October 27, 2005

Madonna Complex

Like most hetero sons of the '80s, I'm a closet Madonna fan. Once, on a whim, I asked a burly hot dog vendor to name his favourite Madonna album; he shifted uncomfortably and started wiping his grill. Then, after an eternity of pretending he didn't hear the question, he nodded in agreement with himself and said: "True Blue". There's really no getting around the fact that she's the contemporary Elvis, having surpassed iconic status to become a pop-cultural default setting; and she's as pointless to hate as bad weather. (Cue the "Twilight Zone" theme: Madonna's birthday and the anniversary of Elvis' death are one and the same, August 16th.)

Being a moviehead, though, the main reason I like Madonna is that she's made some incredible videos with some incredible directors--videos, moreover, that have avoided translating her music into images, choosing instead to call its bluff. My personal favourite is David Fincher's "Bad Girl," which interprets the seemingly endless refrain of "Bad girl drunk by six/Kissing someone else's lips/Smoked too many cigarettes today/I'm not happy when I act this way" as a death wish. Instead of imposing moralistic change on Madonna's glamorous businesswoman, Fincher rewards her self-destructive behaviour by perching Madonna next to the Angel of Death (Christopher Walken, natch) on a one-way crane to Heaven. Heck, I even prefer Mary Lambert's sticky video for "Material Girl" to the sequence it purloins from Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes--and before you cry blasphemy, remember that Hawks left that film's musical numbers to second unit to clean up. You can, for what it's worth, watch virtually all of Madonna's videos by going here.

Unfortunately, her latest video--for "Hung Up," the first single from Madonna's forthcoming "Confessions on a Dance Floor"--is another in a recent line of disingenuous attempts (see: "American Pie," "Music," "Ray of Light") to turn untouchable Madonna into a woman of the people. As Madonna does warm-ups in a deserted, '70s-era dance studio to the beat of her new, ABBA-infused track, director Johan Renck (who previously helmed Madonna's kabuki-inspired "Nothing Really Matters" clip) intersperses footage of everyday folk--street performers, the busboys and patrons of a Chinatown greasy spoon--overcome with a desire to breakdance. (Or prove they're double-jointed.) Three minutes in, Madonna hits the night scene, but that doesn't change the fact that this is largely a Kuleshovian exercise in ghetto-by-association: she struts down a street, and Renck cuts to a contretemps inside a subway car; in other words, Madonna + proletariat = Madonna's keepin' it real. Not. Madge is then seen literally bending over backwards in a dance club to avoid intimate contact with anybody but the giant boombox playing her song, which she rides like a mechanical bull. By carefully quarantining Madonna from her newest fascination (krumping), all this video succeeds in doing is casting her, perhaps unfairly, in a paternalistic (or, at least, anthropological) light.

Of course, as a showcase for Madonna's absurdly well-preserved physique (in the highlight of the video, she peels off a baggy jumpsuit to reveal Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect), "Hung Up" passes with flying colours.


jer fairall said...

It's funny: Unless pressed, I probably wouldn't really think of myself as a Madonna fan, but as I am currently in the midst of importing my entire CD collection onto my laptop (partially, I imagine, just to see if it can be done), I notice that I own five of her albums, and have owned several others on other formats at various points in my life. As Rolling Stone once noted, she may the greatest singles artist since the 1960's, and indeed her run of singles throughout the 1980's and a little bit beyond is stellar. I'm not counting out a nostalgic childhood attachment to a lot of her stuff, but I'll even defend Ray of Light and Music as lovely and rather gracefully crafted electronica-infused pop records.

Haven't heard (or seen) anything off of the latest yet, but the last Madonna outing--the dreary American Life, the shameless Britney collaborations (song, video, kiss)--has left me with low expectations. She's coming off as far too needy for attention these days, and having managed to survive several generations of would-be new versions of her, it's a little weird and a lot sad that the Britney/Christina/Jessica one is looking like it may be the one to do her in.

Although, I guess, if you are at a loss for pop songs hooks (which her last album had none of), there are worse things you could do than borrow ones from ABBA.

tmhoover said...

I don't know if giving Madge the benefit of the doubt on the "paternalism" thing is the right thing to do. Ripping off "street" culture and selling it back to people is sort of her stock-in-trade- witness her shameless appropriation of vogueing and then attaching syrupy lyrics about "beauty's where you find it." We know where she found it: in the clearinghouse of fellow rip-off artist Malcolm McLaren. The man who scours the cultural thrift stores so that others can stock their overpriced retro shops.

Of course, everything's relative. Haven't seen the video yet, but the mention of krumping (and syrupy appropriations) brings up the subject of David LaChapelle's "Rize", which tops whatever Madge's will-to-power condescension could ever provide. It's rather like "Born into Brothels" with sensational dancing- in other words, skeezy to the max.

Bill C said...

Funnily enough, I was convinced that LaChapelle had directed "Hung Up" until I looked it up. I guess that's exactly the problem with Rize: I don't associate krumping with black culture, I associate it with a white music-video director.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Fuck madonna in her tight tantric ass, proverbially speaking.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone get the chance to see the BMW Films Hire series before it was so unceremoniously yanked from the Internet last week? Kind of pandering at times (being made for the purpose of showing of BMWs), but it certainly had its share of moments (the highlight: James Brown vs. Gary Oldman as Satan), including one that featured the Material Girl herself.

She starred as a spoiled brat of a superstar, and the series' constant hero, the Driver (Clive Owen), had been hired to drive her to a venue; of course it ends up as a wild car-speeding sequence that involves Whole shebang was directed by Guy Ritchie (of course) in a somewhat pedestrian manner, but it's the actors who made this one: Clive Owen so delightfully deadpan; even Madonna, who pulls off a series of horrified facial expressions while being bounced around the car and eventually into the film's punchline. Definitely worth checking out, if you can find the proper downloads and/or DVDs on eBay.

-- Ian

ed gonzalez said...

Another hetero comes out of the me-likey-Madonna closet?! Congrats, Bill.

It's reasonable to think LaChapelle directed the clip. He was originally set to do so but was fired after some creative differences with Madge. As a sesult, I didn't think the new video would feature krumping so prominently.

I had the same exact problems with the video: It seems as if krumping is the latest cultral tradition Madonna will wear and toss aside when it no longer serves her Billboard-topping agenda. I bought her appropriation of voguing more because she was always up with the gays and the lyrics of "Vogue" embodied for me the syrupy, put-on glamour and bitch-queeniness of vogue balls.

This "Hung Up" video is a harder sell. The song is hot, but while Madonna has been doing the with-the-people rounds in New York City (judging a dance-off on TRL and picking a breakdancer as a winner; dancing with screaming nellies at Roxy), I don't exactly buy that any of the krumpers in her video would bop their heads the way they do to "Hung Up."

Dave Gibson said...

Madonna is one of the most influential pop stars in music history—so, even if one doesn’t care for her music or her various personae, she can never be wholly discounted. Hollow Man seems to hate her, but tellingly—still is keen on fucking her (not picking on you HM—it’s not a bad thing) This is a big element of her longevity and great success—she is still one of the only major female pop stars who wields her sexual power with such authority, she threatens, offends and seduces in equal measure. Elvis Presley is the only other pop icon that wholly embodied this sort of dangerous sexuality-- a man who could elicit those odd, warm sensations from both men and women, regardless of their orientation. Both icons rose to fame in particularly conservative social climates—and were considered subversive not by what they said, but what they were—an Id in a jumpsuit and the Uber Mother-Whore. Elvis certainly had more talent, but I’m convinced that Madonna is a hell of a lot smarter—Madonna has always been self-aware, and I believe her most lasting legacy will be as a marketing genius. (Indeed, I didn’t snicker a bit when I heard that she was going to teach a class at Harvard) Longevity and continued success in the music industry does not happen by accident. Her shifting personae is rarely attached to any significant musical progress (unlike Bowie, for instance) so, she is usually derided as being “lightweight” while forcing the culture to pay attention regardless of how good the CD, movie or book might be. Personally, I’ve always been an unabashed Madonna lover, “Live To Tell” got me through a lot of bad teenage nights and, I still dig the “fiasco” over her “Like A Prayer” video—fond thoughts of apoplectic bible-belters blowing a gasket over the burning crosses and interracial Christ-figure—ahhh….good old Madge—anyone who’s consistently pissed off so many people over twenty years must be doing something right.

Dave Gibson said...

For the record, if Madonna only appealed to gay folks--she wouldn't be a billionaire--she'd be Donna Summer.

Bill C said...

Well, Ed, after reviewing the first five seasons of "Dawson's Creek", I figured I was all out of shame.

"Live to Tell"--what a song. Genuinely lends gravity to At Close Range.

tmhoover said...

Whither Madge? She's one of those, um, borderline cases that causes me some serious heartburn. There is, in her corner, the fact that she's the powerful-woman-in-control-of-etc. that enamoured her to so many cultural studies classes of the '90s. But when you get right down to it, what did she do with that power? I flash back to Evita- which grossed me out completely with its initial shots of mourners sporting Madonna death portraits- and I think: nothing very much.

Once you get over the hurdle of her gender, she trafficks in standard society-of-the-spectacle rigmarole that pushes every button while making you worship at the shrine of a demigod. Her many controversies weren't about ideology, they were about sensation- the whole "Like a Prayer" thing was a calculated outrage that pitched some "shocking" (and politically immature) imagery without a clear program for processing or using it. She was goosing you- skilfully- but not really making you think.

That said, as a youth of the '90s you couldn't avoid her: there was a girl in my first-year university residence who blasted her music so loud, so often, you learned the lyrics to all of her songs whether you wanted to or not. (Despite my last post, she even taught me how to vogue, a skill I occasionally break out at parties.) So there's some residual attachment to her as a generational touchstone who cranked out some catchy ones, like "Express Yourself" and a few others.

But she never bowled me over. And I can't shake the suspecion that she wanted power for its own sake- in the abstract, to the point that she lost all sense of what power actually meant. Granted, it's a trait she shares with a good many male artists who will never be called to task for it, but still.

Now, that PJ Harvey... she's a '90s conundrum worth fighting over. Any takers?

ed gonzalez said...

"Now, that PJ Harvey... she's a '90s conundrum worth fighting over."

True dat. Greatest...female...musician...ever. Okay, well, not greater than Nina Simone...but close.

Anonymous said...

I liked seeing Madonna and Britney Spears together when they started hanging out. It was like you could see the thought bubble hanging over both their heads: "I wish I was you."


Walter_Chaw said...

PJ Harvey is something special, no question. Seen her twice in concert and wondered if I was going to die from happiness both times. Sang "Down By the Water" the second concert while hiding behind a speaker. What can I say but that it worked for me. Vincent Gallo was living with her (or her with him) when I interviewed him - he didn't have anything that he wanted to tell me about her (Chan Marshall, neither) - but I asked.

Speaking of Madonna, though, I love "Like a Prayer", not so much the video (which is fine as pop thorn-in-the-side - especially because it pissed so many people off), but the song itself which I find to be catchy as hell. That probably dates me.

Or outs me.

One or the other.

Your comment made me giggle for most of an hour.

tmhoover said...

The reason Harvey's so fascinating is that it's so hard to gauge the implications of her "control of her sexuality." Unlike Madge, who's one-note and easy to understand, Harvey could either be a feminist dealing with specifically female problems (making Damon Albarn threatened enough to complain that "all she sings about is her monthlies") or a full-blown masochist worshipfully submitting (however ambivalently) to some idolized lover. And her ability to walk that line makes her more interesting and troubling than someone who gives platitudes and walks away. People say Madonna likes to take risks, but she'd never write a song called "Rub It Till It Bleeds" or engage in anything as disturbing as the depths Harvey plumbs.

Alex Jackson said...

"Like a Prayer" is my favorite because that was the song in the Gummo trailer; which is one of the greatest trailers of all time.