Madonna In Bloom
Circe at Her Loom Roll Over, Ulysses, she’s at it again: winking, beckoning, scandalizing with her new film Truth or Dare, and making one or two points on the way
So they stood at the outer gate of the fair-tressed goddess, and within they heard Circe singing in a sweet voice, as she fared to and fro before the great web imperishable, such as is the handiwork of goddesses They cried aloud and called to her. And straightway she came forth and opened the shining doors and bade them in, and all went with her in their heedlessness . . . Now when she had given them the cup and they had drunk it off, presently she smote them with a wand, and in the sties of swine she penned them. So they had the head and voice, and bristles and shape of swine, but their mind abode even as of old. – Homer, the Odyssey
Beyond the black steel spikes, tall forbidding trees and gimlet eye of a surveillance camera repairs this modern Circe: Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. The air is perfumed with the sweet fragrance of a floating garland of fresh gardenias. She plies a visitor with strong drink and cunning smiles. Within earshot of the murmuring fax machine and the constant siren’s whine of the telephone, Circe reclines in audience on a couch of golden threads, and speaks:
“I think the Circe comparison is great. Warren’s (Beatty) point of view about all of this is that he thinks I have to humiliate men publicly. That is his overall simplification of what I do, that I am living out my hatred of my father for leaving me for my stepmother after my mother died. That is true, but it is too much of an oversimplification. If that were all I was doing, it would be a lot less interesting.”
“On one hand, you could say I am turning men into swine, but I also have this other side of my head that is saying that I am forcing men – not forcing, asking men – to behave in ways that they are not supposed to have in society. If they want to wear a bra, they can wear a bra. If they want to cry, they can cry. If they want to kiss another man, they can kiss another man. I give them license to do that. My rebellion is not just against my father but against the priests and all the men who made the rules while I was growing up.”
“In the Like a Virgin scene in my show, I have these men whom I have emasculated with bras on who are attending to me and offering me sex if I so wish. But in the end, I would rather be alone and masturbate. Until God comes, of course, and frightens me. (Laughs) Then all of a sudden Like a Prayer begins, and you hear the voice of God, and the curtain opens. Figures clothed in black, like priests and nuns, appear onstage and the cross descends. It’s like here comes the Catholic Church saying ‘Sex goes here, and spirituality goes there.’ And I say – but I say, NO, THEY GO TOGETHER! I am supposed to pray, right? But my praying gets so frenzied and passionate and frenetic that by the end, I am flailing my body all over the place, and it becomes a masturbatorysexualpassionate thing.”
Madonna’s artistic persona has clearly transformed from daffy Disco Dolly into a more substantial, surrealistic Poly Dali incarnation. For a long time, she seemed like a rebelette without a cause vamping for the world’s attention. Now she has it. Not content to continue spinning out mere dance-floor fodder, she has used her bully pulpit to preach scantily clad homilies on bigotry, abortion, civic duty, power, love, death, safe sex, grief and the importance of families.
Circe Ciccone’s alluring attitude is not just a simple sexual defiance but a symphony of rebellions laced with a deep sense of responsibility: now she is undraped in Penthouse, now she is doing a benefit for AIDS research, now she is doing a Pepsi commercial, now she is the dutiful wife, now she is the brazen divorcee. Serious feminist scholars defend her intelligent womanliness. Bluenoses sniff at her every bump and grind. The Vatican has denounced her. Academics spin doctoral dissertations based on her canon. The Queer Nation beatifies her. Wannabes still, well, wanna be.
Now 32, the Michigan-born Madonna has three world tours, 20-plus music videos, seven feature films and eight albums under her Boy Toy belt. She has single-handedly created a boom in music-video sales. That the image refracted in the media-crazed mirror never settles is hypnotizing. Her throwaway line “Experience has made me rich/ And now they’re after me,” from her tune Material Girl, seems more a wily prophecy than mere egoistic cant. Her latest public catharsis – a quantum artistic growth spurt, if you will – is Truth or Dare. It is a panoramic, emetic, beauty-marks-and-all, feature-length autobiographical documentary shot during her Blond Ambition tour. The film, which opens nationally on May 17, is a celebrity voyeur’s feast that draws its substance from the dark well of Madonna’s life. It is her bid for serious consideration as a multimedia artiste who is more attuned to the aesthetic ideas of Martha Graham (whom she plans to play in a forthcoming film) and Isadora Duncan than to her contemporary pop-star peers. To recast a line of her favorite playwright, David Mamet: “She’s eating at the Big Table now.” Quoth Circe:
“I present my view on life in my work. The provocation slaps you in the face and makes you take notice, and the ambiguity thing makes you say, Well, is it that or is it that? You are forced to have a discourse about it in your mind.”
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.