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.
Despite her bedroom wall potential, success has so far largely been supported by the black and hispanic communities, but the release of “Burning Up” and the accompanying video could rapidly change all that. Madonna pouts, pants and beats the ground in a frenzy of contrived frustration. Hands desperately pushing up her hair she pleads, “Do you wanna see me down on my knees… Unlike the others I’d do anything, I’m not the same I have no shame, I’m on fire, You know you got me burning up baby, Burning up for your love.”
In a way it’s preposterous and then again there’s this undeniable attraction in watching someone who just doesn’t care about the rules of good taste and who can say and do the most outrageous things and still seem charming.
Considering her performance, with more heavy breathing than a marathon she comments: “Well I am passionate! That’s the latin in me. I’m also very manipulative, I like to be at the centre of things. But as well as this outward agressive side there’s a part of me that’s very shy as well.
“You see I think it’s really important to make yourself vulnerable to people in a performance. On the other hand it’s nice to keep your distance too. I’ve always thought the most charismatic people have those dual opposites.”
Here she recalls the seminal figures of the old Hollywood, stars that came out a period that now appears touchingly naive when compared to the Eighties.
“But I still think it’s possible to stay open and child like. There are basic human elements there no matter what the time is – they transcend eras and fashion. I think it is very important to maintain the child in yourself. I think the people who aren’t afraid to stay like that are the people who always come up with the freshest ideas.”
In fact Madonna’s “ideas” aren’t the most original under the sun, but the enthusiasm and verve with which she presents them give them a new lease of life, a spark that let’s you believe she could have dreamt up the whole sweet-bad girl scam herself. Her recent show at the Camden Palace proved she had plenty of resources to cope with the unexpected) the complete collapse of the sound system) and the typically icy London crowd (something she’d already experienced earlier this year).
While she’s anxious to attract “the kind of people who might like Grace jones”, her current ambitions don’t stretch beyond the celebration of teenage passion. “The world is in such a bad shape at the moment who wants to hear about it in songs,” she opines. “They want songs about falling in lone and being lonely.”
The incredible success of Grandmaster flesh’s “The Message” argues that things aren’t quite that black and white, but Madonna eagerly dismisses their “voice of the people” stance. “I know Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five very well and they are so full of sh*t! Those guys are well off believe me, and very sure of themselves.
“I’m tired of hearing records about how we live on the street, y’know it’s a joke at this point. They don’t live on the street that’s their image. If you wanna make a hit record you’re not living on the street, I’m sorry! And now they’re singing about evils of cocaine – what!”
For someone who lives and works in New York, Madonna has refreshingly balanced attitude about the city every other British dance group is busting to record in. “Actually I get more of a buzz coming to London,” she says, adding that the scramble in search of that Midas touch from manhattan;s name producers is just another empty fashion.
“In fact nearly all the new music I like is British,” she asserts. And to show her faith the next album will probably be recorded in London. “With all your bands in New York I shouldn’t have any problem finding a free studio don’t you think?”
© Melody Maker