Imagine for a moment — a lifetime perhaps — that you’re Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone Penn. You think it’s going to be fun? A Catholic childhood staining the rest of your life with knee-jerk demonstrations of penance; your favorite part of your body being your belly button; celebrity straddling the knife edge of gratitude and invasion; your charging that your poor, sweet, deluded husband tied you to a chair. At Christmas. You’re on the Forbes 40, but you can’t even get to your car phone to ring the bank. When you stop to think about it, being Madonna must really suck.
In the past year the Boy Toy has, if nothing else, grown up. A self-imposed exile from making music, the drudgery of a “serious” Broadway run and the public collapse of an even more public marriage can’t fail to have taken their toll. You don’t just ride these things, you hold your breath and bruise like hell.
At last the breath has been released in the form of an album, Like A Prayer, her most openly personal work to date. Dealing with, in her own words, “an assimilation of experiences I’ve had in my life and in my relationships … the pain of dying, of growing up and letting go,” the album shows both a musical and lyrical maturity, wounds old and new laid bare. It’s a brave record, but hardly the sort of comeback one would expect. Whereas Prince and Michael Jackson, the only other two solo contemporary megastars to have attained international buzzword status, have ascended into a fantasy firmament of their own creation, Madonna sounds like she’s back at her first confessional. Perhaps, at last, she’s sketched a self-image that she’s spent the best part of 30 years trying to deny. The ordinary f*cked-up kid with ordinary hopes and ordinary fears. For the first time in her life she’s getting used to being normal.
Most people who have ever worked with Madonna will recognize her traits. “She can be bossy,” admits “Who’s That Cid” director James Foley, Madonna’s best friend and best man at her and Sean Penn’s wedding. “One time I kissed her feet to get her to overdub a line. She’s strong, though, and I like that.” Abandoned boyfriends are less gracious about the Diva, but stomped heads and squelched loves are, after all, par for the course. Strong women leave big hickeys. That’s “strong,” as in cold steel. But is such behavior really inexcusable, special, even interesting? Is there any difference between her not giving a whiny kid an autograph and anyone else refusing to toss money to a bum? What has so often been perceived as ingratitude, an abuse of power, is little more than a diamond-studded version of everyday boredom. It’s just that things look bigger from the outside of the goldfish bowl.
Madonna’s weakness in the past has been in refusing to embrace that normality. Her legendary single-minded determination has been tangled in delusions of grandeur.
In 1986 Foley summed her up as having “unlocked enormous pent-up yearnings for a glamorous image. She’s hooked on a moonbeam.”
Hooked on a moonbeam, just like any other kid who sees a crack in the clouds. Madonna was never Marilyn, save for a video and a couple of dates with John F. Kennedy Jr. She was someone who looked like she wanted to be someone else. And therein lay her bankable charm — she was a wanna-be icon only in the sense that the Valley Girls, Mall Rats and Catalog Queens could momentarily imagine themselves a few floors up. They didn’t want to be her, they wanted to be like her, a bit nearer heaven and with more money to spend on crucifixes. Likewise with her sexuality. She has never previously been sexy, except as a personification of female power. She traded on the image of the pinup biting back, Miss August spearing you with the staples. Taken to an extreme in the “Open Your Heart” video, where the peep-show clientele were vaguely disguised record company executives, the sex bomb always looked like she was going to explode.
The New Madonna has dispensed with such gimmicky denials of her true self. The peroxide is gone, as are the other approximations of kaleidoscopic glamor. What you see is what you get. What she’ll get. What she wants.
But what is it that she wants? Her desires have always been confused by received misconceptions. She wanted to be as famous as God — she ended up as reviled as Judas. She wanted a strong, intense man — she got a husband who beat her up. She wanted to act onstage — she got bored. When writer Harry Crews interviewed her recently, she expressed an affinity with people who have suffered — Diane Arbus, Charles Bukowski, the painter Frida Kahlo. Like A Prayer bears out that obsession, Madonna identifying herself with the lost, the lonely and the plainly pulped. She comes close to glamorizing what is, after all, just one of life’s side effects, but the album suggests that it is more of an exorcism, a shedding of skin, a coming to terms with her own good fortune. It is only when the nightmares are confronted and the fears transcended that she can finally detach herself from the mythology of her own existence.
Pan of the problem would seem to lie in her relentless energy, her attitude to life as some crazy means to an end, whether assuming that dollars mean points come the Final Judgment, or just a hunch that to confuse her public is to resist their suffocating adulation. What is often perceived as callousness is, it would seem, a by-product of thinking too much, feverishly planning tomorrow without really appreciating today.
Is she happy? Has she ever been happy? Would she know happiness if it came down and presented her with a letter of introduction? Like A Prayer suggests that she has a least thought about looking up how to spell the word, and she finally seems capable of rejecting the conception of pleasure and sin as being synonymous. When she and Sandra Bernhard (herself no stranger to tying people to chairs, as witnessed in “King of Comedy”) baited Letterman about the alleged lesbian relationship between the two of them, she showed a newly acquired ability to indulge absurdity. Whether she’ll be able to handle the rumors of an affair with “Dick Tracy” costar Warren Beatty — Sean Penn once told her, “do anything you want, just never make a film with Warren Beatty” — quite so adeptly remains to be seen. What is evident is that her time off from recording has done her good. Whether she makes good or bad music is irrelevant to anyone except her record-buying public; the music business was never more than a shortcut to fame. Her strength lies in her potential to make determination and resistance to celebrity look less like hard work and more like a good time.
Flash forward 10 years. Now imagine you’re Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone Smith. Your latest album, just released under the name Louise Ciccone, has just gone platinum, the public drawn to songs about Bowes and mountains and being in love. You’re happily married, with kids, and the Madonna And Child headlines have long since lost their tacky resonance. Sometimes you wake up and you can’t stop smiling. Life’s good. You’re good. And most of all, you’re you. Hey, maybe it was worth all that pain.
If anyone is going to answer her prayers, it’s going to be Madonna herself.
We’re all in this together. By ourselvee.