“I don’t think anybody in that household encouraged Madonna,” says Keshishian. “The will of somebody who comes from that big a family and does what she’s done is remarkable. She became, I think, like the worst stage mother could have been.”
I remember hearing about Madonna in the early 80s. She was part of the downtown scene and had hung out at clubs like Danceteria and the Paradise Garage. She was friends with quite a few of the people whom I knew, as well as a number of emerging artists whose work was a big part of what I was covering in Artforum magazine, which I edited. They included people such as Futura 2000, Fab Five Freddy, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Madonna was Basquiat’s girlfriend for a while. But it didn’t last, and she tells me that when they broke up Basquiat made her return the paintings he had given her. He let her keep one, which she now describes as her most prised possesion.
It’s a little surprising when you consider how quickly this loner from the burbs of Detroit — a creature who, to this day, uses “dorky” as an adjective — fit into the world of these intensely urban bohemians. You might call it her first transformation. But this was clearly where she wanted to be, having spent her life in a state of admiration of painters, writers, and poets. It’s not clear, even now, whether it is the actual work of these creative people which fuels Madonna, or whether it is the actual work of these creative people that fuels Madonna, or whether it is her self-presentation and passion which compel her. She does not seem to have been born with the classic self-destructive artistic personality; she feeds her drive with Catholic self-denial and then rebels publicly in ways that don’t appear to threaten her solid core. This charged-up ambition was off-putting to some of the cooler creative types she met in the early days.
Recording executives, however, loved it. When an acquaintance named Michael Rosenblatt, an executive at Sire Records, talked Madonna up to his boss, company chief Seymour Stein, she didn’t delay her approach; Liz Rosenberg recalls that although Stein was in the hospital with a heart infection, “Madonna just barreled into his room, and Seymour fell in love with her and signed her.”
Rosenberg will always remember her first meeting with Madonna. “You felt her fearlessness, but she didn’t have two cents. We used to give her cab money. She probably pocketed it all and took the train. She looked like a little doll with her stockings, and the schmatte, and the bow, and the rubber bracelets. I loved the belief she had in herself.”
At first, executives at Sire — and at Warner Records, its parent company — weren’t gung-ho about putting their weight behind her. Rosenberg remembers people saying, “Oh, don’t let her go one the road. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’ll embarrass the company.” But it wasn’t only the road tours that would set Warner on its ear. The notorious episodes that attended Madonna’s climb to fame must have had corporate honchos regretting that bomb shelters were no longer a part of American life. Yet, whatever the controversies, no up-and-comer ever grabbed the ball like Madonna. She made herself into a major celebrity with heart-stopping style — defying the expectations of those who saw her as a flash in the pan. Still, she took some getting used to. Rosenberg invited a male friend along to the rehearsal for the first MTV Video Music Awards, in 1984. Madonna, rolling around the floor of the stage in a wedding dress, gave a preview of her showstopping performance, and Rosenberg’s pal predicted, “Her career is over before it started.”
Her refrain has been uttered as often as Madonna has repeated some of her songs’ signature motifs — such as one of her most frequently recurring images: running. But she has shown that she can take the heat. When Playboy and Penthouse obtained nude photographs of the star, her response was: “So what? I’m not ashamed.” When the Vatican tried to censor her Blonde Ambition tour, she refused to bow. And after Sex, she came out slugging. On Bedtime Stories, the CD that followed, she included a song called “Human Nature.” “I’m not your bitch,” Madonna declared in its chorus, “don’t hang your shit on me.”
It’s fearlessness that makes her a star. “I cannot imagine walking into a room and feeling like this girl did,” recalls Liz Rosenberg. Few of us can — and that’s what makes Madonna. But she has to keep stoking her own flame.
Madonna’s metamorphoses have become legend as she has shuffled through our culture’s fat deck of accumulated images. She’s snapped up poses, postures, and attitudes, sometimes dropping them quickly (rapper’s silver tooth cap), sometimes incorporating them more permanently (platinum Hollywood hair). And transformation is part of Madonna off-camera too. Talk to her and you’ll notice the falling into and out of accents and lingoes: on a busy day, you can hear the sound of Michigan, the in phrases of Manhattan gay boys and and street kids, inflections worthy of the Queen Mother. Lately, in her elegant mode, she sometimes relies on the kind of Great Lady diction they taught at MGM.
Like photographer Cindy Sherman — whose early work was recently seen at the Museum of Modern Art in a Madonna-sponsored exhibition — Miss Ciccone has been acting out a spectrum of women’s roles, which could be interpreted as a search for self. Or if one wants to get postmodern about it, she’s mirroring the culture’s own fixation with celebrity. I think Madonna’s chameleon act is rooted in something more primal. She’s been searching for self-realization and to be seen and recognized for who she really is.