The problems reaching late career when you were all about shock and sex
When I discovered Madonna was incensed over a recent article about her in New York Times Magazine, I immediately recalled what another writer had to say about her. It was illuminating.
Lisa Robinson, author of “There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll,” wrote, “We talked for almost two hours. I recently listened back to that tape, and my impression remains the same now as it was then: to me, she seemed humorless, a determined woman who decided music was the way to go. It would help her rule the world. Madonna was the only one in the thousands of interviews that I did over four decades who gave me absolutely nothing. She talked for a long time. She told me her story. But it all sounded like a boilerplate.”
This is far from the impression I am sure she wanted to leave.
Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of “Madonna at Sixty” for the New York Times Magazine, seems to have run into the same obstacles as Robinson. Madonna offers only slight tidbits of insights into herself. There are no deep revelations revealed. Her answers to questions are pastiches of truisms and obvious observations that are ultimately generic.
Grigoriadis gives the singer, songwriter and sometimes “actress” credit for being a trail blazer. The article is far from being an assault on her character, or even her work. Yet, Madonna took umbrage.
Madonna’s counter attack unintentionally raised the ire of more than a few on the Internet when she said she felt that she had been “raped” by Grigoriadis. Taking into consideration the climate we are in now with the advent of movements like “Me Too,” and “Times Up,” using the word “rape” in this context was not well received. There was a backlash. It was to be expected.
Quick to defend her choice of words, she made public that she had been raped at the age of 19. Her logic is that since she was a victim of this kind of violence, she has the “privilege” to use the word in analogies she deems “appropriate.” Then again, Madonna has also faced critics regarding this same sense of privilege when she made a curious comment in a meme regarding musicians Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
The couple were filming in the Louvre Museum a music video surrounded by assorted masterpieces. Madonna placed online an image of the two musicians looking at images of herself on a Museum wall with the tag line, “Learning from the Master. LOL.” This may have been intended to be light hearted, but the use of the word “Master” and its proximity to African-Americans did not appear well considered. This too was not well received. It also shows a peculiar insensitivity given where she found inspiration for some of her signature works.
“Voguing,” a highly stylized combination of dance moves and model poses where participants act out personalities and professions has been a mainstay of one aspect of Gay Culture. Developed by African-American and Latino Americans as a way of creating empowerment and finding expression, there were those who felt their creation had been hijacked and monetized with little, if any, credit to those who originated “Voguing.” Coupling this with the “slight” to Beyoncé and Jay-Z, a pattern emerges regarding trivialization and “paternalism.” Madonna was not the first person to make a connection between fine art and music. She is certainly not the last.
Some in the Gay Community have been “irked” Madonna’s cultural appropriations. It has been said that Madonna has been swift to profit from ideas in the LGBT community without doing much for it.
When it comes to communicating ideas beyond dance song lyrics, Madonna has proven herself oddly inarticulate. There is one episode in particular where she seemed to have issues with putting coherent thoughts together.
At the 2017 Women’s March, she delivered a profanity laced speech that included saying she thought about blowing up the White House, even though she mentioned “love” several times. C.N.N. actually cut the speech short. Should you wish to read what she said in its entirety, visit https://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/news/a42336/madonnas-womens-march-speech-transcript/ for the speech in its entirety.
One observation I have noticed about Madonna, she has a determined reluctance to be vulnerable. It is as if it were an anathema to her. For someone who is creative, that inability has been a stumbling block that continually stops her from reaching to the kind of depth an artist with a long career demands, if not needs.
Her hard as nails, aggressive stance has served her well, but it has been a wall that prevents her from finding the imagination to go further. Without sensitivity, without that ability to bring people inward toward you, you find yourself limited.
Although Madonna has created projects that are supposed to be doors into her inner world, they more often that not are supports for an image she has assiduously created. Everything supports her persona, but little sheds any real light on what makes it tick.
In her behind the scenes documentary of 1991, Madonna: Truth or Dare, known outside of North America as “In Bed with Madonna,” it was clear that image management was paramount. When the camera was on, Madonna was on. Her need for control was transparent. What was telling was that when she was negotiating financial business discussions, she gave instructions to shut the cameras down. Her orders were dutifully followed. That was when we witnessed a truly candid moment that gave you a real insight into Madonna’s psyche.
Although it may have left the popular conscious now, back in 1992 she created a coffee table book titled “Sex.” The concept was that this was a secret look into the mind of Madonna’s secret sexual life. In some ways it felt like a conceptual cousin to the work of the late Robert Mapplethorpe.
They shared a certain art as shocking element. Where they parted company was that Mapplethorpe’s hidden oeuvre was brutally honest to the point of where the shock became a vehicle for a kind of revelation that worked because it was so raw and truthful to the artist’s experience.
Where Madonna presented a highly mannered view of sexuality, Mapplethorpe presented real sexuality while making him self almost excruciatingly vulnerable. He turned the darkest side of sex into a declaration of self and a cry from the vault of pain and sorrow. Madonna gave us tamed sexuality. Mapplethorpe gave us sexuality in all of its grandeur, pain, excess and pleasure.
The primary reason Madonna hated this interview with the Times is because it focused on her age. Her total lack of control of what was being said about her did not make it any more palatable. I believe there is a deeper, even more alarming reason, for her discomfort.
When Madonna emerged, her image was that of the scrappy, tough street urchin who was part untamed wild child and sexual adventurer. She was the bad girl, and not ashamed. Her body was weaponized so that no man, or for that matter woman, was going to hold her back or make her feel anything she was not inclined to feel.
Sex was her means of setting herself apart. Music was not going to just hint at sex, it was going to be bolder, brasher and more in your face than ever before. Dance moves were going to be eroticized. Madonna was the youthful pied piper of a new, brazen scarlet letter woman who was proud of her sexual conquests and did not care about reputation or traditional values. She was part throbbing dance moves and to some degree post punk angst mixed with sexuality on a new level not seen in female mainstream performers. To her credit, she did break ground.
Her appropriation of religious symbols, imagery taken directly from the Catholic Church and her personas based on Marilyn Monroe and to some extent Marlene Dietrich, were a blend of ideas that created something not seen in contemporary music. It was sexual, sometimes Hollywood, sometimes raw and at points moving into camp.
Madonna at 60 has found herself facing the realty that the imagery and sexuality that catapulted her to fame is going to be harder to sustain as a more mature performer. Madonna created identities for a younger Madonna. Now she has to face creating one for an older version of herself. What she did previously is not designed for someone facing greater maturity.
Even younger artists, after they have “made it,” deal with the problem of either sticking to what works, or becoming more creatively daring and taking risks. If they stay the same, the audience loses interest. If they innovate, they risk losing their core followers.
The dilemma for those in later phases of a career are even more problematic. Do you stay the same and remain with what works, or do you innovate and break new ground? Another option, the one that some have tried, is to chase whatever is fresh now in the hope of being current. The latter can have damaging consequences. This is particular true if you were an innovated and now you are a follower.
Kurt von Behrmann is an Artist and Writer proudly living and breathing in the great State of Arizona.