It seems unlikely that a woman with fifteen American top-five hits to her credit — more than Elvis Presley or the Beatles–has no talent other than self-promotion. Especially when, as opposed to ’70s giants like the Stones or Elton John, Madonna has yet to settle into nostalgic wallows through old material. In fact, her two most recent albums have been her most critically acclaimed; Ray of Light won three Grammys, including Best Pop Album. And while the exact nature of Madonna’s songwriting contributions has never been clear, no one disputes that she’s in complete control of every aspect of her career.
Still, Madonna herself said in Truth or Dare, “I know I’m not the best singer, and I know I’m not the best dancer. But I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative. In being political.” In other words, music per se has never encompassed the full range of Madonna’s aspirations; she’s a creator of effects, of extravaganzas, and she does this using imagery, sound, her voice, her body and anything else she can scare up. Her gift for making spectacles is obvious, not just from her videos and performances but also from the pageant of her career itself: a multimedia onslaught of sensation. In 1992, for example, she released a CD, Erotica; a book, Sex; followed by a movie, Body of Evidence, all of which dealt in some way with the power of sexual fantasies. The fact that Sex (which sold 1.5 million copies worldwide) was lampooned by critics and Body of Evidence bombed both critically and commercially hardly matters; the publicity and controversy generated by these multiple efforts pushed buttons — Madonna’s goal — and jacked up her fame another notch.
If, as music critic Gerald Marzorati once suggested to me, the biggest pop stars tend to change in some way the nature of what it is to be a pop star, Madonna’s contribution has been to usher in the phenomenon of star as multimedia impresario. These diversified stars are defined less by any single talent or pursuit than by an array of projects and endeavors whose combined impact expands their personae exponentially. Others who have followed successfully in this vein (and whose merchandising efforts dwarf Madonna’s) range from Puff Daddy toMartha Stewart. Whether one appreciates this new stripe of celebrity — I don’t, especially — is a separate question.
2. Madonna is narcissistic
Clearly and resoundingly true. And yet the very word sounds old-fashioned in the context of Madonna–a bit like bum-rapping cities for being crowded when compression is precisely what a city has to offer. For Madonna, narcissism is more than a personality trait: it’s a metier, a creative vocabulary and a bridge to the culture at large. John Fiske once wrote of her, “Madonna knows well the importance of the look. This is a complex concept, for it includes how she looks (what she looks like), how she looks (how she gazes at others, the camera in particular), and how others look at her.”
In other words, Madonna has a heightened awareness of seeing and being seen. But what exactly is unusual about her self-consciousness? After all, the very nature of performance, not to speak of celebrity, involves being watched by many people who don’t know you. Celebrities react to this scrutiny in various ways — with avoidance (Sean Penn), with rage (Russell Crowe), with concerted “naturalness” (Britney Spears), with weird and possibly criminal behavior (Winona Ryder), with despair and self-immolation (Kurt Cobain). Madonna, on the other hand, appears not merely to enjoy scrutiny but to presume it and control it. She turns being seen from a passive experience into an active one — the peep-show worker she portrays in her “Open Your Heart” video is a dynamo of glamour and vitality compared with the embalmed-looking men who are her audience. Madonna knows we’re watching; hence her winking air of don’t pretend you’re not looking that can be so aggravating — in part because if you’re there to catch it, then she’s right.
I’m not denying that there can be vanity, egotism and even real ugliness to Madonna’s self-exposure. One thing that makes Sex such a squirmy book to look at, and Truth or Dare such an uncomfortable movie, is Madonna’s obvious and unwavering complicity with the camera — an allegiance that seems to outrank any other bond she might ever form, sexual, professional, even familial. We’re watching her watch herself, is the feeling — there’s no one else in the room. In this sense we, the viewers, are complicit in her narcissism–essential to it. In his seminal book, The Image, Daniel Boorstin wrote, “Man fulfills his dream and by photographic magic produces a precise image of the Grand Canyon. The result is not that he adores nature or beauty the more. Instead he adores his camera — and himself. He is impressed, not by what he sees. . .Rather by the extreme and ever-growing cleverness of his ways of seeing it.”
Madonna is a narcissist — and so are her fans, including those who hate her the most. This is what Nell Bernstein meant when he wrote, “Madonnaism is ultimately less about the star than about the fan. The idea is not simply to look at Madonna, but also to look at yourself looking at Madonna.” So it is with all celebrity worship. It’s no accident that Madonna’s first and most rabid fan base consisted of teenage girls at an age when total self-involvement is a basic condition of life. They were wild to play their part, mimicking her dance moves and clogging up their arms with rubber bracelets. For the rest of us, it was easier to point the finger and say Madonna started it.