Unlike a lot of people in my generation, I was never all that interested in Madonna. I knew about her, of course (how could anyone not?) but I didn’t really want to know, and over the years this forcible knowing engendered in me a blustering sort of resentment. Why do I have to keep hearing about this woman? I wondered, sometimes aloud, jabbing a finger at yet another picture of her yet again transmogrified visage. Part of my problem was that except for a few songs (“Into the Groove,” “Justify My Love,” “Vogue”), I didn’t much like her peppy, tuneful music. And the scandals over the videos for “Like a Prayer” and “Justify My Love,” along with the infamous Sex book struck me as the cheap stunts of a publicity glutton. The birth of Lourdes, with the attendant honeyed photos and MADONNA AND CHILD headlines made me faintly nauseated. And as for the Kabala studies and the mystical face doodles, please. Will she ever go away? I asked. And asked and asked as the years kept passing.
Then something happened. I’m not sure how or why or even when–the past couple of years?–my antipathy toward Madonna began to ease. It wasn’t that she disappeared, because of course she hasn’t disappeared. But at a certain point I was startled, in response to some new bit of Madonna lore, to feel rustling within me a grudging affection, even admiration, for the woman. Maybe it’s nostalgia: Madonna’s career as a pop star now spans twenty years, roughly my whole adult life. I was in college when I saw Desperately Seeking Susan; I remember arguing with my boyfriend’s sister over whether it was a feminist movie (I thought it was). By the time I got to New York, in the late ’80s, with a lousy manuscript under my arm that I hoped was a novel, there was a Madonna section at Macy’s and my mother had tickets to see her in Speed- the- Plough. And in all the years since, she’s been there. Remaining a pop phenomenon for twenty years without dying or lapsing into self-parody is quite a feat; the Rolling Stone Readers Polls of the past twenty years (most of which include Madonna) look like program notes at a memorial service for pop careers: Cyndi Lauper, George Michael, Sinead O’Connor, Milli Vanilli, M.C. Hammer, Prince, Whitney Houston, and on and on. There are other survivors, to be sure: Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Neil Young, Patti Smith, David Bowie, many of whom outlap Madonna musically by many miles. But as global cultural icons, none of these people can touch her.
And so this woman who has long irked me has come to embody a mystery: How did she do it? It seemed time for an examination of not just Madonna’s oeuvre and the reams of patter she’s inspired from the halls of academe to the pages of People magazine but also my own gripes: the things I’ve always held against her. Is she an idol despite these many failings, or have I been wrong all these years?
1. Madonna has no real talent
I‘m hardly the first to have thought so; many have remarked on Madonna’s less- than- stunning abilities as a singer or a dancer. Luc Sante captured the basic attitude in 1990: “Madonna, then, is a bad actress, a barely adequate singer, a graceless dancer, a boring interview subject, a workmanlike but uninspired (co-) songwriter, and a dynamo of hard work and ferocious ambition.” Madonna’s only talent, according to this line of reasoning, lies in the realm of self-promotion, that magical zone peopled by the likes of Elizabeth Hurley and Anna Kournikova, where lack of achievement is parlayed into ubiquity. Hence those overused terms one finds everywhere in Madonna discourse: calculating, chameleon and reinvent.
The “no talent” argument is an old one. It’s also, I think, an argument of the old. I include myself in this category although I’m four years younger than Madonna, for the simple reason that I grew up in the ’70s, so I entered early adulthood with a definition of “rock star” that overlapped very little with what Madonna had to offer. Rock stars (my favorites included the Who, Patti Smith, Pink Floyd and Iggy Pop) produced raw, spontaneous music that sounded completely different live than on your turntable. There was something random and dangerous about that sound. Patti Smith ranting the words to “Horses” as if she’d been recorded midseizure or the horrifying scream on Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma– just try to imagine those moments filtered through a sieve of vocal coaches and songwriting teams. As for live performance — well, anything could happen, or that was the feeling. Pete Townshend’s guitar smashing might have been calculated, but compared with Madonna’s hyperchoreographed aerobic chorus lines it looked like primal scream therapy.
Unlike the music of the ’70s performers I loved, Madonna’s early sound was bubble-gummy and devoid of mystery, the slick live versions virtually indistinguishable from the studio recordings. Yet there was another facet of Madonna’s musical creation that was lost on me, pre-MTV teenager that I was: the music video. I still find these pretty cheesy, having missed the apparently crucial indoctrination phase of lolling around stoned after school on someone’s den floor, ogling the latest VJ. So while I can’t agree with Norman Mailer, who, in a 1994 interview with Madonna, likened her videos to poetry, I will allow that they can be strange and suggestive — mysterious, even — in ways that her music is not. The choir and weeping statue in “Like a Prayer,” Madonna’s passionate kiss with a black saint — to me, these images are far more lasting than the song itself. Or the hyperactive urban imagery in the “Ray of Light” video, interspersed with Madonna jittering like a piston; when I hear the song, I see these images and they enhance it.