The critics have buried Madonna’s career more times than she’s changed her image. What they don’t seem to get – and what her latest album, Music, makes clear – is that, thanks to an acute grasp of her own limitations, she is one of the greatest songwriter-producer-performers in recent history.
In the beginning there was the Boy Toy, the Material Girl, the born-again virgin with the wedding dress hitched up around her waist: then came the Sean Penn tabloid inferno, the ambiguities with Sandra Bernhard, the Warren Beatty imbroglio, Dennis Rodman; and, of course, the conical Gaultier bras, the Sex book, the $5 million Pepsi-ad debacle, the Letterman implosion; lately we’ve had the painted Kabbalistic novitiate. the Harrodsbought accent, and the spectacle of “Material Mom” Madonna as Style Queen of All London.
Each and every one of Madonnds dramatic shape-shifts could almost have been designed to distract us from the essential truth about the woman: not some tawdry secret from her seedy East Village past, not gruesome sexual proclivities or repellent personality traits, but rather the curious fact that Madonna Louise Ciccone stands as one of the great songwriter-producer-performers of recent times. And yet, where this particular disco strumpet is concerned, “music” is the love that dare not speak its name.
In keeping the tabloids and the fanzines frothing, Madonna has managed to veil what is, in the final reckoning, her prime asset. Because even at those Madonna Moments when her name is on everyone’s lips, people rarely speak of the star’s musical alacrity – her masterly way with a hook, her uncanny ability to pick the perfect collaborators, her unerring instinct for the next pop—cultural mood swing. More likely they’re calculating how many months she has before she is “over.”
Yes, this artist can be cynical; she is more concerned with marketing her image than is your average Rock and Roll Hall of Famer; and her career may even have been, as music critic Greg Kot once noted, “one long hustle.”
But if that were all Madonna had to offer, would she have outlasted every one of her early-80s chart contemporaries – from Cyndi Lauper and Duran Duran to Prince and Michael Jackson and still be making music more vital than that of kids half her age?
Had Madonna been a male performer blessed with the same assets, she would surely have critical respect to burn at this stage in her career. Look, for instance, at George Michael before his sudden descent into musical obscurity: the second he ditched his early-80s boy band Wham! to write a couple of decent tunes and the odd semi-smart line, Michael was being mentioned in the same breath as classic rock stalwarts like Elton John and Paul McCartney.
Whenever guardians of pop-cultural taste decide who next to ratily as a bluechip musical talent. Madonna’s name never gets mentioned. Her credibility is found lacking on two counts. As a woman she fits into no acceptable stereotype: Madonna is neither pitiably self-immolating nor conventionally defiant: she is neither an earnestly strumming Pottery Barn folkie nor a blues mama in recovery. Plus, most of Madonnas best work has been dance music, a frivolous form with roots in gay, latino, and black culture. The rock establishment has never had an easy time with dance music – think of the “Disco Sucks” backlash, with its homophobic overtones – and is suspicious of the genres hunger for constant innovation. Rock has become a pension scheme where predictability is interpreted as reliability; Madonna operates in a far more dangerous world, where overnight your groove can become a rut.
The early signs were not, it is true, promising.
Yes, this Michigan-born trooper did show impressive chutzpah when in l984 at the age of 26 she flounced across the stage of Solid Gold performing “Lucky Star,” which would become her initial top-live hit, and she was adept at co-opting all the street styles and dance moves of the day. Still, a few beat—box pirouettes and some thrift-store glad rags borrowed from London club kids (who, incidentally, disdained her) did not a long career portend. The hits from her debut album and there
were three of them, all self-written — were reasonably toothsome dance-pop fodder, but it seemed as if Madonna’s own lucky star would surely be on the wane before you could say “Bananarama.”