(this essay was started in March on the 26th to be exact and left a draft for many months…we decided to publish it finally)
I decided to start this post with an illustration by Luis Pérez Jauregui I recently discovered on a friend’s Madonna drenched blog appropriately titled Pud Whacker’s Madonna Scrapbook. He is by far the biggest and most intelligently obsessed fan of Madonna that I have ever met and probably ever will. He’s a tad bit older than I am and I don’t say that to bring up anything about age, but just to point out that he was able to actually be there from the diaper wearing beginnings of Madonna’s career. (I’m going to always refer to Madonna as Madonna in this essayish piece and then get a Madonna count at the end)
The reason I chose the artwork is because it speaks volumes about what state of mind Madonna was in when Madonna was conceiving and working through and recording and planning the visual and visceral attack this big record would require to be what was expected of her…or not expected of her. It certainly reminds me of a photo of her in The Girlie Show Tour program in which she was dressed as a harlequin. It was either on the very last page and it was the only picture that was toyed with artistically. All the other shots were from previous videos and photoshoots as she often does. This one was taken from the “Rain” video and illustrated into a sad harlequin to obviously fit the theme of the tour. In case you weren’t aware, Madonna’s Girlie Show Tour had a circus and vaudeville magic running throughout. Throughout the show, a harlequin kept appearing and interacting with the rest of the ‘cast’ as well as Madonna. Sometimes it would just watch with a sad ‘face’ when Madonna was singing one of the few ballads performed in that show. After the entire show was over, the harlequin appeared to take a final bow and when it removed its mask you found out that it was Madonna all along. It was my first time seeing Madonna live and if I wasn’t a diehard fan already, that moment was so elevating, inspirational and trancendental to me. It was the days long before the internet and the word ‘piracy’ made you think of Captain Hook not mp3 files, so nothing about the show was known by any of us that went to see it. This was also that period of Madonna’s career that fans loved the most although Madonna might not have at the time. It was right after the terrifying trifecta of Erotica, The Sex Book and Body Of Evidence. People were tired of Madonna, disgusted by Madonna, despised Madonna, some even tried ignoring Madonna for the first time since Madonna became famous. The one thing people had the most difficult time being when it came to Madonna was indifferent. Instead of just letting Madonna disappear eventually after Madonna realized that Madonna was finished, they wrote 13 page essays in the back of magazines about how “Madonna’s Career Is Over” and reverted to childish ridiculing and rumour mongering about what Madonna was doing and who Madonna was doing. The only people that really stuck around for the ride on the supportive side were the gays and lesbians and the fetishists and the miscreants and the rebels…the freaks of course. The reason for this, from my personal experience, was because Madonna did what Madonna wanted, Madonna pushed people’s buttons, Madonna was always hungry, Madonna was never satisfied, Madonna wasn’t perfect and that never became an obstacle. If anything it was the reason Madonna was almost equally attracted to success as Madonna was to fucking shit up and being bad at something whether Madonna was aware of that or not. Madonna was a hunter and gatherer, an overactive child and ruthless disciplinarian and a student and a teacher simultaneously. Madonna was masterful at not playing but being both roles in a bizarre auto-sado-masochistic three way relationship with Madonna, herself and the rest of the world. Bottom line…the bitch was fascinating not just interesting. It was amazing how Madonna got away with all the crazy antics that she became so known for. Madonna was one part Rizzo and one part Sandy from Grease. Madonma was trying her best to be the bad girl that everyone was afraid to piss off but then you find out that Madonna is really super nervous and goofy and a geek. Madonna put up walls but those walls were intentionally made of see through stockings and Madonna put on masks all the time but those masks were clever and quite heady reinterpretations of what they used to mean before Madonna employed them. Madonna didn’t wear costumes. Madonna played dress up and tried things on but reconstructed things to suit her message. If something or someone didn’t make the Madonna fantasy completely believable, Madonna did what anyone would do…Madonna threw it away. It is something all of us always want to do and wish we could find the courage to do. As an outsider and a freak and an unwanted or undesirable as most gays and lesbians were it is obviously something you can relate to and look up to and aspire to. Of course years after all the oppressive and unnecessary anger and beatings Madonna took, Madonna may have said that Madonna was wounded but while it was happening Madonna never broke a sweat and Madonna just found ways to survive. Much talk has been made about how a now typical lyric of a Madonna song has something to do with time or survival or escapism, but they always did. Madonna was saying “Hurry up I just can’t wait” from the get go. Even before The First Album, Madonna’s early work reeked of anticipation and impatience and being shit on by people. (Ok I think I’ve typed the word “Madonna’ way too many times so I will now on interject pronouns when applicable.)
Ok. Let’s get back to the correlation between The Girlie Show and that image above from her new “Girl Gone Wild’ video. (see i said ‘her’) Throughout the show there were moments of sheer joy and ecstasy whether it was sexual or almost religious in passion, but those moments would swiftly get ripped from their heights and bludgeoned by political oppression, disease, war and ultimately loneliness. The ‘clown’ was a voyeur who edged into reality but never quite got there. The clown acted goofy and a bit insane and sometimes even bratty but was always an outsider and was simply forced to accept that it would always be in that limbo. In the Girl Gone Wild video, Madonna is a violent and sleaze drunk (forgive the word but i’m sorry I love it) cougar with a fully bendable body that is fit enough to wear latex and leather and look fantastic in it. She cavorts with approximately a dozen or so of perfectly muscled and limber male ‘slaves’. This harkens back to the ‘workers’ in the Express Yourself video in which she commanded over eventually only letting one of the lucky ones into her bedroom with the “very romantic” satin sheets. They are all pretty expressionless when their faces are even shown, they spend a lot of time admiring themselves as well as paying attention to one another and during the major dance sequences they are all wearing high heeled shoes and the choreography is a polished extract from 90s music videos without a doubt. She is stark white to their tan skin and stands out like an apparition. They interact and thrust and bend around each other never completely meeting each other’s lips. This is interspersed with scenes of her going wild and punching the wall insanely and shaking uncontrollably as if she were being electrocuted. The video is extremely sexually frustrating. It’s a huge tease of eroticism which has never been a stranger to her work over the years. After all, there was only one full on penis shot that appeared in The Sex Book. I remember as if it were yesterday rushing to open up that book with my best friend Damian at the time and after much desperate searching we were dumbfounded and distraught that she deprived us of one of the most exciting things that we wanted to see. She teased us with her Narcissism. How could a book be called “Sex” when there was no actual sex taking place in it? How could she have flaunted all those ‘queens on the rag’ in her documentary “Truth Or Dare” and then leave out any real visual nods to anything explicitly homoerotic in exchange for a million pictures of her breasts and hairy ladybits? Just like everything else she has produced and released it was from her perspective…she was in control. Sometimes in order to be in control though you have to accept the idea that you’re going to be lonely. This video, whether intentional or not, depicts a strong, powerful and glamourous woman but a lonely and unaffected one as well. If you look past the shock value and the controversy, which I’m sure she thought she had desensitized everyone from by now, you definitely see a greater picture. But alas, taking control is a choice in life and although it garners great rewards and benefits it also hardens you and makes you less human. Despite the obvious religious imagery associated with statues crying blood, there is an uneasy look of helplessness in her expression that definitely reveals the melancholy that has underlined her work most of her career.
MDNA, the long awaited new album by Madonna, that despite various bits and pieces of low bitrate quality mp3s that leaked here and there, finally became available not a day earlier than promised which is a monumental feat these days and keeps the control freak label firmly on her jar. I was hesitant about writing a review because I am and have been a huge fan for many, many years. I basically grew up with Madonna in my life. Being an MTV baby, I had no choice but to succumb to the power of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone and her hedonistic heathen ways. I’ve learned a lot from her over the years and have discovered many artists and philosophers and musicians through her influence and I have nothing but gratitude for her for that. Being a DJ and music connoisseur, I will try my best to be authentic and the right amount of critical. The difference is that when Madonna releases music and performs it is isn’t simply a song, it is an era, an agenda, a slice of theatre. This is what has separated her from a lot of her predecessors and shameful heirs to her throne. She is so complete and thorough in her execution of her ideas and manages to breathe new life into old ideas and imagery. She has copied a thousand times from a thousand different artists and personalities and icons and that has never bothered me because everyone I know, whether they are an entertainer or an office worker, see things that they like around them and then absorbs that into their life. It’s a natural occurence in day to day life and has become much more than the cultural norm. What one does with that borrowed piece of life is what is important and worthy of criticism and judgement. Madonna has taken stories of victims and turned them into stories of survival. She has made a living out of turning the joke around and shoving a mirror into the faces of hypocrites and forcing them to deal with it. She has a punk rock heart in that chest of hers that is constantly battling her hopeless romanticism. She knows that being romantic and wishing on a star is a flaw that prevents true happiness from being achieved because it is an unrealistic expectation in life. Instead she focuses on things she can control and one of those things is her creative and commercial output. For a large percentage of her career, she was the trendsetter in many people’s eyes and ears. It is what she wanted people to believe and she accomplished that. What people aren’t really coming to terms with is that although she did push a lot of underground trends and styles and sounds into the mainstream, she didn’t invent them. She chose to use them because they excited her and they affected her and inspired her. There are many musicians out there from the early days of Motown to the unnamed Machine that exists today that don’t completely have their heart and passion behind what they do. They sing songs they had no part in creating and they wear fashion that their stylist chooses for them. They are intrinsically not that different from the clones in the rat race on Wall Street that go to work every day in the proper suit and tie and follow all the rules to be successful yet they are not fulfilled. They become stagnant and slaves to the system that they are working hard to keep intact. She has been at the top or near the top of her game for just about thirty years now. Her obvious heights of success have come from her musical endeavors, but she put her special touch and trademark into all of them. If she didn’t then she wouldn’t have had complete control and ownership of her legacy. She wouldn’t have been in control. It seems as she grew older and had children and became a wife for the second time that she eventually found her inspiration in other things. Some of her most intense and jarring work, in my opinion, did come out of her while she was past her pinnacle of fame. It seems that all those things that she thought she should have and things that she deserved weren’t as fulfilling as she hopelessly romanticized about. Unhappiness can lead to depression and self destruction but instead she took the route of pushing harder and being introspective and questioning rather than attention seeking and an exhibitionist. After all, she did that all already and it didn’t fulfill her either. There was “Ray Of Light”, the critically claimed spiritually drenched opus that followed a short hiatus filled with a (finally) decently received turn at acting with Evita preceded by a few years of toned down balladeering and uneventful damage control. This was all a primer for the next chapter of her career. Personally, as much as I love the textures and sonic sorcery that appeared on Ray Of Light, I don’t really see it as a new age, spiritual album but a venture into uncharted territory for her that successfully introduced more depth to a woman to the public. That girl was always there but it wouldn’t have made her a household name quite honestly and she certainly wouldn’t have the power she has today. Working through all her personas and provocations earned her the chance to be more daring and make risky choices. The journey of Madonna’s career is remarkable because everything she does whether it is a failure or success completely shapes the next step. Just like everyone else right?
I also am sometimes taken aback when people say “Madonna’s always been ahead of the curve and a trendsetter but now she sounds like everyone else”. The musical sounds and sensibilities featured on the Ray Of Light album, a large portion of the reason it was so successful, was far from new to the world but it was new to Madonna and much of America at the time. William Orbit was by far not a newcomer to the scene of electronica when he produced Ray Of Light. It was only when she picked up the French Afghani wizard Mirwais did she really step into a position of something completely fresh and excitingly new. Unfortunately, if you listen to his album “Production” which was finished and released almost a year before Madonna’s “Music” album, you’ll almost imagine Madonna saying “Okay. I want a song that sounds like this…one like this…and another two like those two but make that one faster and that one a ballad. “Paradise (Not For Me)” actually appeared on both albums. Once again, she did put her magic Madonna touch on those two amazing albums and that is another portion of the reason they were so successful. I have no intention of destroying any Madonna myths or trying to question her integrity with this already long winded essay but I just want to point out certain errors in perception. A decent of the songs from her first three albums were somewhat handed over to her to record. She didn’t have much say in the creative construction of the product she was selling. Instead she used her powers and sold those records with her relentless image and performances. The most interesting thing about her career is that she chalked up most of her hits with songs she wasn’t creatively involved with. But aside from an unknown, I can’t imagine anyone else throughout the years being even remotely able to pull off the complete package she presented with each release. There are rumors that “La Isla Bonita” was originally intended for Michael Jackson and that “Open Your Heart” was supposedly given to Cyndi Lauper to record. I don’t imagine those two songs would have become the historical moments they are now without Madonna on deck.
We move on to “American Life”, the first time one of Madonna’s kickoff single from an album was ever so polarizing. People either hated it or loved it. Usually it was Madonna that was hated but people still liked the song…this was different. It was also the very first time Madonna ever backed down and withdrew the release of her video because she was afraid it would offend people at a time when the country was about to go to war. The video featured graphic imagery of the violence of war juxtaposed with the American consumerism of a fashion show. The part of the picture the media left out is that she did it out of respect for the troops and their families as well as the possible danger to her own family for being so provocative. Madonna was a mother now. She was responsible for someone else other than herself. Although it brought her an endless amount of sheer joy becoming a mother and starting a family, the public turned on her for it. How dare she? This album was the real Madonna in my opinion. Unabashedly in love and unapologetic for her happiness in her new life as well as her frustration and revulsion to the sad state of politics that the world was in at the time. There were moments of both corniness and brilliance, the music was avant garde and the rebel image was well planned but the timing was just slightly off by a couple years. She was ahead of the curve for real this time, expressing herself and expressing her disgust for a country she was from but had “abandoned’ for England. How dare she? Unlike most Americans around that time, she obviously had a better view of the whole picture from across the pond. Just a few years later, when it was ‘cool’ to hate the president, Green Day had one of the most successful albums of their career which even became a Broadway Show. Interestingly enough, it was called “American Idiot”. The most interesting thing about Madonna’s album is that there was not a single mention of war or politics in the entire album. It was much more of a raw and introspective album than “Ray Of Light” could ever be and if anything, the person she was at war with was herself and the thing she was trying to conquer was the monster of Fame. She took to the road and toured the world with her “Reinvention Tour” which was naturally a spectacle but seemed like another attempt at damage control with a plethora of her greatest hits surrounded one section of political propaganda in the second segment. She showed the video she pulled on the big screen every night because she was on her own turf and in control. She was starting to redeem herself once again.
When people were turned off by her Guevara look she returned “to her roots’ and made a full on disco album and sampled Abba in the first single. She emulated Travolta and Olivia Newton John and wore a leotard in the video looking half her age. Madonna was back. Everyone loved her. The entire era was so carefully launched with high glamour and high energy. It concluded with the well received Confessions Tour which was certainly her most glitzy and high production valued production to date. What would she do next? She was back on top and she looked like she was having fun doing it.
To be continued…
and then there’s this pic below…which i promise i’ll get to as soon as possible