Madonna has many of the classic characteristics of both the responsible, rule-oriented eldest daughter and the mediator-rebel middle child. She has the looks and name of her late mother, who died of cancer when Madonna was only five. She has now learned the craft of spinning autocinematic tapestries out of the yarn of her private anguish. Her mother’s death left her to cope with a father, two older brothers and a stepmother ruling over her, and ample chores helping to raise her five younger siblings. She grew up with considerable maternal responsibility but little actual power. So she rebelled and eventually hearkened to a destiny. Or so she says.
“Sometimes growing up I felt like the unhired help. I was the oldest girl and always got stuck with the main housekeeping chores. I changed so many diapers that I swore I’d never have kids. I felt like I didn’t really have a childhood. I was forced to grow up fast. Everybody should have a few years where they are not feeling too responsible, guilty or upset. I really saw myself as a Cinderella with a wicked stepmother.”
“My family life at home was very repressive, very Catholic, and I was very unhappy. I was considered the sissy of the family because I relied on feminine wiles to get my way. I wasn’t quiet at all. I remember always being told to shut up. I got tape put over my mouth. I got my mouth washed out with soap. Mouthing off comes naturally.”
“When I was a Brownie, I ate all of the cookies. From the start I was a very bad girl. I already knew that people were never going to think of me as a nice girl when I was in the fifth grade. I tried to wear go-go boots with my parochial-school uniform.””
“I wanted to do everything everybody told me I couldn’t do. ‘I didn’t fit in because I don’t belong here,’ I thought. ‘I belong in some special world. Madonna is a strange name.’ I felt like there was a reason. I felt like I had to live up to my name.”
Growing up with an icon for a name, Madonna has developed a distinctly democratic attitude toward sacred symbols: they belong to the common man and woman. She hangs multiple crucifixes around her neck, has draped herself undraped in the American flag and made freewheeling use of the hallowed peace symbol.
“My idea is to take these iconographic symbols that are held away from everybody in glass cases and say, Here is another way of looking at it. I can hang this around my neck. I can have this coming out of my crotch if I want. The idea is to somehow bring it down to a level that everyone can relate to.””
“I had to cancel two of my shows in Italy because of the Vatican. Rome and Florence. It was propaganda. Even though there were all of these profane gestures and masturbatory demonstrations, I think that my show was very religious and spiritual. I feel fairly in touch with my Italian roots, so when I got to Italy, I expected to be embraced because my show has so much Catholicism in it. Fellini – whatever! And they slammed the door in my face. They were basically saying that I was a whore and no one should go to my shows and that I was taunting the youth and making them have bad thoughts and blah-blah-blah.”
In Italy, under direct attack from the Vatican, Madonna appeared under kliegs in shades and her flaxen halo to defy the prelates with her artistic manifesto:
“My show is not a conventional rock show but a theatrical presentation of my music. And like theater, it asks questions, provokes thoughts and takes you on an emotional journey portraying good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow, redemption and salvation. I do not endorse a way of life but describe one, and the audience is left to make its own decisions and judgments.”
To use a technical psychiatric term, Madonna is a complicated nut. A darker shadow of her libido has been peeking forth in her recent work. She appeared bound in chains and wearing a black leather dog collar in her video epic Express Yourself. In Hanky Panky she pleaded for corporal punishment, asking for “a good spanking.” She frolicked as a stern, let-them-eat-cake fop queen in a send-up of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the MTV Video Awards ceremony. In her controversial medium-core mini-film, Justify My Love, she played an O-like character drifting through a hypnagogic sexscape worthy of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Truth or Dare takes her into murkier erotic territory still: Circe with a wink and a whip. A common theme of these artistic explorations by this former cheerleader is masochism.
“Yeah, well I am a masochist. Why? Because I felt persecuted as a child. My father made a never-ending impression on me. He had a philosophy, little pearls of wisdom he would drop on us. One of them was, ‘If it feels good, you are doing something wrong. If you are suffering, you are doing something right.’ I tried not to compartmentalize those feelings, so that they are rooted in the same impulse. Another was, ‘If there were more virgins, the world would be a better place.’ “
In Truth or Dare, a stylized icon of the Madonna appears dreamlike over her head and then dissolves into the form of the black-clad chanteuse spinning beneath the cross in an act of contrition: Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
“I guess you do get a certain sense of power if you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders and taking care of people. I certainly did when I was on tour in a hundred ways. I felt like I literally had not only my personal family that I was traveling with, that I was in charge of and responsible for, but then I had to go out onstage to the public – the impersonal family – and give them what they came for. But I am much more conscious of my masochism than any messianic feelings I may have.””
“I think about death a lot, maybe because I don’t know about life after death. So I strive as hard as I can to suck every drop out of life. The great thing about being an artist is that artists are immortal by the fact that they leave their work behind them. There is something comforting about knowing that my life was not just a waste.”
“Finally I see what has happened to me is a blessing because I am able to express myself in many ways that I never would have if I hadn’t had this kind of career. And I don’t think my career is just for myself. I know this is going to sound horrible, but I think I help a lot of people. It is my responsibility to do that. I never wish I had a different life. I am lucky to be in the position of power that I am in and to be intelligent. Most people in my position say, ‘Listen, you don’t have to do any of that. Just kick back, man. Just enjoy your riches. Go get a house in Tahiti. Why do you keep getting yourself into trouble?'”
“It’s not in my nature to just kick back. I am not going to be anybody’s patsy. I am not going to be anybody’s good girl. I will always be this way. Am I misunderstood? Yes, but less now than I have been.”
Whether you want to swing upon her tarnished star, burn her at the media stake or just ponder her anatomy, Madonna is ready with an orchestra of masks for your pleasuring and consternation. Call them out-of-bawdy Madonna experiences. True, and daring. What is most astonishing about Madonna is not her originality or even the commercial success of any particular artistic venture, but her willingness to reinvent herself boldly again and again. The force that keeps her a moving target is a naked defiance that is nothing if not original sin: she wants to live forever, if only in our dreams.