Usually it takes a while for a pop star to earn heavyweight hatred from a significant percentage of the press and public. But like everything else in her (very) young career, fear and loathing have come quickly indeed to singer/ writer/ dancer/ hot number Madonna. Loathe her or love her, it’s interesting to try and figure this one out. Theories abound, including a few from the lady herself.
I. Phyllis and Bob Theory
As Madonna puts it, “I seem to be the girl they hate to love.” No kidding. Private citizens tap their feet to “Lucky Star” or “Holiday” while wondering aloud if anything short of exorcism will get her off their radios and MTVs. The press file reads like she’s a ghoulish maidservant of notorious anti-libber Phyllis Schlafly and notorious Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, sucking all the feminism and IQ points from the fragile neck of popular culture.
Fans and foes alike seem to agree that she’s an ’80s incarnation of the “It” girl – blessed/cursed with a charisma that makes skin goosebump as well as crawl, something beyond her prettiness or infamous tummy. It makes her videos, records and (soon) movies impossible to dismiss. It’s there in person, too. She comes down a corporate hallway in a big black jacket and modest red-knit dress, looking like the video Madonna sans the bare belly and excess Catholic iconography. There is absolutely nothing solicitous in her manner of greeting, nothing straining to charm, nothing yanking at you for approval. Her handshake (a tiny red glove conceals the hand) is firm, and brief. Even so, the force is with her; it swallows her little frame as she walks toward a vast conference room like a sixth grader going to a hard math exam.
Undoubtedly, her mind is elsewhere. Just this week, “Like A Virgin” has gone to Number One on the pop charts, and its namesake LP to Number Three, only five weeks after release. Her first LP took almost a year to happen, but once it did it sold two million-plus copies. It’s not quite finished yet, either. Nor is the fallout, which so far includes the four hit singles, three videos, one starring film role and one small part in a movie for which she sang three tunes. Oh yeah, and the lousy reputation.
Part of that reputation says that Madonna is simply not a nice person, but superb at appearing so when someone‘s approval could be useful. On this particular day, anyway, she is kind of bristly. A little sharp-tongued and self-satisfied. But she makes no effort to hide any of the warts. More than a few rock stars are downright oily and self-protective when they need nice press. Madonna answers questions straight out, is only pretty nice most of the session, and leaves the warts right out there. If she’s such a master at showbiz politics, where’s the politicking? Where’s the manipulation?
II. The Wedding Dress Theory
Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone was born in Detroit on August 16, 1958. Veronica is her Catholic confirmation name, chosen because St. Veronica “wiped the face of Jesus and then carried around the cloth with his blood and sweat on it — it was so passionate and weird.” The French-Italian family had five boys and three girls who lost their mother when her namesake, Madonna, was six, Madonna didn’t much like the stepmother that appeared two years later; no doubt the woman felt it.
Even in grade school, Madonna apparently had extraordinary intensity; it both scared and fascinated her.
“I felt overwhelmed by it at points in my life. People didn’t understand me, especially when I was young; I’d realize I’d just alienated someone and scared them away, a boy or a friend or whoever. I handled it in a number of ways — either I’d get more arrogant and say ‘I don’t need you, I don’t care if you understand or I’d get upset and cry. You can get hurt by it, or you can give them the finger. But it still hurts.”
She learned to be defensive then, and still practices, frequently, “It’s easy for me to come out and say stuff. I think I was naturally a verbal and defensive kind of person, but I think I really developed that aspect of my personality growing up in my family, not feeling happy, feeling like I had to defend myself and make a statement, you know? It’s about insecurity? There are mementos of that time. “Just the other day I found a photograph of me dressed in my mother’s wedding gown when I was five years old. It was very strange.”
III. The Barbie Doll Dishwashing Theory
“Oh yeah, I played with my Barbie dolls all the time — I deiinitely lived out my fantasies with them.” Madonna lets loose a naughty chuckle. “I dressed them up in sarongs and mini-skirts and stuff. They were sexy, having sex all the time. I rubbed her and Ken together a lot. And they were bitchy, man, Barbie was mean.” She hoots. “Barbie would say to Ken, ‘I’m not gonna stay home and do the dishes. You stay home! I’m going out tonight, I’m going bowling, okay, so forget it!’ You know? She
was going to be sexy, but she was going to be tough”
A quote from a recent story is brought up in which Madonna had claimed sexual awakening at age five. “Made it sound like I masturbated all the time, didn’t it?” she says with a raised eyebrow. “I really do remember from when I was very, very young, being really attracted to men, and being real flirtatious. The power of my femininity and charm, I remember it was just something I had, that I’d been given, you know what I mean? From the age of five I remember being able to affect people that way. I felt something but I didn’t know what to do with it. I was just very aware of it.”
IV. The Boyfriend Theory
In the teenage years, two things were pure pleasure — dance and music. Madonna studied ballet as much as her father and her legs would allow. As for the music, it was on her radio, and the more radio-perfeect, the better. “My favorites when I was little were Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, the Motown sound. But then I really like ’60s pop songs too — “The Letter” by the Boxtops, “Sugar Sugar” by the Arehies, Gary Puckett, Bob by Sherman, “Happy Together” by the Turtles. I loved all those innocent little pop songs. No hard rock, no heavy metal, no jazz. Pop and soul were it.”
Dance won her a four-year free ride at the University of Michigan, but the prognosis for toe-shoe stardom was lousy. As would be the ease for years to come, Madonna saw no reason to follow rules, and that rubbed the rulemakers the wrong way. After one school year, she moved to New York City. Hometown friend Steve Bray had started her on drums and singing and a little songwriting. It didn’t take long in New York before dance stepped aside to make more room for music.
The next teacher/companion was Dan Gilroy of Queens, whose adoration of the Beatles and their melodies shaped Madonna’s sense of how to construct a song; Gilroy also had the instruments and the patience to start her with the C chords.
Madonna left for a frustrating European tour singing and dancing behind a disco singer, then came back to spend a valuable year in the Gilroy brother’s band and home. Eventually she wanted things in the band her own way, although that way wasn’t entirely clear yet. Manhattan and new compatriots beckorted. Bray came out to work with her through two rock ‘n’ roll bands. They didn’t turn out to be the way either. “I didn’t want to go in a rock vein, and that’s what created the schism between my manager of that time period and myself. I was really being influenced by the urban radio stuff that was starting to be everywhere, on the streets and in the clubs. I love to dance in clubs, and I love all the music they play. It made me really want to dance, it was so soulful. I thought, why can’t I do that? I wanted to make music that I would want to dance to when I was out at the clubs.”
Logically, New York nightclubs is where she went next. It came down to peddling R&B demo tapes done by her and Bray, at the places where the songs’ magic would get their roughest test. If the songs made people dance in New York’s hipness hothouses, that would be the sign that her way, finally, was the right way. DJ boyfriend Mark Kamins remixed one tape and then took it to Sire, where a deal was made.
But neither Bray nor Kamins got to produce the first album, a job they each felt had been promised, and earned. Instead, Madonna was done by veteran R&B producer Reggie Lucas (Stephanie Mills, Phyllis Hyman). Madonna knows it didn’t seem right. She also knows what else it seemed like. She looks the reporter straight in the eye: “If anybody wants to know, I
never f*cked anyone to get anywhere. Never.”
V. The Trickle-Down Theory
Stories about Madonna’s method of career advancement started to circulate shortly after the debut LP came to life on the pop charts. How did this woman with no band or playing credits on her record and no known credibility connections score such a surprise hit? Awfully, uh, juicy looking, isn’t she’? “Some of the things people say are so ridiculous, it’s not even worth defending yourself. The guy who wrote one recent long story, – he got his facts right, all my boyfriends’ names right and how they helped my career, but he wrote the article from just one corner of the room. He just talked about what he saw from that one corner.” She speaks with a tiny shade of sadness, but no rancor. “Yes, all my boyfriends turned out to be very helpful to my career, but that’s not the only reason I stayed with them. I loved them very much.” A pause, then a smile and a shrug. “I’m not Alexis from Dynasty. And going around in corsets is not all I am either. People home in on what they want to home in on. They rarely go for the sum total of someone’s personality.”
Madonna is not the only one who got helped. Gilroy’s debut with his band, Breakfast Club, is due soon. Kamins is collecting royalties from Madonna and working on new projects. Bray is working with the Breakfast Club; he also had four cowriting credits on Like A Virgin. And Lucas, who lost his slot to Nile Rodgers on LP #2, is reportedly busier than ever.
VI. The Bathroom Theory
“Reggie was about one thing,” explains Madonna. “He did R&B. He’s a good producer, very open and sensitive. But Nile has worked with so many kinds of musicians, and every record he’s made is a great one as far as I’m concerned. He has the pop thing in him really strong, and he’s done great dance stuff with Chic and Sister Sledge and all those others, and he’s worked with a lot of female vocalists like Diana Ross. I identified with him, too. He’s a real street person, and we hung out at the same clubs. Even before I started to interview producers I thought he was the one I wanted for the second record.”
Rodgers is getting to be a popular interview these days for people writing about Madonna. The implication is, of course, that Rodgers is legit, see, and if he likes Madonna without being her boyfriend, then maybe she’s not a total bimbo. Rodgers is affable and willing to talk, even with a mean head cold and a long airplane trip only a few hours away. “Someone like Iggy Pop can get out there and be super-sexual and wild and that’s great. But Madonna is a woman, so they say she’s sleazy? Madonna is blatantly sexual and sensual, but not sleazy, not even a little bit. In my opinion, she’s an excellent natural singer, a natural musician, a serious artist. It would be real nice if some ostensibly smart people who know about music would get past the image and get into the music. I’m hoping she can just ride out all the crap people are saying about her. I think a lot of the real nasty stuff is coming from men. And all that arrogance bit — she sticks to her guns, that’s all. It’s that attitude that comes from growing up in a huge family, you know, always having to fight and yell for things like
time in the bathroom.”
VII. The Chauffeur’s Friend’s Theory
“I was making this movie, Desperately Seeking Suson. One of the drivers that took me to the set every day was this kid, and one day he said to me, ‘I have this bet going with my friend, he told me that all the music you do was done by someone else and they picked the songs and did it all, and all they needed was a girl singer and you auditioned and they picked you. And Madonna isn’t your real name and all of it is fabricated.‘ And I said, ‘WHAAAAATT?? Are you out of your mind??!’ But that’s what his friend told him, and it suddenly hit me that that’s probably what a lot of people think. It hit me.”
VIII. The Phyllis and Bob Theory, Part II
Here’s the catch for the modern girl: you can be self-determining. You now have the right. You should be self-determining, you must. But. If your self determines that it wants to be smart and sexpot at the same time? You got the power to choose, honey, but you chose wrong, “I thought the Gina Schock quote was pretty funny,” grins Madonna, referring to Schock recent statement to the effect that Madonna makes it hard for people to take women seriously but that Schock loved the record in spite of it. “I think people want to see me as a little tart bimbo who sells records because I’m cute and record companies push ’em because they know they can make a quick buck on my image.” Madonna gives another eyeball to eyeball look. “People don’t want to like me. And that’s because you’re not supposed to be flirty unless you’re an airhead. And they say I do all this stuff to my appearance and look the way I do because I want to please men.” The blue eyes roll toward the ceiling. “I’m doing it because I like it. If I don’t like it, no one’s going to. I do it because it turns me on.”
Any female role models or heroes? She sighs. “Carole Lombard. She’s my all-time idol. I love her so much. She’s real sentimental and vulnerable, and funny, and sometimes she’s real bitchy and tough, too. She’s it.”
IX. The Sheet Theory
You gotta pay if you wanna play, says the firm set of her mouth. “I try to have a thick skin, but every once in a while I read something that someone says about me and it’s so slanderous and moralistic, and it has nothing to do with my music. There was this one review that said things about me that boys said to me in the seventh grade.”
“For instance – ‘slut.’ Yep, they called me that in this review. And ‘cheap coquette,’ a girl who made her way into lots of back seat in the drive-in theater, the kind of girl that made your father slip you a Trojan and pat you on the back and say, ‘Have a good time, don’t stay out too late.'” Her eyes focus across the room as if she’s watching a movie. “I remember guys saying that sort of stuff to me when I was really young. I thought suddenly that the whole experience was repeating itself all over again. Those boys didn’t understand me, and they didn’t like me because I wasn’t stupid, and I was blunt and opinionated, but I was a flirt at the same time.
They took my aggressiveness as a come-on. They didn’t get it. And they didn’t get it, if you know what I mean, so I guess they had to say things because they knew that was the only way they could hurt me. That review felt like junior high all over again. And check this out! This reviewer also said that every guy across the country is stroking himself under his sheets thinking about me.” Madonna’s face creases in mischief.
“Maybe he’s doing it himself and he feels guilty. Or maybe he asked me out on a date five years ago and I snubbed him.” It’s not out of the question.
X. The Time Theory
Madonna has to vamoose in 15 minutes, cover story and unanswered questions notwithstanding. This week preceding a needed vacation is crammed with band auditions for the boys who will go on the “Virgin Tour.” The trek will start around March and cover the States as well as Europe. Before and after and probably even during the tour there are TV tapings, fashion layouts, photo sessions, videos, commercials, movie scripts to consider and on and on. And then, “I’ll check into Bellevue, or maybe the Betty Ford Clinic, huh?” Any positive press along the way will be nice, ofcourse, but serious reputation repair can only come if she keeps going, going, going. And she knows it.
“The fact of the matter is that you can use your beauty and use your charm and be flirtatious, and you can get people interested in you. Maybe at the start they’re only interested in your beauty. But you cannot maintain that. In the end, talent is the only thing. My work is the only thing that’s going to change any minds. The videos, the records, the movies are the things that will eventually make them think that I’m more than just a girl with a pretty face who’s had some pop hits. It’s just going to take some time.”