Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Madonna at Half a Century

We really haven't had 50 years of Madonna, despite what the press claims. We have had a century of Madonna, or at least it seems that way. The singer, who turned 50 on August 16th, has provided enough self-promotion, propaganda, and market manipulation to fuel the careers of ten lesser performers and 200 Tori Spellings.

Madonna, who has released 11 albums and has had more Top Ten Billboard hits than Elvis, has never been about the music. She's been about the means, a pure product of a culture that now more ever than urges its Warholian rights to exposure. This is the reason for her longevity and she's played it with a killer's calculation.

Madonna came out of the Manhattan dance club scene that was tethered to art as commercialism. With her early nest feathered by the ghost of Marilyn Monroe, it's easy to forget that her first appeal was to what is known in the vernacular as "tweens." The tween dollar has fueled the careers and lined the pockets of Hanson, Sean Cassidy, Debbie Gibson, and presently the Jonas Brothers. The end of tween fascination has also killed those careers off at toddler stage, compared with Madonna's 26 years of endless rebirth.

At 50, Madonna resembles a ropey Dietrich. This is not a visual quote, nor is it reinvention; it is a natural process and a liking for aging black eyeliner. The great thing about Madonna is that she's never vague. Vagueness is where so many celebrities fail, especially now. They may come on strong--take Sienna Miller by way of example--and then you find yourself wondering just what it is they do or what their appeal is supposed to be. Elizabeth Hurley was another example, an actress whose fifteen minutes were based on a safety-pinned dress. This isn't enigmatic, it's confusing. Garbo got away with being enigmatic because of a social phobia, something Ms. Ciccone would never confuse with a smart strategy.

In contrast, Madonna has hit every acute angle and then some. Many of her tactics have had little relation to the product at hand. Early on, Madonna learned that surplus branding is bountiful.

The common thread weaving this brand into gold is and always has been image and shock value. Casual doesn't enter into it; Madonna tries so hard that you end up forgetting how hard she is trying and then wondering why you might care in the first place. Even if these successes in riling the status quo seem almost quaint in hindsight (we can thank the Internet for that), one needs to remember that ninety percent of the country is nowhere near so sophisticated as it thinks it is.

Madonna has succeeded by a complete understanding of Middle America. This should come as no surprise from someone who grew up in a strict Catholic household in Detroit. Our American taboos run deep and eternal, and we are, away from the coasts, a fussy and prudish nation. So strong is this intuitive talent that even a complete lack of acting skill can be forgiven like a soggy communion wafer: You eat it not for the taste but for the sensation.

Looking back, was Madonna's appearance at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, the one in which she writhed about in a wedding dress, really that scandalous? Ah, but it was. This kicked off Madonna's run on the sanctimonious, and the effect was perfect. If you haven't begun to suffer from fifth-decade forgetfulness, there was a day when cable TV was a huge technological breakthrough. MTV used to play "Billie Jean" so much that if it were vinyl it would have melted by noon of the first day. Billy Idol also benefited from this overexposure by deficit. "Like a Virgin" forever cemented the suspicion that Madonna wasn't pristine. In those early videos, she looked as if she had a bit of--to borrow from the Brits--a pong. It was in every dirty root and shot of underarm hair; here was someone distinctly un-American and by extension all the more exciting.

Middle America is a state of mind more than it is a collection of states. It's that mindset that balks at deviation from the norm, that wants its politicians conservative and its beef blandly served with potatoes. It was an easy target for Madonna, even if the only calculable result was making Madonna a millionaire many times over. Whether taking on sexuality, politics, or religion, it was the heartland's reactionaryism at the core of all those debased matrimonial garments and black fetish rubber.

The first duty of a performer of Madonna's stature is difficult. It involves a groundswell début that is topped by a second outing and then eclipsed by a third. This used to be easy to do, back in the 1960s when some actual time was spent on craft and the need for instant gratification wouldn't kill eventual demand. By the 1990s, it was no longer possible to achieve success by these standards; too much had gotten in the way, like indie cred and Napster. At some point in the late 1980s, Madonna eclipsed her music and became what she had absorbed from Manhattan's club scene, a performance artist, emphasis on the adjective and not the noun. This is like the Cirque du Soleil making Barnum and Bailey obsolete--a good contortionist will always trump the bareback rider. Novelty, and it's harder to achieve than you think it is.

Too many recent editorials have reflected on her current raison d'être. Too old to make music, one implied, or too irrelevant (a favorite lazy choice). They have missed the point: Paradoxical as it may be, in her taking on of Middle America she has become a Middle American icon, as important as Ford, Chrysler, and corn in the history of American industry and the pursuit of independence.


MR style said...

oh nice tribute to madonna !! im lovin your writtin style

lady coveted said...

excellent take on madonna... i didn't really think of her as hitting middle america until i saw her on oprah when she turned 40, and yeah, when my mom and her friends all had madonna in their music collection.

who knew something so controversial would become so ingrained in our culture? i remember the days when people were calling her a 'slut' now she's the supreme ruler of popular culture.

CoutureCarrie said...

Great tribute! Go Madge :)

enc said...

". . . a killer's calculation." This is superb.

natalia grozina said...

you are a good writer.

ambika said...

'A ropey Dietrich' is the perfect explanation of her physical look. Great commentary.

TheSundayBest said...

Madonna may be many things, but one thing she is no longer is sexy. Time to put on some pants ma'am.

And how is it she seems so much older than Helen Mirren, 13 years her senior?