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.