Cheek to Cheat
From Chic to Street. Barney Hoskyns finds out how far Madonna and Oliver Cheatnam have motored since quitting Detroit via the dance studios of New York.
Oliver Cheatham’s a soul gent who for 18 years has been flogging his way from the ghetto to French cabaret and back again. In 1983, he looks set to break.
Madonna’s a sweet petite fatale who’s hustled her ass out of nowhere and within four years of touching down in Manhattan is on the books of the William Morris Agency and Michael Jackson’s ex-management Weisner-DeMann. As you’d probably guess from the picture, she’s white.
Otherwise, they’ve a few things in common. Both hail from Detroit, make nice dance music, are brilliant dancers who choreograph their own shows.
Madonna would agree. Dance has framed and entwined the entire course of her life. Growing up in what sounds like an Italian Catholic sitcom – “eight brothers and sisters, plus two parents” – she was the family showoff, always the one who was going to hike off to New York.
First her mama used to twist. “That was the earliest music I heard, Chubby Checker, but then all the girls in my neighborhood had all the 45s, every girl group from The Crystals to The Marvelettes, and all those poppy records like “The Letter,” “Incense and Peppermint,” and “Quinn The Eskimo,” those records which I just loved.
“All my brothers and sisters were artistic, too, but I was the most manipulative and scheming. My two older brothers were jazz musicians, and that sort of had a reverse influence on me, because they would tell me pop music was a pile of sh*t, they’d scratch (!) my records so that I couldn’t play them. It only made love pop more.”
Madonna’s esoterically snooty brudders are not musicians today. She is the only sibling in the music business. At 16, she attended the school of fine arts at the University of Michigan, performing with its famous dance company.
“For me, it was superstardom from the word go, and I thought what is this sh*t, it’s just a home away from home. So I left and came to New York, and it was… hell. New York’s good to me now, but it was really horrible in the beginning. Luckily, I got into a dance company (Pearl Lange).”
She also starred in a couple of underground movies: she describes A Certain Sacrifice as “very sick”.
“It was made by this guy in his final year at N.Y. University Film School. It was sick in childish kind of way, about this girl who’s like a dominatrix, me of course. There’s hardly any, like, sex scenes or anything like that, it’s just implied all the time. She’s got all these slaves, and she leads this really perverted, deranged life, but then this boy from the midwest comes and changes her life, and makes her get rid of the slaves.
“Anyway, I get sexually attacked, which you don’t see in the movie, and he goes crazy with revenge, kills the guy and performs this ritual sacrifice, gets all my ex-slaves involved. There’s a scene where we take a bath in fake blood.”
Very artistic, I’m sure. Since then, Madonna’s gone a little more upmarket. Say goodbye to downtown, darling. Currently she’s studying acting, already signed to William Morris, who feed her scripts all the time.
Behind all the canny strategy, though, is a gamine Marilyn Monroe with a voice like Taana Gardner and an unscratchable itch to dance. Her Sire album ‘Madonna’ has a couple of goodies in ‘Everybody’ and ‘Lucky Star’, but is otherwise a formula platter. Reggie Lucas (ex-Miles Davies, Mtume crony, producer of Phyllis Hyman and of Stephanie Mills’ superb Pendergrass duet ‘Two Hearts’) has only given her what any new maiden of motion needs: safety first.
“My inspiration is simply that I love to dance. All I wanted to do was make a record that I would want to dance to, and I did. Then I wanted to go one step further and make a record that people would listen to on the radio.”
What about James Truman’s point in his interesting Face piece, that the selling of black / black music takes place largely on white / black terms? There must be problems in crossing from Dance to Pop chart, especially if you’re a white girl with a black voice.
“It’s strange because I think there are a lot of records that are similar to mine, records which are in the pop charts here, and they come over to the States and they’re considered pop songs just because they’re big in England. Whereas with the same kind of stuff coming from America, you’re stuck in the dance/R&B charts and you can’t cross over coz it’s considered black music.
“It’s so silly, coz if you listen to the formats and the chord progressions, everything about it is exactly the same. It’s the problem in America that you have everything categorized, whereas in England it’s all one chart.”
Madonna is not over-enthralled with ‘Madonna’ herself. She knows the songs could be stronger. What she wants is a producer who can push her vocally.
“I wanted Mark Kamins to direct me, but ‘Everybody’ was the first record he’d ever done. I have this friend called Steve who’s doing a version of that song, and it’s really full and lush-sounding, which is how it should have been. Reggie I thought might be able to push me, having worked with Phyllis Hyman and Roberta Flack. The only problem was that he wanted to make me sound like them.”
“I now know what I want on my next record. The producer won’t be so slick, because where Reggie and Mtume come from is whole different school. I want a sound that’s mine. There will be a more crossover approach to it this time. Maybe I should work with a British producer.”
Enough said! So people aren’t “offended” that you turned out to be white?
“It’s changing now, just because people are more aware of what I’m about and what I can do. It didn’t offend white people, but I think it offended radio programmers in the south. I think that’s just reverse racism.”
“In America, Warners don’t know how to push me, whether to push me as a disco artist or as new wave because of the way I look. I’d rather just start another category.”
“You just have to be patient. I’m not.”