Madonna still the matron saint of pop music
“Madonna continues to reinvent herself and attract legions of new fans in her third decade at the forefront of pop culture” T’Cha Dunlevy writes on The Montréal Gazette.
Time goes by so slowly
Madonna (Hung Up)
Why do we care?
Or rather, why do we still care? More than two decades after she first lit a fire under pop music’s butt, the coming of Madonna is cause for mass hysteria.
Her two Canadian dates in Montreal sold out in less than an hour despite ticket prices of up to $350. Her new album, the disco-reviving Confessions On a Dance Floor, is sitting pretty on the charts, furthering the comeback of the Farrah hair-flip and the Flashdance bodysuit.
Perhaps a clerk at Chapters said it best when handed a copy of the December issue of Rolling Stone magazine, featuring Madonna on the cover. “That’s hot,” he offered, eyeing the busty vixen-in-red, crawling toward the camera. “Is that a new photo?”
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It was, of course, but it is hard to tell. At 47, married mom Madonna is prancing around like, well, like the 18-year-old girl who landed in New York City in 1977 with dreams of being a dancer.
But don’t let the tomfoolery fool you — she may be as cool, but she’s also as calculating as ever. After tanking with her 2003 album American Life, Madonna wanted her throne back. So she took it.
Yes, just like that. She’s a powerful woman with a history of power moves. Confessions On a Dance Floor may be her safest album yet, musically and thematically, but with single-minded purpose it achieves its goal.
For a compulsive button-pusher like Madonna, it is noticeably devoid of controversy. We are far from the early-career naughtiness of Like a Virgin, the defiance of Papa don’t Preach, the race/religion-baiting of Like a Prayer, her sexploits of the early ’90s and, most recently, the sociopolitical existentialism of American Life.
“When people talk about her ability to reinvent herself, they are talking about marketing — her ability to be interesting, sell herself and make money,” said Rachel Dubrofsky, PhD in communications in Montreal.
As contrived as they can seem, Madonna’s myriad incarnations command respect. She has manoeuvred the pop landscape with cunning and ever-prescient timing. She is a master of guise. We don’t always believe her, but we are amazingly willing to indulge her.
She is a key figure not only in pop music but in pop culture, according to Dubrofsky.
“She is vitally important if you want to talk about women and pop culture. She is the nexus point for all our different ideas about women, not because she has done so much or is empowering, but because of all the ideas about women she has played with … You can’t not discuss Madonna.”
Much of Madonna’s mystique was created in the first 10 years of her career, between her 1983 self-titled debut and the double-whammy of her 1992 Erotica album and the accompanying book Sex — or triple-whammy if you count the 1991 tour documentary Truth or Dare.
In the process, she went from provocative ingenue to voguing dominatrix, playing with good-girl/bad-girl dichotomies every step of the way.
By the early ’90s, the Pope was outraged, MTV was camera-shy, Toronto had embarrassed itself once again (threatening to arrest her for indecency at a concert), and “Madonna-ology” was a budding field of academia.
The talk got heated. Feminist theorist bell hooks included an essay called Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister in her book Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992). Needless to say, hooks’ opinion leaned toward the former.
Madonna was not working alone, suggested Suzanna Walters in her book Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory (1995): “Accompanying Madonna’s own elaboration of superstardom has been a sustained effort — by the mass media and academics alike — to continually produce and reproduce this cultural icon …
“Madonna is understood variously as an icon of feminist sensibility, a campy cult figure for both gay men and gay women, a personification of commodity capitalism and its capacity to make human beings into objects for sale and circulation, and a player with codes and conventions. Many critics see her as all these things: the postmodern Circe herself, embodying all these, the contradictions of a society fascinated by fame, ambivalent about sexuality, hostile toward women.”
So here we are, 20-some years down the line. Madonna has stuck to her game plan, and we have all grown up in the process. Her early career transgressions behind her, she has graduated to matron pop saint. And that, somehow, is exciting.
“What is really interesting is her concert,” said Will Straw, professor of communications at McGill University. “All kinds of people are going to see her (perform), people in their 40s. She’s like Springsteen… People want to touch the legend.”
Like many, Straw professes himself a fan, impressed by Madonna’s continuing ability to navigate the perilous waters of representation.
“There’s a sense of self-invention,” he said. “At certain points, she had to pander to stereotypes of femininity, but she always pulled the rug out from underneath. She has always moved between the mainstream and the margins, and kept a traffic going in between.”
But as far as she’s gone in any direction, Madonna has always come back, answering each extravagance with a concession, and always respecting the bottom line — ka-ching!
Confessions On a Dance Floor is an atonement. It’s the party jam the DJ throws on after inadvertently clearing said dance floor, which Madonna did on American Life.
She was quick to backtrack when her confrontational, U.S.-critical video for American Life’s title track drew heat. Not willing to risk a Dixie Chicks-style crucifixion, she pulled the video before release, replacing it with a watered-down version that had her singing in front of flags from around the world.
Her fighting days, it seems, are behind her.
There are no such conundrums on the new album. It’s a straight-up dance record that harkens back to her clubland roots.
“I want to make people feel like they’re inside a disco ball,” Madonna told Rolling Stone in December.
Who can argue with that?
She pulls out old tricks in the career-spanning live show — including singing Live to Tell while hanging from a giant, Vegas-style cross.
At this point, such displays are accompanied by a virtual nudge-wink.
Madonna is no longer pushing buttons; she’s playing herself, back when she did.
And people are only too happy to play along.
• ON MADONNA
• “The first time I heard Madonna, I was underage at a black club in Halifax. The song Everybody came on and I overheard this woman say to her friend, ‘This is that new white singer that sounds black — her name is Madonna.’ ” – Montreal concert promoter David Jones
• “When she first came out with Borderline, I hated her. I thought she was a stupid, empty, mainstream pop star. Then slowly but surely, she proved herself to be a very strong woman, with strong opinions.” – Rosella Tursi, fan
• “It’s beyond just the music — it’s the videos, movies, books. Over the years, she has done so many different things. Not that the music doesn’t matter, but she can make missteps with it, and (maintain) the Madonna brand.” – Jeremy Morris, PhD student in communications at McGill, studying the branding of music artists.
• “My image to people, I think, is that I’m this brazen, aggressive young woman who has an OK voice with some pretty exciting songs, who wears what she wants to wear and says what she wants to say and who has potential as an actress. Sex symbol? That’s such a weird question.” – Madonna, in a Time Magazine cover story, 1985.