What’s up with Madonna?

Two critics cross swords: Can you separate the chameleonic star's image from her art? And why doesn't she have a cool boyfriend?

Topics: Music,

What's up with Madonna?

Strawberry Saroyan: Madonna’s new album, “Music,” came out without generating a cultural thunderclap. Sure, the catchy, almost throwaway single is already at No. 1, but little more than a Rolling Stone cover and a Charlie Rose interview — and, of course, several hours of old VH1 concert footage titled “Madonnarama” — greeted the release. There were no Vanity Fair covers or People profiles or Time magazine controversies or visits with Oprah. Madonna records, it seems, are no longer the media events they once were.

Why? Certainly part of it is that Madonna isn’t — and hasn’t really been since “Erotica” (1992) — in her prime. It also may simply be that Madonna, at 41, is now a mother twice over, and was in the last stages of pregnancy during what would have normally been full-steam-ahead press time. She tried: In the Rolling Stone article, she is so determined that she meets writer Jancee Dunn at the offices of her Maverick record company even though she “feels like a whale.” When asked one rather innocuous question, she nearly begins to cry in response, a clear result of hormones gone haywire. But it also seems that this record is being mistakenly overlooked musically. It has been reviewed, for the most part, in contrast to her last effort, the triumphant “Ray of Light,” and called a “bunch of songs” rather than a concept album that has something to say, to quote the New York Times.

“Music” goes far beyond the fluffy, if empowered, pop of Madonna’s earliest albums, and is a natural evolution past “Ray of Light,” a record that she famously pronounced aimed to put “emotion in electronica.” If “Ray of Light” was explicitly about spirituality, then the new record is just spiritual. Because on “Music,” for the first time, Madonna really lets go: Her voice flies, electronically filtered, flitting all around, chasing itself. She also lets go by allowing Mirwais to once again reinvent what a Madonna record sounds like. (There’s a great story about her meeting the producer for the first time in Paris and just staring at him: She didn’t, in a very uncharacteristic moment, know what she wanted from him.) Perhaps even the record’s unassuming quality is a letting go; she’s stopped trying to do something so important this time around. Although musically the new record acknowledges her earliest stuff (1983′s “Madonna,” 1984′s “Like a Virgin”), “Music” has a mature, full-circle perspective. To me, it’s as though with William Orbit, her producer on “Ray of Light,” Madonna just got revved up, and with Mirwais, she takes off.

Michelle Goldberg: I don’t think the lack of hype surrounding the release of “Music” has that much to do with Madonna’s second pregnancy, since if the press is really salivating over a new record, lack of access to the star often just whets the collective appetite. Instead, I think it’s more that Madonna’s celebrity tactics — self-conscious artifice and zeitgeist surfing — are now everywhere. Now it’s just assumed that any famous person has meticulously constructed his or her image, be they Lil’ Kim or Al Gore. That makes Madonna’s metamorphic skills — her ability to shed personas like snakeskin — seem less remarkable.

One thing that’s always interested me about Madonna is that she’s often praised as a brilliant businesswoman. It used to be that art fancied itself separate from the vulgar mechanics of money and merchandising. Andy Warhol did an enormous amount to change that idea in highbrow circles, but Madonna made it conventional wisdom to conflate art and commerce. These days, no one asks why someone like, say, Puff Daddy, who’s mediocre at best musically, should be a huge pop star, since in a way his self-promotion is his art. Meanwhile, musicians who are seen as insufficiently calculating are routinely trashed. Take Fiona Apple, reviled after her famous “this world is bullshit” speech at the MTV music awards, or Siniad O’Connor, whose gorgeous voice has been obscured by a series of P.R. catastrophes.

Madonna’s been celebrated for exposing the mechanics of celebrity artifice, but now those mechanics are naked. She pioneered this kind of multimedia, “life as performance art” approach to culture that now justifies a whole pantheon of hollow stars like Drew Barrymore and Chlok Sevigny — people whose fame has less to do with what they create than who they are.

For a while, I anticipated new Madonna projects largely to see which cultural currents she would pick up on and amplify. That’s where much of her genius lies. She released “Material Girl” near the height of the ’80s money orgy. She did the whole S/M and profane Catholic thing with “Erotica” and the “Sex” book a few years after the controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano made bondage and blasphemy front-page issues. She recorded “Ray of Light” just as electronica was becoming ubiquitous. These days, though, there are so many people like, um, me, who publicly chew over the tiniest implication of every pop moment that there’s less fresh grist for her mill. Similarly, she’s adept at raiding various subcultures for inspiration. But because the trend cycle has sped up so brutally and the media has grown so voracious for signs of authenticity, there are few unexplored pockets of creativity for her to draw from.

Madonna’s art — and the reaction to it — has always been an exploration of surfaces. So when her persona is no longer interesting to the media, neither is her music. In the case of “Music,” that’s really too bad, because I think it’s one of her best records — not her most shocking or groundbreaking, but definitely one of her tightest. The track “Impressive Instant,” with its dirty, sexy, French house beat and tripped-out vocal production, is fabulous. Still, it feels slightly behind the curve. The vocoder effects on her voice aren’t just familiar from underground acts like Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk — they recall Cher’s “Believe.” Then there are her new cowboy hats, which are omnipresent on hipsters nationwide. Madonna’s no longer breaking new ground, and I don’t think that’s necessarily because of her age. Her strategies have permeated the atmosphere so completely that it’s hard for her to transcend them.

Saroyan: You can separate Madonna’s music, her image, her media antics, but why would you? To me, she’s a storyteller, a cultural pioneer, and the important thing is her message — via music, videos, antics, whatever. And all of those things have been brilliantly of a piece. Madonna’s ability to take her message beyond music and impact women’s lives has been her legacy. Surfing the zeitgeist, exposing celebrity artifice, etc. — yeah, she’s done that, and it’s interesting to some media people, but what she’s really done is change mores, had an impact on all of us little girls who started digging her with “Lucky Star.”

She’s created the zeitgeist — and certainly with “Vogue,” etc., she’s used other movements to her advantage, but that’s been in the name of something very much her own. Because really, when you boil it down, Madonna is about freedom. Sex has almost been an alibi for much of her career, a metaphor for things that are much bigger — liberty, equality — all those boring, Pollyannaish things. Madonna put it all through the filter of sex, and sex sells; therefore, so have all of those other things. Thank God for this errant Catholic schoolgirl!

If she’s changing her image or behind the curve with “Music,” it’s not because she’s unknowingly losing relevance, or trying to keep going ungracefully, or losing her foothold on what’s happening. It’s because she’s changing. And yes, part of it does have to do with getting older, I think, and having kids. She’s having fun, and mellowing out, finally. She didn’t feel like doing another 180-degree change with her look — she just felt like putting on a cowboy hat and drinking a milkshake (as she does on “Music’s” inside art). She felt like boogie-woogieing. She put together some groovy songs with a couple of guys she thinks are interesting, and she didn’t even print the lyrics anywhere. But there are some incredibly touching moments lyrically on this album, and they come across loud and clear (in “What It Feels Like for a Girl” when she sings, “When you open up your mouth to speak/Could you be a little weak?” and also in “Paradise (Not for Me)” when she says, “I don’t remember when I was young”).

Madonna’s a 40-something woman, and she’s going with it, not fighting it or trying to keep up with the Aguileras. And as such, this is perhaps the key phase of her career that she’s moving into — or certainly one of them. She’s a woman who’s had it all publicly and now she’s fading out publicly, I believe by design. And so far she’s being allowed. But I don’t think it’ll be for long.

Because when the public realizes she’s missing they’ll want to know what’s really happening with her. Women, no doubt, will always want to know. Because she’s been our cosmonaut — going where all women have gone before, but in such brave ways for all these years — and now she’s going into the final frontier: being discarded by society, or discarding society. Or something else? I’m not sure exactly what’s going on yet, and neither is she, most likely. But she’s smart, and a trailblazer, and I believe she’ll be fascinating to watch in the coming decades — beyond her musical career even, she’ll remain relevant. She’ll remain relevant via her take on “irrelevance.”

Goldberg: The reason to separate Madonna’s music, her image and her media antics is that artistic output has become a byproduct of fame instead of the reason for it — a shift that Madonna is largely responsible for. I think this is a very bad thing because it degrades music qua music to a souvenir akin to a concert T-shirt. Madonna’s a great marketer, but is she a great musician? Shouldn’t that matter?

In this case, I think she’d be well served by being judged in musical terms, because “Music” is a beautiful album, even though her image is less fascinating. To me, that’s the significance here — that she’s grown as an artist in part because she’s given up the desperate grab for the eternal limelight. I’m not impressed by the first single — the chorus, “Music makes the people come together,” is absurdly banal even by fluffy pop standards, and the hooks are pretty limp. But you’re right about the power of “What It Feels Like for a Girl.” I think it’s far sexier than anything on “Erotica.” I love the exuberant builds on “Amazing” and the tentative, ruminative noir slink of “Paradise (Not for Me).”

In the past, Madonna’s musical skills have been overrated in order to account for her impact. It’s an allowance that’s worked to her advantage: She’s important; therefore, her music deserves serious consideration. And the more ink that’s spilled analyzing her music, the more important she seems. But part of the reason her last two records have succeeded is that technology has made the human voice just another raw material. Across “Music,” Madonna sounds the best on “Impressive Instant” and “Paradise,” when she’s processed beyond recognition. Obviously, writing songs and choosing collaborators are talents in themselves, but I still think it’s worth asking what kind of culture we have if one of our most famous singer/actresses can’t sing exceptionally well or act at all. I’d venture that Madonna has helped create a world where ambition, audacity, image and business savvy are more important for a singer than ability. That’s a big part of her legacy.

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I’ve heard that Madonna is about freedom before and never quite understood it, because to me Madonna has always been about effort and discipline — she’s the Horatio Alger of the “Sex and the City” set. She even turned sexiness into inexorable will; I visualize her ropy biceps every day while I do my pullups.

I was 17 when her book “Sex” came out, and its impact on my life was pretty direct — it contributed to the sense I had then that sexual freedom meant trying to turn myself into a voracious Jezebel. Understand, I’m not blaming Madonna for the ridiculous, occasionally dangerous sexual escapades of my teenage years; they were spurred by a combination of curiosity, insecurity and the desire to become someone else. It was my own insufficiently developed sense of self that caused me to take the message of “Sex” so much to heart. But the message as I understood it was that sexual power meant an emotionless, competitive eroticism. Judging by books like Amy Sohn’s “Run Catch Kiss” — about a sex columnist whose fraudulent nymphomaniac bravado hides a neurotic, romantic heart — a lot of girls felt that way in the ’90s. I think Madonna contributed to that atmosphere, and I don’t think it was terribly emancipatory.

I am compelled by Madonna’s current incarnation as a low-key, mature, soulful musician — so much so that I once again see her as someone to emulate. She finally seems grounded and fulfilled. The last lines of her Rolling Stone interview, where she’s asked about coming across pictures of a boyfriend’s ex, are utterly inspiring. “Well, there’s a whole thing that happens,” she told the interviewer. “First I go, ‘Oh, she’s skinny and pretty.’ Then I think, ‘Oh, but I’m me.’” It sent shivers down my spine — that kind of deep, quiet yet sexy confidence is what liberation really means.

Saroyan: I want to go back to this idea that Madonna is a brilliant businesswoman and her legacy is partly that she morphs commerce and art. I don’t understand why this would be cause for any dismay: It’s about time art and commerce were pushed together! Why make art unless it gets viewed, listened to, bought? It’s an outmoded notion that artists should be starving and saying important things into the wind — especially if, as Madonna is, you’re addressing such basic political and social realities for 50 percent (or isn’t it 51 percent?) of the population. It’s true Madonna was a major force in finally packaging commercial savvy and political punch into one lethal artistic career. And I think she was the first, too.

To me, what Warhol did doesn’t really count: His art was based on fakery, irony and cynicism — with a little playfulness thrown in, sure — but Madonna’s doing it in a much more mainstream way. And I think it’s worth noting the way she did it: Madonna — unlike Warhol, who came on as a serious artist — came onto the scene as a pop star, and so set up the expectation that she was simply going to be this incredibly popular, but not particularly deep, creature. And then, starting with “Like a Virgin” and even the “Boy Toy” belt, and calling her companies Slutco, etc., she suddenly turned into an artist. So she slipped her art in through the back door of her career, and in the process she made art as important, as salable, as influential as anything else.

The nature of celebrity has changed, and I don’t think it’s necessarily for the worse. Being a modern celebrity does not necessarily mean being hollow or a sellout. Instead, it seems to me, it often means that there is a message at the core of one’s art that is bigger than a particular project, movie or record. Talent is having something to say, or to stand for. And that’s what Madonna, and frankly even Drew Barrymore and Puffy, do: They have a message that supersedes any medium they’re working in at the time. Actors aren’t really actors anymore, and musicians aren’t really musicians anymore. Madonna is as much a marketer as a singer; she conflates art and commerce, and her persona overshadows her records. But to me that’s all an expansion of her role rather than a cop-out or a corrupting force culturally.

I was about 22 when “Sex” came out, and I found her strength, in a sense, confusing — everything from her biceps to her almost masculine power morphed with a voracious sexual appetite. I remember being a little put off by the book and embarrassed, even as I thought it was in some ways courageous. And although I didn’t change my own sexual behavior in the wake of it (I was a model of chastity at the time — working in New York magazines and surrounded by gay men), I also remember feeling a sort of disconnect between what she was portraying about sexuality and the truth about sexuality.

She seemed to present herself as having discovered something, to be standing for the right way to be, and yet she also had such a barren love life in the real world. I don’t know why. Is it because she had to be so strong — both physically and mentally — to break through the barriers of cultural mores and lost touch with her own vulnerability, and thereby lost touch with love? Is it that men can’t handle strong women? I don’t know, but it’s disturbing to me. It’s the one thing that makes her seem a little hopeless — or culture seem a little hopeless: that she keeps ending up with men like Guy Ritchie, who is — despite her protestations — not her equal. And that’s sad to me. Why can’t Madonna find a cool boyfriend??!!

Goldberg: I confess to longing for integrity and authenticity in pop music because I believe that the nature of contemporary celebrity is a grotesque, soul-eroding thing. I certainly wouldn’t want a return of the illusion that artists should be untainted by filthy lucre — God knows, creative people need to learn how to take care of themselves financially. Nonetheless, I think the current notion of celebrity as an art form that Madonna helped propagate has hideous consequences. It means that hype replaces content as the measure of artistic success, essentially ensuring that those with real messages are indeed speaking into the wind. Perhaps it was ever thus — cutting-edge artists have by definition always toiled out of the mainstream. What’s changed, though, is the idea that fame is its own artistic validation and that the market is the ultimate arbiter of cultural worth. That seems to me a detestable state of affairs.

As for Guy Ritchie, he’s clearly not her equal professionally, but given that she’s possibly the most famous woman in the world, who is? President Clinton? In any relationship there are power imbalances — why shouldn’t she be the stronger one? Her very public relationship with a sexy younger man is one area in which she does seem like a feminist pioneer to me. Hopefully, he worships her and treats her like a goddess in a way that a man who was as renowned as she is might not.

And anyway, Ritchie’s film “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” is, by my standards of artistic worth, better than just about anything Madonna’s ever done. Of course, it doesn’t begin to compare with her work culturally or politically. But I felt a transporting thrill watching that movie that I’ve never gotten from any of Madonna’s output. I think that’s largely how art should be judged — in terms of one-on-one aesthetic elation instead of popularity or even social consequence. A celebrity’s persona or business skills don’t matter when you’re alone in your room with her music or sitting in the dark and watching her on-screen. Art should make you light up or break down, turn the banal sublime, elucidate a slice of the world or confuse what seemed settled; it should do more than just impress you with savvy branding.

Saroyan: Madonna has gone to the very edge of what is acceptable for a woman to be — professionally, sexually — and even sometimes tipped over it. She baits with surfaces and delivers depth. To me, she is authentic and does have integrity.

Puffy and Drew Barrymore are not at the level that Madonna is, obviously. But part of their talent, like Madonna’s, and part of what makes them modern are that they have a message they’re telescoping through their celebritydom. Drew is about spirit and turning a lot of the starlet crap upside down — she’s very much herself, and not about trying to be someone else, or have someone else’s body, etc. Puffy is a successful young black man, a business professional as well as a rapper, dating an equally strong woman. These people are role models quite clearly and, although obviously flawed, I think they are inspiring to many, many people. Their fame is enhanced by people tapping into and being interested in and responding to who they are. Maybe that’s part of Madonna’s legacy.

But now, for the first time in her life, Madonna’s not reinventing the goddamn wheel. That says that she’s giving up a little bit. She’s OK with doing her own thing, with perhaps even fading out a little in her public life, because she is — or at least she seems to be — fading in more clearly to her own personal life. As she said when Charlie Rose asked her about her daughter, Lola, “It used to be just me, me, me. Now it’s me, her, me.” It was funny, and it was real — the best of what Madonna has always been. Behind all the glitter, there’s always been a real woman there. Now she’s just getting more comfortable with her.

Goldberg: I don’t see Madonna’s various guises connecting to anything more profound than her own ego. I watch her videos: Madonna in Marilyn drag; Madonna in her dominatrix suit; Madonna with a bindi. But all the symbols she appropriates never seem like much more than props for her celebrity. I found “Sex” far less sexy than any random issue of Penthouse or even Hustler because I was always aware that all the scenes were just tableaux meant to show off Madonna’s erotic assets. Her only message was just what she said on “Charlie Rose” — “me, me, me.” Inasmuch as she’s legitimized female ambition and self-direction, she’s had a salutary impact on women’s lives. And I like her public personality, her brazen sass. To me, though, that doesn’t add much artistic significance to all her costume changes.

That said, the new record is refreshing precisely because it’s not a big conceptual statement — it feels more personal and honest than anything she’s ever done, even if she does insist on singing a verse in French on “Paradise (Not for Me).” If some of Madonna’s other incarnations seemed false it was precisely because she always appeared to be the same high-strung striver whether she was posed as the black vinyl bondage queen, the soignie diva of her “Evita” period or the rich hippie of “Ray of Light” (where she reminded me of nothing so much as Edina of “Absolutely Fabulous”).

Here, finally, she isn’t trying quite so hard to be someone else. I think that makes the melancholy, introspective “I Deserve It” more effective as a statement of self-acceptance than the bombastic exhortations of “Express Yourself.” The calm, reflective feel of “Music” signals inner peace to me much more powerfully than the ostentatious mystical kitsch of “Ray of Light.” So maybe Madonna is a role model after all — as a woman who has transcended the false salvation of endless self-transformation, settled into herself and actually improved with age.

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).
Strawberry Saroyan is a Los Angeles writer whose work has appeared in Elle and George. She's at work on her first book, "Girl Walks Into a Bar."

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