Famous “Lost” Albums that May Never Be Released

Although the trend toward releasing compilation CDs that contain rarities, outtakes and B-sides has made many actual songs available, there still exists a number of actual albums that are said to be “lost.” What that means is not that the tapes were lost or erased, but that the plans to release those songs in album form were scrapped for one reason or another. In a great many cases albums that are said to be lost actually turn up in another form; it is the lack of the original and authentic collection that makes them such curiosities.

Smile-The Beach Boys.

Quite possibly the most famous album never released. Almost all the songs that were scheduled to be released on this song are available on subsequent albums. Smile was to be the Beach Boys’ follow-up to their masterpiece Pet Sounds, an album that Paul McCartney said was a tremendous influence on the Beatles when they were creating Sgt. Pepper. The album was intended to be a long form experiment with the way that the band created its iconic single “Good Vibrations.” What few people realize is that “Good Vibrations” in its original form consists of about thirty minutes of music made in what is best termed a collage style in which almost unrelated music was recorded separately and then edited together and cut down to create a perfect three minute long pop masterpiece. “Smile” was going to transform that into a Herculean effort to create an entire album in the same way. Quite possibly this idea may be a glimpse into what drove Brian Wilson insane. Well, either that or the drugs.

Household Objects-Pink Floyd.

Talk about another project guaranteed to drive you insane. Pink Floyd was looking for something truly worthy to be a follow-up to their ridiculously successful Dark Side of the Moon album. They spent several months in a valiant attempt to create music using instruments made from, well, household objects. Drums made from cardboard boxes. Guitars made from rubber bands. Different sounds made from crystal glasses with various amounts of water in them. After several months they found they had about ten minutes of usable music and the realization dawned on them: why waste so much time trying to create the sound of a drum or guitar when you could so much more easily just pick up a guitar or sit behind a drum?

Electric Nebraska-Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen’s best album of all time is his acoustic masterpiece Nebraska. The original intention for Nebraska was to be just another E Street Band album, however. Only after comparing his original demo tapes to the finished electric versions did Springsteen recognize that the true power lay in the bare, sparse arrangement consisting of just his voice, guitar and occasional harmonica. The entire album exists in electric form backed by the E Street Band, however.

Songs from the Black Hole-Weezer.

This audacious concept album was to be the follow-up to Weezer’s successful and influential debut album popularly known as the Blue Album. Actually closer to a rock opera, Songs from the Black Hole was to feature a collection of songs that flowed into each other much like on a Pink Floyd album or the famous medley on side two of Abbey Road. According to Rivers Cuomo, the founder of Weezer, the story is loosely constructed but basically has to do with a space crew sent on a mission to “rescue somebody or something.” The album would feature characters voiced by members of Weezer as well as special guests. The album supposedly exists in demo form recorded by Rivers on 8-track tape, but was eventually scrapped as he turned his attention to what actually become the band’s next album, Pinkerton. Some of the songs to be featured on Black Hole wound up on that album or as B-sides on singles.

Touring Elvis: More than Graceland

For Elvis Presley fans, Graceland is Mecca, Jerusalem and Bethlehem combined. Graceland is, in fact, one of America’s most popular tourist destinations. It is the Memphis mansion where Elvis Presley lived and died, named after his beloved mother, Land. I mean Grace. Actually, Graceland was not named after Elvis’ mother at all; her name was Gladys and I suppose Gladysland just doesn’t have the same ring. Graceland actually received its unique name-my house is named Fred, by the way-after a relative of the first owner of the domicile. Most of the first floor rooms are open to the public and has a wonderful out-of-time ambiance exemplified by those hepcat tiki lounge furnishings. Stepping into Graceland gives many the genuinely eerie feeling of stepping through a time portal. Many of those same people are taken aback by just how small Graceland really is. Compared to the extravagant waste of money on ridiculously over-sized homes bought by other far less talented “singers” Graceland is actually somewhat cozy. More disconcerting to Elvis Presley fans may be the tremendously stunning number of establishments within a mile of Graceland that sell overpriced, under-cooked, fatty foods with the ironic descriptor “fast” preceding their name.

Sun Records Studio

While Graceland is the Mecca and Jerusalem for Elvis fans, it need not be even the last stop on your tour. While walking in Memphis, take a detour to Union Avenue and instead of taking a step back in time, take a step into a magician’s den. The destination is Sun Records studios and the magic is the creation of a legend. When a young, impossibly good-looking man with a pompadour and a flare for rocking his hips while he sang entered the already legendary studio that witnessed some of the earliest recordings of Johnny Cash, the world of popular music got turned from an empty top hat into a sexed-up rabbit. By taking the Sun Records studio tour you really get a better sense of Elvis the way he would probably want to be remembered than you get from the arched consumerism at Graceland. If you have any psychometric abilities whatever, you will probably be inundated with palpable images once you walk into the very same room that an impossibly naïve Elvis Aron Presley walked into in 1953 to take advantage of the Sun Records studio’s ability for anyone with the cash to record their own personalized record. If Graceland seemed cozy compared to expectations, then the actual Sun Records recording studio may seem snug. It is hard to imagine that the world of pop music changed so radically in that cramped space, but it is true. And you are there.

Elvis’s Childhood Home

One of my grandmother’s prized possessions was a twig she pilfered–she was a full-blooded Gypsy palmist, after all–from the front yard of the house where Elvis Presley grew up. Contrary to popular belief among many, Elvis Presley was not actually born in Memphis. To get to that house with at least one missing twig, you’ll need to quit walking in Memphis and hop in your car and make the hour and a half drive or so to Tupelo. In what must be one of the most incredible coincidences of all time, Elvis was actually raised in a house on Elvis Presley Drive. I kid, of course, but today the street is named after the city’s most famous resident. The house is barely bigger than the Sun Records studio, a modest house popularly known as a shotgun shack, meaning that you could stand in the front yard and shoot a bullet through the front door and have it exit through the back door without having hit a wall. You may want to do this tour in reverse as the Presley house on Tupelo is a startling reminder of just how far Elvis Presley had to go to live the American Dream.

The Best New Wave Soundtracks

I haven’t seen Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette yet, but I was immediately intrigued the first time I saw the trailer because she used the song “Age of Consent” by my favorite band, New Order. I then found out that the film actually opens with my second favorite song of all time, “Natural’s Not In It” by Gang of Four. A quick look at the soundtrack listing reveals Marie Antoinette is a pretty decent New Wave soundtrack. (Though, admittedly, Gang of Four is post-punk and not New Wave.) There are better New Wave soundtracks out there, however.

Anyone who channel surfed past the Family Channel during the holiday season of 2006 doubtlessly either flew past or stayed with one of the multiple airings of The Wedding Singer. The Wedding Singer is one of the all time great New Wave soundtracks, featuring my number one favorite song of all time, “Blue Monday” by New Order. In addition it contains the classic Smith’s song “How Soon is Now” which also is fortunate enough to be well utilized within the movie, its gloomy industrial sound providing a perfect audio accompaniment to Adam Sandler’s mood during the scene in which it appears. Although I would obviously prefer a multitude of other Elvis Costello songs, at least “Everyday I Write the Book” isn’t his worst. On the other hand, “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs is one of that band’s best. You’ll also find songs by David Bowie, the Thompson Twins, and Culture Club on the Wedding Singer soundtrack. Just in case you buy the soundtrack to The Wedding Singer and you’re wondering where the movie’s opening foray into its New Wave milieu is—“You Spin Me Round”—you’ll be happy to know it’s on the Wedding Singer soundtrack volume II. This volume also contains the not-particularly-new wave but still entertaining “Love Stinks” by the J. Geils Band as well as songs from the B-52, Cars and Depeche Mode. It also contains one of the songs that proves A Flock of Seagulls was not the one hit wonder most people think. Yes, “I Ran” was a huge hit, but “Space Age Love Song” was streaming from car radios in the early 80s. For that matter, so was “Wishing” which isn’t included on the soundtrack, but further undoes the one hit wonder lie.

When it comes to actually using New Wave songs in a movie, I’m not sure any movie does it better than Donnie Darko. I’m talking here about the original, not the director’s cut, which manages to undo that very strength. The original opens with the haunting strains of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon” which is absolutely perfect not only due to the lyrical content, but to the fact that the band singing the song has the word “bunny” in its name. If you don’t know why that is just simply brilliant, then watch the movie. Equally affecting is the use of Tears for Fear’s “Head Over Heels.” I was never that big a fan of that song, but after watching how it was utilized in the incredible sequence in which over half the characters in the movie are introduced while it is playing I know find myself playing it over and over. And then, of course, there is elegiac cover version of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” that plays near the end of the movie, creating a sense of both sadness and giddiness. Although underutilized in the movie, the soundtrack also features Rolling Stone’s Single of the Year for 1979, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division; the band that became New Order following the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis. You’ll also get a great Oingo Boingo song, “Stay” if you buy the Donnie Darko soundtrack.

Like The Wedding Singer, there are two volumes featuring music from or “inspired by” the cult classic Trainspotting. In addition to being one of the best films of the 90s, the Trainspotting soundtrack is one of the best for catching up on classic New Wave songs. Obviously, you’re going to find Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” which enthusiastically and memorably opens the film. And then there’s another New Order classic, “Temptation” as well as the Fun Boy Three’s slower and more ominous version of the Go-Gos hit “Our Lips are Sealed.” But you also get some newer artists that would have felt right at home during the early 80s, such as Blur, Sleeper and Elastica. Not as good as The Wedding Singer, but still worthwhile.

And then there’s the king of New Wave soundtracks, the ultimate collection of New Wave songs and artists that really is a must for anyone interested in the great alternative tunes of the late 70s and early 80s. The soundtracks for Valley Girl really is more of a New Wave greatest hits package, a sampler album featuring both recognizable classics and less popular gems. If you’ve never seen Valley Girl—and you really should since it contains Nicolas Cage’s best performance, still—you should know that it not only is packed with songs from beginning to end, but it’s the best high school movie of the 80s. Far better than Fast Times at Ridgemont High or any of those Brat Pack abominations. Valley Girl so overflows with great music that it takes two volumes and even then some of the songs from the movie are still missing.

What’s on the soundtracks? Volume one contains two incredibly infection Josie Cotton songs, “Johnny, Are You Queer” and “He Could be the One.” It also features the late, great LA punk band the Plimsouls and their touchstone song “Million Miles Away.” How about “Angst in My Pants” from Sparks? And let’s not forget “Who Can it Be Now” from Men at Work, as well as the P. Furs’ “Love My Way” again. And, finally, Modern English’s great romantic work of art, “I Melt With You.”

The follow-up More Music From the Valley Girl Soundtrack is even better, since it features a wider range of artists. Sparks is still there with their incredible “Eaten by the Monster of Love” and “Cool Places.” Instead of Josie Cotton, you get the Josie Cotton sound-alike of “Girls Like Me.” The Jam’s masterpiece “Town Called Malice” and Bananarama’s “He Was Really Saying Something.” Also featured on volume two are songs by Culture Club, Thompson Twins and Rachel Sweet. And who can ever forget Total Coelo’s “I Eat Cannibals.”

It’s hard to imagine any soundtrack featuring songs from the past decade ever being worth listening to whether you’ve seen the movie or not. New Wave was ridiculed by many at the time, but most of these songs sound fresher today than most new songs. New Wave songs have a frenetic energy and a sense of fun that is sorely missing from the repetitive, rap-heavy garbage that dominates radio today. Not only that, but notice how differently the songs sound; you can actually tell the difference between the music of the Plimsouls and New Order, between the Jam and Josie Cotton. Today’s music is so homogenized and pre-packaged and market-tested that it all seems to have been produced by one man. And I’m not just limiting that description to the utterly redundant and repetitive rhythm and lyrical content of rap. To lend further credence to the argument that today’s music says nothing to people about their life, consider that most of the songs used in Napoleon Dynamite are from the 80s and are New Wave. Can you imagine getting the same feeling from watching Napoleon Dynamite with contemporary songs?

There are other soundtracks that feature good New Wave songs and I highly recommend the soundtrack for Grosse Pointe Blank for its wonderful ska tracks. But if you really want to get a full taste of the best music from the New Wave era, these will probably do the trick.

Madonna: Leftist Rebel or Capitalist Poster Girl, Part II

While the use of pastiche and irony perhaps separates Madonna from more traditional, modernist artists, nonetheless all the parody and ambiguity in the world doesn’t hide the fact that she is really no less a machine of the capitalist system than, say, Celine Dion or even Michael Jackson. And yet, Celine has so far managed to be successful without changing her image every few years. While there seems to be little room for argument that Madonna’s artistic endeavors have been far more interesting than Dion’s, there is also little argument that Madonna is considered a less talented a singer. The question therefore is how long Celine Dion’s fans will consume her singularly branded style before they get bored. Did Madonna realize that her “Boy Toy” act had no lasting power, and that if she wanted her career to continue she would be forced to reproduce herself?

The moment of realization for Madonna that she was not going to be able to carry a career based on her “Boy Toy” image probably came during the formation of her performance at the first MTV Video Awards Show. Dressed in a bridalesque bustier, short skirt, veil and crucifix, Madonna begins the performance atop a large wedding cake and ends by simulating intercourse. Over the course of the three minute song, Madonna effectively laid to rest her “Boy Toy” image and announced that she was a performer with no fear of castigation. The change brought criticism and disapproval. But why? What would have been truly subversive and postmodern for Madonna in 1984 would have been for her to come out in a full wedding gown and sing the song “Like a Virgin” with no expression of sexuality at all. But humping the stage during the inaugural MTV Video Awards Show presentation not only fails to register as subversive, but reeks of conservative, capitalistic thought.

Consider Madonna’s apparently shocking behavior in light of these words from philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard on the role of the artist: “The artist and writer therefore work without rules, and in order to establish the rules for what will have been made.” Is it true that Madonna was working without rules that night? Is it true that she was establishing rules for what will have been made? The answer is complex, but eventually it must be decided that rules were made and Madonna followed them. Madonna did exactly what was expected of her that night and in so doing, she made not only herself, but a lot of other people very rich that night. For at least another album—at the very least for another single—Madonna assured her career would continue based upon her performance. All the jokes about Madonna’s virginity were a small price to pay, and indeed actually added to the irony with which she has consistently armed herself. The fact is that Madonna played exactly according to a well-defined set of rules that night and has, in fact, been playing by those rules ever since.

Irony and distancing are two well-established modes of postmodernism that are not up for argument and discussion. Whatever else postmodernism may be, and it is many things to many people, no one denies that at its best it involves ironic detachment. Establishing her image as a virgin ready for sex is ironic only on the surface. After all, aren’t we to expect every bride to be deflowered within hours of the ceremony? If Madonna acted out her deflowering on national television, where is the distancing there? Again, it was to be expected. As was the next step in her reproduction of herself.

Madonna symbolically married herself off on the awards show and afterward she was no longer eligible to be a “Boy Toy.” She’d not only gotten married on television, but she’d consummated the relationship as well. The fact that there was no groom is only another layer of irony, leading to her next image: wife. Or, to put it more succinctly, Material Girl. The “Material Girl” video is really the jumping-off point in Madonna’s rise to a postmodern icon. Referencing cultural images of the past is another hallmark of the movement and in the video for this song, Madonna references the ultimate sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. In the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe sings the song “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Madonna re-enacts the setting and costuming to sing her equally delirious capitalist anthem “Material Girl.” Ironically, though the song was written by songwriters Peter Brown and Robert Rans rather than Madonna herself, her first successful reproduction of her image resulted in her brief tenure as “The Material Girl.” Madonna realizes that her image is just an extension of her performance, and indeed it became more than just a song she sung; the appellation was applied to her as a method of identifying her and trapping her.

As a label it was both more dangerous and less dangerous than “Boy Toy.” After all, the lyrics clearly state we live in a material world and only the most clueless would deny that. So in a way, Madonna should have been the poster girl for capitalism and the American way. The fact that she wasn’t and hasn’t ever been is probably the most ironic aspect of her career. The downside, of course, is that though Americans may want desperately to own as many things as they can, they certainly don’t want to be reminded that they are materialistic. Even Madonna herself claimed the song was meant to be ironic. If Madonna truly sought to be a subversive voice, it was probably better to be labeled as a sex object than as the embodiment of greed.

Capitalist America did not take Madonna to its collective bosom as their poster girl, however; at least not the conservatives who most rightfully should have been proud of her. Madonna proved from her first reproduction of herself that she was attuned to the intricacies of the relations of production. Several critics have decided Madonna’s true talent has nothing to do with performing, but rather with selling and the art of public relations. Yet, as an artist Madonna has managed to make tremendous strides forward. Overlooked at those stodgy Grammy Awards when Cyndi Lauper beat her out for Best New Artist, she has eventually managed to win several, and significant, Grammy awards. Besides, couldn’t one equally make a valid argument that Elvis and the Beatles were successful due in no small part to brilliant marketing?

Were Madonna merely a PR dream, she would be the greatest marketing campaign in the history of advertising. But that’s not the case. It could be that Madonna is not postmodern at all. Perhaps she has not become successful due to her artistic abilities. But if that were the case, then why the need to constantly reproduce? Why not just let the music speak for itself? The answer lies in part with the false and imaginary image of Madonna as a rebellious agent of subversive thought compared with the truth of Madonna as one of the foremost practitioners of capitalism the world has ever produced.

As a singer and video star, Madonna’s success has rarely been rivaled since she burst onto the scene. She has been accepted throughout her career in a wide variety of roles from slut to material girl to student of Jewish mysticism. In her videos she has successfully transformed herself into a wide variety of characters. And yet her film career has been nothing less than a disaster. Which is all the more surprising considering the critical reception she received for her first major role in Desperately Seeking Susan? Madonna enjoyed mostly positive reviews for her acting, with the usual caveat that well, after all, she is just playing herself. Of course, in retrospect, the postmodern irony of that excuse is positively dripping. How can someone play themselves when to all outward appearances, they have no self to play? If Madonna’s recurrent transformations are real, then she stands as a real life Zelig, the title character in Woody Allen’s pseudo documentary about a man with no real identity who could transform physically and mentally into any type of human being he was around. On the other hand if Madonna’s transformations have all been calculated for effect, then her true identity is more closely akin to JP Morgan or Cornelius Vanderbilt, or even Sam Walton or Bill Gates. Madonna, if her reproductions are false images presented to the world for profit, is no more a rebel or an agent for subversive thought than any CEO in America. But which one is Madonna’s real self: Zelig or Gates?

The question is frustrating in its inability to be easily answered. If it really is all just an act, and Madonna is so incredibly good at it, then why is she so incredibly bad when acting in films? To date, Madonna really has never been critically applauded for her film acting. Yes, she won a Golden Globe award for Evita, but the Golden Globes are notorious for oddball choices). In her film career she has gone from being critically excoriated in such films as Who’s That Girl and Shanghai Surprise to grudging acceptance that she’s not horrible in such films as A League of their Own and Dick Tracy. Obviously, her singing ability has undergone a similar critical battering, but the difference is that her films have also been commercial flops, whereas she has never tripped significantly in her singing career. How can one honestly imagine that Madonna is merely acting out the roles she has created for herself while reproducing herself to continue her ability to market her talent. If Madonna can’t convince a huge section of the American public that she’s a baseball player in the 1940s, then how she can convince people that she’s been any of the roles she’s defined for herself, unless she genuinely was adopting that identity?

Once examined closely, the frustration level at being unable to easily answer this question subsides. In fact, the answer is so simple it almost guarantees that one will second-guess oneself. Madonna is in control of her music career. Although she has input from any number of people including songwriters, producers and record company executives, ultimately, it all comes down to Madonna herself. Madonna has no financial stake in her films. She is a paid employee and whether the film is a hit or miss, it won’t really affect her career, which is based on singing, videos and, well, just being Madonna. Her ability to create an ever-changing persona for herself is based not just upon boredom but necessity.

In retrospect, Madonna’s long career seems assured, but to go back in time and to judge her against her contemporaries, one can easily see why Madonna adopted the approach to capitalist success which Louis Althusser writes about and warns against. Needing only to look back to the recent past, and then the more distant past for added effect, Madonna was surely smart enough to realize she had to position herself in a way that differed significantly from her precursors.

Prior to Madonna’s ascension to the position of the premier female pop artist of her time, that title had been tossed around like an unwanted disease. From Linda Ronstadt to Donna Summer to Pat Benatar, no female singer appeared ready to take the long term approach more often associated with male singers. When Madonna was first began making records, Frank Sinatra was still selling out concerts and even making an appearance on the top forty charts. In contrast, whatever happened to Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Carole King? Even Linda Ronstadt, who had briefly been deserving of the term superstar, had all but been eclipsed by the time Madonna and Cyndi Lauper were duking it out. For that matter, the sexier, tougher Pat Benatar and Debbie Harry would all but disappear within just a few years of achieving success. Fast forward a decade or so and history repeats. Two of the most successful female singers in history, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, went missing in action, putting out failed records, movies and TV shows, or else dealing with drug rumors. And though Carey is apparently making a successful comeback at the moment, few would probably bet good money on her second act being as successful as her first act. So then, how does one account for the truly revolutionary long term success of Madonna?

The first line of defense when trying to explain the surprisingly long and inordinately successful run that Madonna has had at the top usually comes to a rest upon one single aspect of her career: sexuality. Madonna began her life as a singer as a “Boy Toy.” The dry hump that Madonna performed on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards may have marked the end of that persona, but it may equally have well marked the beginning of a long, strange road of transformations.

Following her Material Girl stage she reproduces herself for her album True Blue. Against all odds, Madonna felt it was time to get serious. Her song “Papa Don’t Preach” was a message song and “Live to Tell” proved she could sell a ballad. But what most people remember about this album and what fits in most stylistically with those who would limit Madonna’s success to her success in peddling flesh was the video for the song “Open Your Heart.”

The video is simplicity itself: Madonna as a pay-per-play peep show performer who ultimately runs off at the end of the video with a young boy. From the live performance of “Like a Virgin” through videos such as “Open Your Heart” and other even more flagrantly sexy and controversial, it appears that there could be only one destination for Madonna. After all, you can tease an audience for only so long before they demand to see it all. Interestingly enough, Madonna, at least in comparison to other actresses of her generation, has rarely appeared nude in films. For a woman with such a scandalous reputation, her film career has been surprisingly tame when it comes to nudity and sex scenes. Of course, she has made up for it with the blatant sexuality of her videos. Her sexuality has always been a key component to the success of Madonna, there can be no denying that, but there has to be more. After all, more attractive women than Madonna, even those with more talent, have fallen by the wayside during the course of her career. Still, sexuality has been important and it has played a part in every one of her albums. With each successive album, in fact, Madonna seems to get more and more audacious, more daring. Finally, of course, she reached the point where it was time to put out or shut up. And Madonna put out full of bravado and with a take-no-prisoners attitude.

Madonna’s book Sex could not have been a more fitting punctuation mark to her decade-long striptease. When a stripper is performing a striptease on stage and she finally sheds her last bit of clothing and stands naked, there are only three options left. She can leave the stage, which is something clearly Madonna would never have considered in a million years. She can do a reverse strip, slowly putting her clothes back on, which is too simplistic in its postmodern irony and playfulness or one as cunning and calculated as Madonna. Or she can engage in sexual activity on the stage.

Madonna’s book Sex is that sexual activity; presenting oneself naked on stage after the strip show and going the extra mile. In reality, the book is erotica, or soft-core pornography. Despite some quite lurid and suggestive pictures of a usually nude Madonna, despite some hardcore text, she ultimately stops short of actual intercourse. Of course, there was the requisite furor over the photographs. There was the typical religious condemnation that she was warping the morality of the youth. That she stops short of hardcore intercourse, that most of the images in the book are barely distinguishable from advertisements in many high fashion magazines today says it all. Despite all the text in the book devoted to Madonna’s love of her own vagina and her detailed sexual activities, none of the pictures carry either the pornographic quality or the sheer artistry of photos by Robert Mapplethorpe. Like so much of Madonna’s career, Sex is a simulation. It is simulated sex, it is watered down porn, it is acceptable—for the majority—erotica.

In her book and in her music and in her life, Madonna is posing. It is another reason why she is not quite as good an actress in film as she is in real life. In her music videos and her stage shows, Madonna must only project an image of herself; a persona; a role. She doesn’t have to completely create from scratch a new identity. She has sold the public on the perception that she is a deep, profound and complex individual; that she is multifaceted. But peel away the top layer of these personae and what do you find? There is nothing particularly deep about the “Boy Toy” or the Material Girl or the Platinum Ambitious Blonde. The reproductions that Madonna presents are nothing but foil covering up one of the most perceptive capitalist minds in the industry. In effect, Madonna is a Jean Baudrillard dream come true.

So many words have been written extolling Madonna for her feminist sensibilities, for her bravery in maintaining her sexual identity while fighting against the male-dominated corporate structure of the music industry. The idea that forces are struggling to get Madonna to conform is an interesting one. It is true that Madonna is ever the nonconformist in her refusal to stick with a single identifying image, bashing herself right up against the conventional wisdom of musical success in which a stable and comfortably unchanging image very truly is everything. The Rolling Stones still look and play as they did forty years ago; every rap artist, whether black or white, dresses and talks and behaves in the exact same way as every other rap artist. No, artistically, Madonna is a nonconformist. But aside from that, there is nothing rebellious about Madonna at all. Even Sex can be looked at as a conservative, all-American approach to business success.

Image is everything. Sex sells. Nothing succeeds like excess. There is no such thing as bad publicity. All these slogans are ultimately both empty and true. Far truer than any aspect of herself Madonna has yet presented. Madonna is the greatest example of conservative capitalism. Conservatives cry against Janet Jackson exposing her breast on television for two seconds. Sex is used to sell everything from cars to clothing. Despite conservative claims to the contrary, consumers cannot get enough of this sex-drenched climate. Witness the enormous ratings garnered by the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards every year. With each passing year the Super Bowl audience is tuning in for the commercials instead of the game. And why are millions tuning in to the Oscars if society really is so disgusted by the lack of morality portrayed on movie screens? Madonna’s career stands as a testament to the power of sex to sell, and that is the most conservative method of success in America today. Why be brilliant, creative or talented when you can toss in a half-naked lady instead? Madonna understood this and fashioned her simulated personae around this question. But still, if sex and a great body was all Madonna had to offer, why haven’t others with greater bodies sustained her level of success? The question still lingers: Why has Madonna been so successful for so long?

The ultimate test of Madonna’s marketing plan may be coming to fruition. In recent years, Madonna has married, had children and found spiritualism. Is it too cynical to suggest that this is yet another simulated persona? After all, Madonna is getting a little old to play the Boy Toy and motherhood does change people. Middle-age has set in and with that time of life, it’s not at all unusual to search for more meaning. In fact, the search for meaning and spiritualism is a hot product among the aging baby boomers. Madonna is clever enough to recognize that Britney Spears has, at least for now, taken over her role of Boy Toy and that the younger set has probably kissed her off. But those who first latched onto Madonna are now themselves approaching middle age. Again, is it too cynical to suggest that Madonna’s newfound spiritual concerns are just another calculated surface persona against which to play for profit?

Consider what Madonna has chosen for her spiritual guidance. It is a particularly mystical sect of Judaism, study of the Kabbalah. The answer to the question of whether this is cynical might be answered thusly: what can Madonna ever hope to achieve commercially by infusing mystical religion into her act? Again, it comes down to artifice, to simulation. Madonna may very well be deeply, profoundly interested in the Kabbalah. Whether she is or isn’t is beside the point In this age of Deepak Chopra and other new age entrepreneurs and the rise of non-traditional services at Christian churches, Madonna is once again positioning herself as a rebel. She is turning away not only from Christianity and Buddhism and Scientology and other trendy Hollywood religions, she is delving into something truly subversive. She is being Madonna the provocateur once again.

Madonna: Leftist Rebel or Capitalist Poster Girl, Part I

Because of her affront to so-called decency, Madonna has been attacked from the political right with a fervor almost medieval in its zealousness. Postmodernism claims irony as one of its defining aspects and, in truth, nothing could be more ironic than conservative Americans getting their hackles raised by Madonna.

Although Madonna may be the very model of a modern leftist in terms of social liberalism, in fact she is the very apotheosis of conservative economic thought. It is not going too far, to be completely honest, to say that Madonna and her career can be considered personifications of Louis Althusser’s conception of the machinery of capitalist ideology.

As with most things postmodern, Althusserian ideology represents a relationship that is “real” only in a subjective sense. For Althusser, ideology “represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The very idea of classic Marxist false consciousness is stripped of existence by Althusser; falseness on the one hand presupposes truth and reality on the other.

What could be more postmodern than to suggest that even our own consciousness is open to interpretation? Althusser goes on to introduce his theory of contradiction and overdetermination, more succinctly explained by John Fiske who wrote that ideology is “constantly in process, constantly reproducing itself.” Substitute the word Madonna for ideology and that sentence still makes perfect sense.

Madonna’s career has been one of continuous reproduction of herself. Madonna is on the conservative, capitalist side of the argument that Marx is making a point against when he writes, “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” This is exactly what Althusser is talking about when he theorizes that the capitalist ideology must constantly reinvent and reproduce itself just to survive, must less prosper.

Madonna may exist as a postmodern icon because of her ability to turn herself into the subject of her art, but what is missing from most criticism is the fact that far from being the icon of liberal, let-it-all-hang-out, subversive thought that threatens to turn young women into promiscuous communists, Madonna is actually among the most conservative of artists.

The conservatives quickly jumped to the cause that Madonna was corrupting the youth of America. It’s true, she was, but not in the way they thought. And the way she was corrupting them would not have been considered such a bad thing by most of them. The young boys watched the dawn of Madonna through lascivious eyes. The young women saw a woman with a lot of money and famous boyfriends who got that money and those boyfriends by dressing up sexy and presenting themselves as an object of desire.

What was corrupting was that Madonna was adding her own supposedly subversive qualities to the long list of Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses that consistently and constantly sell the (false) joys of capitalism. Madonna appeared every inch the rebellious artist bent on sending the youth of American down the long road of ruin, but in fact she was promoting those false joys of capitalism in a more efficient way than Ronald Reagan ever dreamed possible.

A very successful advertising campaign for the soft drink Sprite told its viewers that “Image is Everything.” French philosopher Jean Baudrillard has been saying the same thing for decades. Baudrillard maps out a basic groundwork for the creation of what he terms a simulacrum of reality which is accepted as the truth. In the first phase, the simulation reflects reality. In the second it perverts it. In the third it reveals the absence of any true reality. And finally, the simulation replaces what it was simluating to become the reality. All four stages can be marked by tracking the career of Madonna.

Madonna was at first just a reflection of the youth culture in which she lived, a postmodern pastiche of fashion sense pinched from the ethnic subcultures through which she orbited; a young woman at home with her sexuality and ready to flaunt it. Gradually, she perverted that image to make it seem real, when it fact it was nothing more than a calculation to achieve stardom. With each successive reproduction of herself, anything approaching a true sense of self and identity in Madonna was all but impossible.

And finally, the simulation became reality. Madonna was just a body, just a “Boy Toy” after all, just a material girl, just another ambitious platinum blonde. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker’s infamous description of Oakland, when it comes to Madonna, “There is no there there.” Madonna is a cipher on the outside, much like Woody Allen’s character Zelig, while on the inside she is the very embodiment of the Ugly American, much like Bill Gates.

If there is one place where Madonna’s image is subversive, it’s in her ability to recreate herself in such a way that even though the audience knows what to expect, it seems new. Horkheimer and Adorno asserted that “under monopoly capitalism all mass culture is identical.” It has to be in order to appeal to the largest possible consumer base because monopoly capitalism is about nothing if it’s not about homogenizing taste in order to stimulate profit. When one listens to her music, Madonna fits quite snugly into this idea.

Basically, she hasn’t really changed her musical style in any significant way from “Lucky Star” to “Ray of Light.” And yet, her music seems to have changed. Madonna’s songs seem to have evolved in a way that say, Mariah Carey’s or Celine Dion’s haven’t. And that may very well be Madonna’s greatest claim to fame. Madonna has taken everyday, conservative capitalism and made it somehow seem subversive. Madonna has taken everyday sexuality and made it seem frighteningly threatening. Madonna has taken guitars and synthesizers and made it seem as though she has evolved musically when in reality she really hasn’t.

Althusser writes of something called interpellation, which is positioning the subject that so he responds when called. Interpellating the subject is a key ingredient to ensuring the survival of capitalism and Madonna has mastered it. By successfully positioning herself as a rebellious figure, as a provocateur, Madonna has successfully interpellated society to the point where if she presents herself as a slut, they willingly accept it or reject it depending upon how they feel about it. It has reached the point where a rumor about Madonna could be enough to send her detractors into a tizzy; or her defenders into a store-rushing mob.

As Marx indicated, in order for capitalism to sustain itself, it must reach into the world and remake that world in its own image. Madonna’s success reaches everywhere and that success has taken no hard hits anywhere. Even when faced with seemingly overwhelming controversy, the kind of controversy that would seriously undermine other careers, Madonna has not only survived, but thrived.

The reason for this is that Madonna has positioned herself so successfully as an outsider, as one from whom controversy is accepted. In other words, Madonna has successfully sold herself as a lightning rod for controversy. Again, image is everything. Again, there seems to be no there there for Madonna. Is there anything she wouldn’t do, is there any road she wouldn’t take? Take, for instance, the infamous Pepsi commercial. Coincident with the release of her video for the song “Like a Prayer” Madonna appeared in a Pepsi commercial.

So interpellated is society that Madonna could still appear to be a threat to all things American even when cashing in on her popularity by appearing in a commercial. Well, perhaps it was thought to be subversive because it was a commercial for Pepsi, rather than Coca-Cola. The fact that Madonna successfully sidetracked the accusation of selling out by making this commercial is one of the most amazing parts of her career.

Early on, Madonna saw through the simulacrum that is American morality. Compared to European countries, America may still cling hard to its puritan beginnings, but only on the surface. Again, Baudrillard comes into play. America truly is a simulation. The reality of what America craves and buys bears little resemblance to how America sees itself. It is not just the conservative religious right that sees America as a morally upright, morally uptight beacon of all that is right. The overwhelming majority of Americans view their country this way. We have become the arbiters and judges of correctness in all things from morality to politics.

America is a country that rallies together to decry religious fervor that builds toward terrorism. But America is also a country that rallies in support of a religious mission to invade and take over a sovereign country. By identifying the disconnect between what America is and what America likes to think it is, Madonna has almost assured herself of a career for as long as she wants. Because she can sell herself as rebel against what America really is while cashing in by being a rebel against what American wants to be, there is almost no end to how many different ways Madonna can reinvent and resell herself.

Which goes back to Althusser and the concept of an imaginary relationship of individuals to the real conditions of existence. This imaginary relationship works both ways. For one thing, what her fans and her detractors see in Madonna is really an imaginary condition. The irony speaks out loudly in the fact that those who are most vociferous against Madonna, conservatives, should be the ones most in support of her. America destroyed lives and wasted billions of dollars in the fight against communism.

Communists and all assaults on free enterprise and capitalism were deemed even worse enemies than fascism. Madonna is clearly no closer to being a communist than Pat Buchanan. While her social outlook may be liberal, even that is subject to questioning. After all, Madonna’s positioning herself in order to sell is based upon the role of the rebel. And, largely forgotten in today’s repressive political climate, America itself was founded by rebels.

Rebellion is, if you will, in the country’s blood. So even Madonna’s liberal-tinged rebelliousness is distinctly American. In effect, Madonna’s rebelliousness is calculated to sell and what could be more modern American than that?

Which raises the specter of the other imaginary relationship, that of her fans to Madonna. Madonna has sold herself as a rebel, as a woman to be admired for her refusal to play the game by any rules other than her own. In fact, Madonna is playing by the rules of Adam Smith, the godfather of capitalism. Those who most rally to the support of Madonna should actually be the ones most pissed off. A subversive she is not. She is the ideal capitalist, one whose business plan should be modeled as a perfect example of how to make it in America.

Madonna’s history is one of continual recreation and reproduction of her image. But that image has always been a mere surface glean on top of a deep-seated money-making machine. Staying on top of the music business for twenty years without a single flop album is almost unheard-of. That Madonna has accomplished this feat despite the drawback of not having the greatest singing voice in the world makes this accomplishment all the more amazing.

Some term Madonna a postmodernist icon in the way she has been able to consistently reinvent herself to meet the changing modes of music styles over the year, yet when looked at closely, Madonna’s music really hasn’t evolved terribly much, at least not in any genuinely profound way. Her reinventions really have been more about the reproduction of a single image, that of the rebel provocateur. But the rebelliousness has always been calculated to bring about profit rather than to truly subvert.

According to Marx and Althusser, capitalism can only subsist by creating new, ultimately false needs that must be sold to consumers once their basic needs have been met. Madonna met the basic needs of her core audience a long time ago, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that had she contained herself within that image she would long ago have gone by the wayside. Instead, Madonna saw that once she sold herself completely as a Boy Toy, she would have to reinvent herself and create a new need among her fans.

And that is why Madonna has been so successful for so long. Rather than defining herself through a single image to be sold over and over, Madonna has created new markets for herself. She has successfully sold herself as rebel in various guises despite being very conservative in her economics. She has created surface personae that provoke just enough to create a sensation but not enough to alienate her audience. Madonna truly is a capitalist icon rather than a postmodern icon.