Madonna comes from New York and is going everywhere. Well that’s her story anyway. Ian Pye breaks into a cold sweat and wonders, is this the new Monroe or just another Catholic girl in trouble?
You have to see Madonna on stage to really understand. Here is a special kind of spell; a fantasy both innocent and seductive. She dances with a classical grace and a professional’s poise but that’s not all.
For her to pull the microphone down between her legs, to open her red mouth and tilt back this child’s face is somehow a sex cliche made fresh.
How she can make such a heavy metal stance seem vital is a mystery that makes her fascinating. The way she moves with her team of dancers is nothing like you’ve seen before, light years away from facile disco prancing and the fierce pump’n’grind of funk, they describe moods almost too noble for the music itself; motions rudely spiked with the frank images of sexual voyeurism.
Her appearance is strangely disconcerting too: a devil angel’s face straight out of the monochrome pages of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood babylon, and a small, tight body whose soft curves are more friendly than enticing. Between these two extremes, the knowing temptress and the little girl, exists a tension that is the essence of the whole exercise.
Of course, it’s nothing new, and Madonna would be the first to admit that, pointing to the obvious spectres of Marilyn Monroe and Frances Farmer. But this isn’t a game for amateurs, played badly it seems tawdry and crass. That she makes it work suggests that this isn’t so much a part as a genuine projection.
Maybe Madonna gets away with all because it’s as real as real gets.
Raised in the charged atmosphere of an Italian Catholic family in Detroit, she made a point of learning how to win exclusive attention in a competitive environment. Aiming to be a dancer she started training in her pre-school days before enrolling at the University of Michigan to study ballet and modern dance.
Moving to New York, she worked with a couple of dance troupes, dabbled in movies and then decided that music was her true calling. Iy all sounds like some sickly re-run of “Fame”, but she wastes no time in denouncing this new gilded version of the American dream in leotards. “Let me tell you,” she says acidly, “my experience has nothing at all to do with that particular brand of escapism – I mean only a sucker would believe that stuff!”
After grubbing around Manhattan with various uncommitted punk groups she decided to get back to her roots in dance music and start writing for herself. Armed with a demo tape and her own compelling personality she touted round the major labels, finally meeting up with Sire boss Seymour Stein, the man who signed Talking Heads and then made millions out of property and antiques.
“Seymour actually signed me up in hospital,” she recalls fondly. “He was having his heart cleaned out! It was such a strange situation. I mean, here I am going into a hospital to meet this man I’ve never met before who’s sitting there in his jockey shorts and drip feed in his arm! He was like drugged out of his mind as well, y’know.
“But he loved my tape – he was the only one who said I could go straight into studio. Epic, Geffen, Atlantic, they all wanted more demos. So I Thought, ‘Well he seems like a nice man’ and Sire had this reputation as a label that took chances. What did I have to lose?”
Her debut album is a slick amalgam of rock, funk and disco, the various strands of influence forged finely together by producer Reggie Lucas, a name usually associated with black vocalists like Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman. Madonna’s singing brings to mind another black artist as well, the Michael Walden protege Stacey Lattisaw, but unlike Stacey, Madonna’s fire-and-desire lyrics conjure up a stronger and altogether more saleable image.