After 20 years of tireless invention, Madonna is not only still at the top but has emerged as a happily married yoga enthusiast and mother of two – a disappointment for critics who feel that by now she should have been punished for her sins. On the eve of her UK tour, we celebrate the First Lady of Pop.
The scene is the United Centre in Chicago, where Madonna is about to begin the latest leg of her Re:invention tour. From my seat at the side of the stage I can see her preparing backstage, hoisting herself up into the crab position that had reviewers of previous shows both gasping at her suppleness (‘At 45!’)… and pointing out her support bandages (‘She is, after all, 45’). I can’t see any support bandages this time as Madonna rises up through the stage floor, still in the crab position, then stands on her head.
Her dancers start coming down from the ceiling on swings, dressed in a way that suggests they have escaped en masse from a casting for Les Miserables. Madonna looks sensational, though her spangled corset and thigh boots are so high camp they border on space camp. Watching her frolicking with her dancers, I’m reminded that Boy George once said she was a gay man trapped inside a woman’s body. Right now, in the nicest possible sense, it looks as if the gay man has escaped.
As the set unfolds (old songs: ‘Frozen’, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, ‘Holiday’; new songs: ‘Nothing Fails’, ‘American Life’ ‘Hollywood’; horrible songs: ‘Hanky Panky’, ‘Die Another Day’; and unexpected songs: ‘Imagine’ ) the dry ice swirls, and it is as if Madonna has been joined onstage by the fog of truths and lies, preconceptions and misconceptions, that have dogged her over the years.
Suddenly she runs along the moving pathway at the front of the stage and up into a superstructure which takes her high above the crowd. And there she stands for a moment or two, bathed in adulation, wrapping her legs around the bars: Watching us, watching her…
At the start of ‘Vogue’, Madonna asks: ‘What are you looking at?’ It’s a question it seems pertinent to answer right now. Her 46th birthday is coming up and she’s done more than 20 years of hard time at the top. This year also sees the 20th anniversary of ‘Like A Virgin’, not her first hit but arguably the one that first set her apart from the common pop herd, the pretty hot-eyed ingenue displaying a moxie beyond her years as she flounced around in her wedding dress, announcing to the world that her latest love made her feel ‘shiny and new’. This was no virgin – anyone could see that – but even then Madonna ladled on the irony and the metaphor just as much as the eyeliner.
Just now, she’s not looking so shiny or new. There are reports that tickets for her tour are moving slowly and sales of her current album, American Life, have been the worst of her entire career. Unlike 1992’s Erotica, another poor seller, released alongside the notorious Sex book, this time the content seems to be to blame rather than any attendant controversy. For me, a longtime Madonna fan, American Life seems too heavy on the Kabbalah homilies (Love each other; Don’t be meanies) and too light on the fun. That was a disappointment after her previous two albums: Ray of Light, an introspective masterpiece produced by William Orbit and documenting Madonna’s personal and creative resurgence; and Music, produced by Mirwais, a near-psychic explosion of rhinestones, sparse electro and nimble social commentary.
More alarm bells rang as Madonna seemed to lose her nerve, withdrawing the military-themed video for the ‘American Life’ single as the Iraq conflict broke out. At the Chicago show she spent a great deal of time writhing about in combats and brandishing a gun, so perhaps she has had a change of heart – but at the time she deemed the images of helicopters, explosions and a Dubya doppelganger lighting a cigar from a hand grenade ‘inappropriate’.
Around this time, Madonna appeared on the Jonathan Ross show. The last time Ross interviewed her it was like watching a small boy being mauled by a man-eating tiger. This time Madonna looked subdued and unconfident, constantly twisting her fingers and fidgeting in her chair. She talked about hating the way she looked and she sounded like she meant it. Ross even managed to slip it in that her new music wasn’t for him and Madonna – Madonna! – meekly let him get away with it.
By the end I was watching in thoughtful silence. I’ve met Madonna, interviewing her in 1995 at her New York apartment, and she was such a bright, cheeky, ‘F*ck you!’ woman, speaking fearlessly and articulately about everything from art and fellatio to God, rape, misogyny (‘It’s an aura – a black cloud they carry around with them’) and everything in between. When she told me about being sexually assaulted as a newcomer to New York – the first time she’d ever talked about it – I commented that even something like this might end up being dismissed as a cynical publicity stunt. She laughed dryly: ‘Some people think everything I do is a publicity stunt. They think when I go to the bathroom it’s a publicity stunt.’
Did she feel she had been dehumanised, turned into a ‘thing’? ‘Yes (mischievous) – but then most icons are.’
There’s no doubt about it: the woman I met that day would have eaten Ross for breakfast and used Michael Parkinson to mop the plate. This Madonna, this latest Madonna, wasn’t coming across like that at all. It made you wonder what was going on: Where is Madonna placed now? What do we make of her? What does she make of herself, come to think of it?
Over the years there have been quite a few Madonnas to choose from. Born Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone into a large middle class Italian-American family in Bay City, Michigan in 1958, she seemed an unlikely candidate to become one of the world’s biggest stars and consummate shape changers. Much of her personal history has now passed into legend: her mother dying when she was seven, the subsequent rebellions, the running away to New York to ‘make it’, the career change from dance to music, the early stardom, the crucifixes and the attitude (‘I lost my virginity as a career move’).
Soon Madonna wasn’t just ‘making it’ she was inventing it – or to be more precise, reinventing it. From that point, the Madonnas came thick and fast: Boy Toy, Dirty Bitch, Catholic screw up, Mrs (Poison) Penn, Disco Dolly, Tomboy, Whore, Clown, Evita, Earth Mother, Calculating Businesswoman in Corsets. And along with it came the seemingly endless parade of vile, diminishing boyfriends. Apart from Carlos Leon, Lourdes’s father, Madonna’s men were mainly distinguished by their predilection for slagging her off afterwards. ‘If she were a painting she’d have to be an abstract by Picasso because she has so many faces,’ said Vanilla Ice. ‘She was so tight, she squeaked,’ said Jimmy Albright. And, of course, Warren Beatty in the famous In Bed With Madonna clip: ‘She doesn’t want to live off camera, never mind talk.’ (Pot, kettle, black?) The music was flowing all this time, too, but Madonna’s life has always been much more vigorously reviewed than her art.
Today things have quietened down considerably. Madonna is no longer jogging through our parks surrounded by bodyguards as she did in the Eighties. She’s no longer spraying profanities on chat shows or feeling up lesbian friends to wind up the media. Since she dumped Catholicism for Kabbalah, the church has had scant excuse to feel affronted as it did when she kissed a black Christ in her ‘Like a Prayer’ video or pretended to masturbate onstage during her Blond Ambition tour. And it’s 12 years since Madonna scandalised the world by producing Sex, an erotic photo essay that had Norman Mailer grumbling it wasn’t dirty enough (‘no beaver shots’) but saw the rest of the world buying it just to make absolutely sure they felt disgusted.
Recently it’s been about yoga, macrobiotic diets, another bad film (Swept Away) to add to her chequered movie CV, an iffy album, a Gap advert with Missy Eliot and a Kabbalah-inspired series of children’s books that are a million literary galaxies away from Sex. The Kabb
alah thing remains both amusing and bemusing to outsiders, but if renaming herself Esther and wearing a red braided bracelet makes her feel good about her life, then who are we to judge? That said, following a branch of Jewish mysticism that seeks to annihilate the ego must be darned hard work for a woman who once declared she wouldn’t be happy until she was ‘bigger than God’.
Madonna is clear about her affection for Britain – the country that produced her husband, film director Guy Ritchie, and son, Rocco – sometimes flattering us quite shamelessly: ‘Even the stupidest people in Britain are more intelligent than Americans.’ And yet there still seems to be a love-hate relationship with Madonna: breathless magazine articles about how so and so boutique is now hip because ‘style icon’ Madonna happened to pass by its windows… followed by more pages on her arrogance, her daughter’s Eve Lom facials, her nastiness to ramblers who want to roam across her country pile. And of course the perennial headline which has cropped up regularly since 1986: is Madonna a goner?
Maybe all this ragging can be put down to Madonna’s bizarre take on ‘down to earth’ English living (fish and chips, pints of Guinness and hanging out with Gwyneth Paltrow). Or maybe it goes deeper than that.
Is it just me, or do some people resent the way in which big, bad, ambitious Madonna has managed to dodge some kind of ‘karmic punishment’, some designated lonely fate, by finding family happiness in her forties? Of course, some people just can’t stomach all that ‘We’re a partnership / cleaning the car together / doing Kabbalah together / strumming Scottish folk songs on matching guitars together’ stuff that keeps leaking from the Ciccone-Ritchie homestead (and I haven’t even got to the bit where Ritchie is supposed to be in the habit of calling Madonna ‘Mum’). One woman told me she couldn’t work out whether she was simply suspicious of the ‘Guy effect’, or just plain sick of Madonna banging on about her perfect personal life. Married Madonna she could take; smug Married Madonna, no way. Others seem to suspect that this is a parody of domestic bliss, just the latest Madonna disguise.
I’m not so sure. It seems to me that a woman who lost her own mother as a young child might be a key candidate to embrace family stability. But it’s about more than even that – it’s about mega-celebrity and how to survive it. Arguably, Madonna has transcended pop stardom to become the first great reality show (Big Sister? Big Mother?). She is somebody who rubbed out the boundaries between life and art and managed to survive. Indeed, if Madonna were a fictional character, one could only retain public sympathy for her by having her ‘pay the price’ for her unnatural behaviour. By rights, she should be living alone in a dusty Hollywood mansion by now – childless, embittered, staggering Norma Desmond-style down a Gone with the Wind staircase, a hideous bony claw shaking her diamonds at the world (‘It’s time for my close-up’). Instead she’s happily married with two lovely kids, everything’s worked out great for her – and some people just seem to find that gutting.
It is also extraordinary how, all these years on, some people, usually men, still can’t give it up for the idea of Madonna, the talented and relevant musician, songwriter and performer. Where some are concerned she will always be dismissed as a chancer, a media manipulator, who built her entire career, spanning decades and continents, on a succession of good hair days. Never mind the innumerable No1 singles, the hit albums, the constant creative evolution, the provocation and the daring, the 20-odd years at the top of one of the most cut-throat industries ever.
‘Cherish’, ‘Like a Prayer’, ‘You’ll See’, ‘Frozen’, ‘Mer-Girl’, ‘Gone’, ‘Impressive Instant’ – where did all these songs, and more, come from? The ‘hit single’ fairy? Part of the urban myth surrounding Madonna is that the songs she says she wrote were collaborations, and the songs she says were collaborations were nothing to do with her. Even today you’ll get idiots at parties solemnly declaring that Madonna has no real talent: ‘She’s just a great businesswoman who knows how to market herself.’ And people wonder why Madonna is always banging on about sexism in the music industry (for a pop girl she always did have a big dirty rock mouth).
It seems the older Madonna gets, the more she is encouraged to shut up, put up and cover up, befitting a woman of her extreme years (one whole year older than Morrissey). But with her looks and fitness levels, why should she? It says something that she can perform excruciating yoga exercises onstage nightly on her world tour and be written off as ‘past it’, while David Bowie can collapse on his stage with heart problems and nobody suggests he give anything up.
This is not to say that Madonna has made no mistakes. Most recently, the three-way snog with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the MTV awards was a miscalculation, if only because it flagged up how gender infiltrates everything – even mega-celebrity, even Madonna. Put bluntly, this was a painfully feminine way to grab attention or pass on a ‘baton’ that just wouldn’t enter an equivalent male musical icon’s head. The idea of someone like Paul McCartney grabbing Noel Gallagher for a brisk tongueing is only bearable because you know it would never happen. The ‘guys’ would be too busy ‘duetting’ (though we could argue all day about what all that pointing at each other with guitars is all about).
While we’re on the subject of men, it seems increasingly clear that most of them just don’t ‘get’ Madonna in the same way women do. I am not referring to her fabulously loyal gay fan base, or even to her love life (though before Ritchie and motherhood she seemed to be on a one-woman crusade to give heterosexuality a bad name). I am referring to where the true Madonna heartland lies; namely the sprawling mid-twenties to late-forties female demographic, which should by rights be given its own Madonna-based name (Vogue Nation? True Blues?). One of Madonna’s greatest unsung achievements must surely be that for more than 20 years she has been an inspirational global totem for the women who have grown up with her. While it is universally acknowledged that Madonna inspired the first generation of ‘wannabes’, nobody ever seems to ask where they are now, and what happened to them, or, more to the point, what didn’t happen to them.
It would appear to be the case that Madonna has become more and more important to these fans as the years have gone by (and most of us quite frankly have become Not Gonna Bes). A book I own, I Dream of Madonna, a collection of women’s dreams about La Ciccone, beautifully captures how she has invaded women’s sub-consciousness over the years. But it’s not always a case of dreaming about Madonna or even for that matter thinking about her. Grown women have busy lives, and no one has time to sit around obsessing about multi-millionairess pop stars, but the fact remains that for many it is a strange mixture of comforting and exciting just to feel that Madonna’s still around, doing her thing, putting out great records, loving her children, digging her man, practising her dance routines, kicking against the pricks. One woman I know celebrated her 37th birthday with a toast to Madonna, an ironic gesture but one which is probably more common than you think. Unlike most men, who have spent over 20 years debating whether Madonna was too slutty (or not slutty enough) for their tastes, it was always more about friendship than sex for us.
I was thinking about this when I went to see Madonna perform at her Chicago show. It wasn’t the best-ever Madonna gig I’d seen – not as brazen as Blond Ambition or as soulful as Drowned World – but it was instructive to see her perform in America, the place that made her. America is just so vast, you feel yourself being swallowed alive, rendered irrelevant and anonymous, the moment you step out of the airport. It makes you feel fresh respect for the young motherless Madonna Ciccone, the little-woman-who-could
(and did), one of the first to stare celebrity straight in the eye and beat it at its own game.
The crowd were a disparate bunch: families, gay men, large groups of men drinking beer in a gruff heterosexual manner, even what appeared to be a Kabbalah convert, waving a ‘Queen Esther’ banner in the crowd. And, of course, there were the gangs of women out for the night on their own, all types, all ages, all jostling together, buying their posters and $30 programmes as souvenirs, and boogying with a disgraceful sense of abandon to the encore, ‘Holiday’. I overheard a group of them huddled over a programme: ‘Oh, I like that look, and that one, and I like her there.’ It was like Madonna’s career itself: big cultural pick’n’mix, something for pretty much everybody.
So that’s what we’re looking at. While Madonna might not be inspiring young girls any more (at least not in the gargantuan numbers she did in the Eighties), she’s definitely inspiring a lot of ‘older girls’ (and boys) just by being alive, and that alone makes her madly important. Add to that the music, the style, the humour and the sanity (see Prince and Michael Jackson for what could have happened) and not for the first time Madonna, circa 2004, starts looking positively indispensable.
source : observer.guardian.co.uk