Immaterial Girls // Why looking for the new Madonna is a lost cause
If there’s one music-journalism cliche that’s begging for retirement, it’s the phrase “the new Madonna.” The following women have all, on some occasion, been heralded as the next Material Girl: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Shania Twain, Jennifer Lopez, Pink, Beyonce, Kylie Minogue, Paula Abdul, Nelly Furtado, Lil’ Kim, Kelis, Charlotte Church, Mitsou, Missy Elliott and Courtney Love – and that list doesn’t include some of the more outlandish suggestions broached in Internet chat rooms. The idea has been bandied about so recklessly that in 1997 a Malaysian diplomat christened then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright “America’s new Madonna for the senior set” – a hyperbolic reference to Albright’s little-publicized singing talent.
The newest recipient of this overused laurel is singer/fashion renegade Gwen Stefani, who took leave of ska-punk outfit No Doubt last year to essay a solo career. So far, the venture has been nothing short of triumphant: her debut record, Love. Angel. Music. Baby., went to No. 7 on Billboard; first single What You Waiting For? is nominated for a Grammy Award for “best female pop vocal performance”; and Gwen’s pretty face stares out from every conceivable magazine cover. For Stefani, like many songstresses before her, being hailed The New Madonna (TNM) is praise of the highest order – and an utter fallacy. Nothing against you personally, Gwen, but Madonna simply cannot be duplicated, and anyone who thinks so clearly undervalues her enormous bearing on pop music.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, any female singer who demonstrated exhibitionist tendencies was believed to be TNM – thus the ephemeral stardom of kittenish Francophone star Mitsou, whose naked romp through Dis-Moi, Dis-Moi (1991) got the video banned on various international music stations, including MuchMusic. The thing people find Madonna-esque about Stefani is her fashion bravado and her physical transformations from one video/photo spread/awards show to the next. Like Madonna, she experiments freely with styles and looks.
People talk of Madonna’s love of reinvention, however, as though it were her only attribute. If we’ve learned anything from Madonna Louise Ciccione’s 23-year music career, it’s that her influence is manifold. Most prominently, she empowered female pop stars to control their own image, and for that, everyone from J-Lo to Furtado owes her a debt. Madonna’s own likeness has always been aggressively sexual, but it was cultivated by her and not some faceless committee of record execs. Madonna was the first to embrace a multimedia approach to promotion, exploiting videos and motion pictures to burn her name into the collective unconscious. Then there’s her nose for push-button subject matter like Catholicism and deviant sex. No artist before or since has been able to leverage controversy quite like she has, to the point where every new video ” from Like A Prayer to Justify My Love to the Bush-bashing American Life ” is guaranteed to be a fresh outrage. By the time of her Blonde Ambition Tour (1990), her concerts had become unparalleled in their combination of lighting, choreography and carnal suggestion.
Of course, anyone with this much daring is bound to overreach from time to time, hence the film Swept Away, her foray into children’s literature and the ridiculous nod to Che Guevara on the cover of American Life. Say what you want about her, but she exhibits a dogged will to try anything.
Those considering “the new Madonna” miss the fundamental illogic of that phrase. The rise of Madonna represented nothing less than a cultural mutiny. To posit someone as TNM is to suggest a songstress who could single-handedly affect a comparable paradigm shift in the pop world – impossible. The idea is as risible as those critics still hoping to coronate “the new Beatles”: three decades ago, it was Queen, the Bay City Rollers and the Knack; more recently, Blur and Oasis. By dint of sheer talent, experimentation and the ineluctable laws of chronology, the Beatles can’t be duplicated – much less by the chuckleheads who sang My Sharona.
Part of Madonna’s impact can be ascribed to timing: she emerged just as the music video was becoming the dominant means of marketing Top 40 pop. Imagine if Britney, Pink or J-Lo had debuted in the early ’80s; would they have changed the role of female pop singers the way Madonna did? Highly unlikely. While she’s revealed every other part of her body, Britney has yet to demonstrate a spine. Pink has the necessary moxie, but it’s hard to project a career as long as Madonna’s based on her mediocre output thus far. On paper, Jennifer Lopez would seem the closest match: she and Madonna both started as dancers, both are shameless merchandisers, both (ahem) act. Alas, J-Lo has a pathological need to be universally loved, which is anathema to progress in any creative medium.
Madonna’s detractors say she’s not so much a trendsetter as an early adopter with a rapt audience ” that’s how she turned mehndi, yoga and Kabala into pervasive fads. Musically, too, she’s seen more as an appropriator than an innovator, having assimilated aspects of gay dance culture, trip-hop, torch song and ghetto fabulous into her radio-friendly canon. What she lacks in imagination she makes up for in quality and consistency. Of the 50-odd singles she’s released since 1982, the overwhelming majority are paragons of pop songcraft; only a handful are out-and-out howlers. Eliding recent singles like American Life and Me Against the Music, no current singer is as reliably good as Madonna.
The most warped aspect is that Madonna herself has gotten caught up in anointing the new Madonna. By all appearances, she’s thrown her support behind Britney Spears, which points up how absurd this sweepstakes has become. For Madge, designating a successor is nothing if not an ego-stroke. Why else would she agree to swap spit with Britney and Xtina (as Aguilera is known in message-board shorthand) at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards? The stunt succeeded neither as an attempt to legitimize lesbianism nor as a particularly entertaining slice of award-show grotesquerie; more than anything, it was an opportunity for Madonna to indulge in public onanism, to make out with not one but two versions of her younger self.
Given her legendary conceit, you’d think Madonna would have cottoned on to the fact that she’s a nonpareil, an act no one could conceivably duplicate. By admitting that publicly, she’d be doing the misguided music press a big, big favour.
Written by Andre Mayer
source : cbc.ca