Madonna comes off as the classic queen bee, that type who surrounds herself with subordinate and adoring acolytes (in Truth or Dare it’s her mostly gay-male dancers and others in her employ on the Blonde Ambition tour) who serve as her audience and entertainment. They vie for Madonna’s good graces, sometimes falling out with one another in the process, and she treats them with maternal indulgence so long as they remember their places. As her clandestine audience, we’re admitted to Madonna’s inner circle so long as we collude in whatever cruelties she concocts to keep things lively. On learning that the luckless Sharon has been raped after going out one night, Madonna’s first reaction is a guilty snicker. “I’m sorry I’m laughing,” she says (to us?). It’s awful and enthralling and familiar from long ago — that old schoolyard choice between playing along with someone racy and mean or slinking into obscurity with duller, gentler friends.
Of course, the Blonde Ambition tour was twelve years ago. Since then Madonna has become a mother, a devotee of the Kabala (an ancient Jewish mystical practice with a Hollywood following) and of yoga, has lived in London for the past several years and has married. “I’ve changed,” she said two years ago. “Having a child has made me a lot more sensitive, more responsible, a lot more aware of my actions and my words. . .I was much more selfish and self-involved before.” Her music has changed, too, moving toward a densely textured electronica that I, for one, like better than anything she’s done before.
It would be a disappointment if Madonna had been etherized into pure sweetness and light. Not to worry. The video for the benign-sounding “What it Feels Like for a Girl,” from her Music album, turns out to be a paean to female rage (it was directed by Ritchie, known for his stylishly violent films). Madonna plays a jumpsuited criminal who plucks a doddering old woman from a nursing home and ferries her along as an unwitting passenger in a swath of destruction that includes stealing two cars, blowing up a gas station and finally decimating herself and the elderly passenger by smashing their vehicle into a pole. MTV refused to play the video, a decision that generated none of the controversy that its ban of “Justify my Love” for obscenity did in 1990. Madonna says she wrote the song while pregnant with her second child and hiding it from the world, unsure whether her relationship with Ritchie would last. As a woman, I’ll admit to feeling a nervy thrill, watching the rage I’ve felt at points in my life writ large in such compact, spectacular fashion. But the message is transparent: Indulging such rage is suicide.
For Madonna, it’s fantasy only; even when her moves have looked self destructive, she’s always emerged unscathed. To be loved as a celebrity, she once said, “You need to disappear, run out of steam, run out of ideas…You need to have a drinking or a drug problem. You have to go in and out of rehabs so people can feel sorry for you. Or you need to kill yourself, basically.” But Madonna has avoided all of that: no rehabs or suicide attempts, no arrests or collapses or devouring lawsuits or serial divorces or appalling plastic surgery — scandals, yes, but always of her own making and always, finally, to her own advantage. Sometime very early on, Madonna learned a different way to subvert her rage and quell the fear and pain that are usually handmaidens to an ambition as ravenous as hers: hard work. “I ultimately end up making my own work,” she has said. “I don’t sit around waiting for other people to give it to me. I’ve had to do this to ensure myself constant employment.”
Morton’s account of Madonna’s early performing years is a litany of wrong turns (including the fact that her first single, “Everybody,” was marketed as the work of a black artist) that could have terminally discouraged a less tenacious and resourceful performer. But no matter what went wrong, Madonna always had a next move. She kept producing good material by playing to her own strengths and finding people to compensate for her weaknesses. This ability to create year after year in the face of loud and persistent nay-saying is the single thing that has ensured Madonna’s ongoing success. I can only admire it.
Now comes the point where the writer is supposed to indulge in a bit of prognostication: what’s next? I could do this–ruminate sagely over the staying power of her marriage to a macho guy ten years younger or tsk that those tank tops might not cut it when she’s 50. But by defying twenty years’ worth of such speculations, Madonna has made a lot of smart people look like dummies. So I’ll pass. Better to admit that I have no idea what she’ll do, except that I can’t imagine her stopping. There’s pleasure in not knowing–especially when term limits on fame seem shorter than ever and the surprises we get from celebrities are rarely pleasant. Madonna hasn’t exhausted us because we haven’t exhausted her, which is another way of saying that she hasn’t exhausted herself.
I’m tempted to say that Madonna grew up, but maybe it’s just that I did.