefited from a role model like Madonna; as a mother who just hit 40, I’m delighted by her example. And if girls today are more comfortable with their sexuality, if they’re able to inhabit it more easily and joyfully than I was at their age, then men, presumably, are also the beneficiaries–except the ones who prefer their sex kittens declawed.

4. Madonna is inauthentic

The elements of Madonna’s creations are all derived from somewhere else — Catholicism, gay dance clubs, Marlene Dietrich, musical trends already in the making. How, one might ask, could someone become an era-defining star without doing or saying or singing anything truly original?

One answer — popular among her critics — is that she’s done it through sheer business savvy. Forbes magazine reported, “Where Detroit seems to have a difficult time retooling and turning out a new product line every couple of years to stimulate its customers, Madonna does not.” From this perspective, her artistic decisions are purely cynical, the machinations of a master manipulator with excellent cultural antennae but no ideas of her own.

What this theory doesn’t explain are Madonna’s rather colossal failures. I mean her movies, some of which are such obvious catastrophes (and would have been even without Madonna) that it’s hard to imagine any calculating person reading those scripts and thinking, This will be a shrewd career move. Her worst, Body of Evidence, contains such memorable lines as “That’s what I do. I fuck.” What self-respecting master manipulator would mess up so badly again and again? It just doesn’t make sense.

The other problem with calling Madonna inauthentic is that she draws such attention to her own inauthenticity that the “gotcha” factor is practically nil. When she dressed up as Marilyn Monroe in her “Material Girl” video, it was never with a sense of wanting to be Monroe; it was a quote, playful and self-conscious. One feels the same thing about a more recent Madonna incarnation: the Deborah Harry punk guise (ripped skirt, safety pins, feathered hair) she assumed during the first few songs of her 2001 Drowned World tour. “Fuck off, motherfuckers,” she hollered at the audience at one point. If this had been meant seriously, it would have been ludicrous, but of course it wasn’t; Madonna was practically winking as she said it, referencing a musical period that she and the audience both recognized. And so on, from her frothy Marie Antoinette to her Evita phase to her geisha getup for “Nothing Really Matters” to the cowgirl ensemble and southern twang she adopted later in the Drowned World tour, after doffing her punk threads. These are quotations: a visual form, if you will, of the popular musical trend of sampling. And as with sampling, Madonna’s originality lies in the arrangement of these familiar references into new works that astonish and entertain.

“I can’t remember what the misconceptions are anymore,” she said last year. “That I’m cold? That I’m calculating? Well, maybe it just means I’m highly organized, ambitious and focused, and those are traits people feel more comfortable attributing to men.” As to the notion that her image shifts are cynical marketing ploys, she said, “I am not reinventing myself; I am going through the layers and revealing myself. I am on a journey, an adventure that’s constantly changing shape.” In other words, she’s just following her gut. Her claim may seem far-fetched — how could anyone’s gut be right so many times? On the other hand, would a machinating cynic have a better chance?

In the end, no one makes him-or her-self an era-defining star — just picture how many we’d have if that were possible! It’s the public that collectively picks a handful of celebrities who express the qualities it craves at a particular point in time. And for the twenty years of Madonna’s reign, authenticity has been of less interest, culturally speaking, than appropriation. Personally, I’m made nervous by this shift. But the fact remains that Madonna has become an era-defining star not despite her “inauthenticity” but in part because of it.

5. Madonna is the kind of person I hate.

She comes off as a very consistent type — one of my least favorites. Madonna seems like the kind of person who, as a kid, would have laughed hysterically at a joke no one else got and then when you laughed, too, would have stopped suddenly and said, “What’s so funny?”

Madonna describes herself as having been an outcast in high school. “I was a football player’s nightmare,” she said last year. “Everyone thought I was a freak. They didn’t go out with me. . .I just didn’t know how to play the game.” Morton’s biography tells a different story: her classmates, including a “school sports hero” who apparently was Madonna’s first lover, all describe her as popular, vivacious and a bit of a show-off. Madonna may have felt like an outcast in high school, but I trust Morton’s description. When she told her overweight hair stylist in Truth or Dare, “Sharon, I beat up on girls like you when I was little,” I believed her: I felt as if she were talking to me.

Madonna comes off as the classic queen bee, that type who surrounds herself with subordinate and adoring acolytes (in Truth or Dare it’s her mostly gay-male dancers and others in her employ on the Blonde Ambition tour) who serve as her audience and entertainment. They vie for Madonna’s good graces, sometimes falling out with one another in the process, and she treats them with maternal indulgence so long as they remember their places. As her clandestine audience, we’re admitted to Madonna’s inner circle so long as we collude in whatever cruelties she concocts to keep things lively. On learning that the luckless Sharon has been raped after going out one night, Madonna’s first reaction is a guilty snicker. “I’m sorry I’m laughing,” she says (to us?). It’s awful and enthralling and familiar from long ago — that old schoolyard choice between playing along with someone racy and mean or slinking into obscurity with duller, gentler friends.

Of course, the Blonde Ambition tour was twelve years ago. Since then Madonna has become a mother, a devotee of the Kabala (an ancient Jewish mystical practice with a Hollywood following) and of yoga, has lived in London for the past several years and has married. “I’ve changed,” she said two years ago. “Having a child has made me a lot more sensitive, more responsible, a lot more aware of my actions and my words. . .I was much more selfish and self-involved before.” Her music has changed, too, moving toward a densely textured electronica that I, for one, like better than anything she’s done before.

It would be a disappointment if Madonna had been etherized into pure sweetness and light. Not to worry. The video for the benign-sounding “What it Feels Like for a Girl,” from her Music album, turns out to be a paean to female rage (it was directed by Ritchie, known for his stylishly violent films). Madonna plays a jumpsuited criminal who plucks a doddering old woman from a nursing home and ferries her along as an unwitting passenger in a swath of destruction that includes stealing two cars, blowing up a gas station and finally decimating herself and the elderly passenger by smashing their vehicle into a pole. MTV refused to play the video, a decision that generated none of the controversy that its ban of “Justify my Love” for obscenity did in 1990. Madonna says she wrote the song while pregnant with her second child and hiding it from the world, unsure whether her relationship with Ritchie would last. As a woman, I’ll admit to feeling a nervy thrill, watching the rage I’ve felt at points in my life writ large in such compact, spectacular fashion. But the message is transparent: Indulging such rage is suicide.

For Madonna, it’s fantasy only; even when her moves have looked self destructive, she’s always emerged unscathed. To be loved as a celebrity, she once said, “You need to disappear, run out of steam, run out of ideas…You need to have a drinking or a drug problem. You have to go in and out of rehabs so people can feel sorry for you. Or you need to kill yourself, basically.” But Madonna has avoided all of that: no rehabs or suicide attempts, no arrests or collapses or devouring lawsuits or serial divorces or appalling plastic surgery — scandals, yes, but always of her own making and always, finally, to her own advantage. Sometime very early on, Madonna learned a different way to subvert her rage and quell the fear and pain that are usually handmaidens to an ambition as ravenous as hers: hard work. “I ultimately end up making my own work,” she has said. “I don’t sit around waiting for other people to give it to me. I’ve had to do this to ensure myself constant employment.”

Morton’s account of Madonna’s early performing years is a litany of wrong turns (including the fact that her first single, “Everybody,” was marketed as the work of a black artist) that could have terminally discouraged a less tenacious and resourceful performer. But no matter what went wrong, Madonna always had a next move. She kept producing good material by playing to her own strengths and finding people to compensate for her weaknesses. This ability to create year after year in the face of loud and persistent nay-saying is the single thing that has ensured Madonna’s ongoing success. I can only admire it.

Now comes the point where the writer is supposed to indulge in a bit of prognostication: what’s next? I could do this–ruminate sagely over the staying power of her marriage to a macho guy ten years younger or tsk that those tank tops might not cut it when she’s 50. But by defying twenty years’ worth of such speculations, Madonna has made a lot of smart people look like dummies. So I’ll pass. Better to admit that I have no idea what she’ll do, except that I can’t imagine her stopping. There’s pleasure in not knowing–especially when term limits on fame seem shorter than ever and the surprises we get from celebrities are rarely pleasant. Madonna hasn’t exhausted us because we haven’t exhausted her, which is another way of saying that she hasn’t exhausted herself.

I’m tempted to say that Madonna grew up, but maybe it’s just that I did.

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