The media have really got ants in their pants over Madonna. Holy cow, you’d think she was the Linda Lovelace of the microphone. Doubting Thomas James Wolcott went to check it out.
Madonna Louise Ciccone (hallowed be her name) always seems to have her finger in the cake icing. Pleasure for her packs calories. She makes a slow raid on the sweet, a guiltless show of self-indulgence. Like Mae West, Madonna knows how to loll, how to primp; in Desperately Seeking Susan she looked as if she could be happy lazing away the afternoon sampling chocolates and reading trashy magazines, turning a suburban sofa into a royal barge (with an investment banker as her Mark Antony).
Unfortunately, Madonna doesn’t have Mae West’s husky, musky aplomb as a boudoir hostess. In interviews, she comes across as a me-first snot. Yet, vertical, Madonna moves generously, even wittily; repartee rides on her hips. In her Virgin Tour performances she slapped a tambourine off her bottom like Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas and, flanked by a pair of sequined go-go boys, gyrated into a land of a thousand dances. She did the Pony, she did the Swim, she did the Hitchhike, she did the Cool Jerk, she did the Shake ’n Bake, she did the Mashed Potato. It was like seeing reruns of Shindig and Hullabaloo transmitted through one electric-boogaloo outlet. Even more amusing is her white-mink work in the “Material Girl” video, a spoof of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in which she plays a diamonds-are-a-girl’s-best-friend gold digger, but sane and funny. A Marilyn Monroe without cracks in the porcelain.
More vamp than vampire, Madonna has been vilified in the rock press as if she were an invitation to a gang bang and a threat to the nation’s morals. The anti-Madonna diatribes have gone beyond professional criticisms of her music, act, persona; they’ve become stabbingly personal. Madonna bashers seem to be trying to carve “Die, bitch” in her high-school yearbook. Why are they all in such a righteous huff? No one considered Tina Turner a threat to the Republic when she made moaning throaty love to the microphone in Gimme Shelter. Prince didn’t even catch as much grief for flouncing about like a Regency-dandy pimp in Purple Rain. Could it be that white critics expect black performers to be loose? Or that they can accept sexual forthrightness only when accompanied by bluesy suffering?
The latter, perhaps. Unlike Prince, to whom every orgasm is a knock on God’s door, Madonna doesn’t sacramentalize sex and self-arousal. In her songs, the bed is not a satin altar. And this seems to bug Madonna’s buggier critics. According to the Los Angeles Reader, “her brand of uncomplicated eroticism and autoeroticism is the very antithesis of Prince’s, in which the world of sex has a flip side of guilt, self-denial, and divine love.” I don’t know about divine love, but as for guilt and self-denial—thanks, but I already went through adolescence.
Madonna, with her crass onstage allusions to her “box” (“Every lady has a box, but. . . mine makes music”), belongs to the frank she-cat tradition of coquetry that stretches back to Zola’s Nana and culminates in that audacious moment in Last Tango in Paris when Maria Schneider lifts her wedding dress in the elevator and, smiling, presents her pubic hair. Madonna, descending a staircase with a wedding bouquet in her “Like a Virgin” number, is also proclaiming her sex from beneath a curtain of white lace. So no wonder she’s considered a bad role model for her legion of girl fans. Certainly the audience for the show I caught in Chicago was teenage-tease heaven, all bared navels and white mesh gloves and thick applications of mousse. Yet there was also something harmlessly overdone about this dress-up, and it was the best-behaved rock audience I’ve ever seen (no booze, no wafts of marijuana, no firecrackers); I didn’t have the impression that they were on an express train to Gomorrah. For all its camp, even Madonna’s mod bridal outfit seemed finally an emblem of pop liberation. Virginity is mine to claim, is Madonna’s message. I’m pure as long as I belong to myself. This seems to me healthier than Brooke Shields’s campaign to make a national shrine out of her hymen.
Detractors are eager to dismiss Madonna as this year’s model, a disposable craze, a pet rock. She will end up, they suggest, in the remainder bin with Deborah Harry and all the other bottle blondes who came to the sad end of their peroxide. This seems to be fantastically mistaken. If she doesn’t turn coy, Madonna could be the American star who fulfills the erotic promise teased to a fire in Last Tango. Like Schneider’s Jeanne, Madonna clearly has the nerve to confront a sexual equal on his own turf, redefine the boundaries of desire, then walk away from the bed unscathed. Body confidence like hers is rare—even in an R movie her strut and pout would say X. So perhaps those Nervous Nellies who worry about Madonna’s wayward influence are right after all. But it’s too late for her to tuck in her skirts and aerosol the room with good intentions. Madonna’s walk has to be on the wild side. Let the mascara run.
© Vanity Fair