In late 1983, an unfamiliar, high, piercing female voice emerged on American pop radio with increasing and puzzling frequency. Shortly thereafter, a sexually obsessed, self-involved, and irregularly clad young woman writhed on music video screens in homes and in dance clubs in urban areas across the United States imploring "Everybody" to dance her dance of liberation. The intriguing figure with the jarring voice turned out to be a white neo-disco singer who frequented the bohemian enclaves of lower Manhattan during the early 1980s, seemingly just trying to make it in show business. When asked her real ambition, the young woman told a stunned Dick Clark: "To rule the world." Madonna Louise Ciccone meant it. Over the course of the next decade, the self-proclaimed "Boy Toy" fought to dominate every corner of the entertainment world with seductive films, consistently successful music, and disturbingly magnetic public gestures, while at the same time expressing a more generous desire to convert everyone to her cause of personal freedom.
Madonna's rise to "world domination" did not come in a vacuum. The Bay City, Michigan native first appeared as a mere aftershock to a series of large and small pop explosions that rocked the music world during the 1980s. After Michael Jackson's thunderous transformation from former child prodigy to Elvis-sized icon, the next tremor came from thirtyish female singer Cyndi Lauper who couched her broad-based feminism in a cloak of gentle weirdness and cute, cuddly charm. Lauper was soon swept aside by the triumph of the young black musician, writer, producer, and singer from Minneapolis once called Prince, who pushed an ethos of sex as salvation in his film Purple Rain. While Prince had been performing and fomenting nervous unrest over his themes of overt sexuality at his Warner Bros. record label for several years, it wasn't until he found his place in the post-Jackson hysteria that he crossed over to the mainstream. Not long after Prince's biggest pop moment, the nearly middle-aged blue-collar rocker Bruce Springsteen found himself sucked into the post-Thriller whirlwind. Unlike artist's like Prince, Jackson, and Elvis Presley, whose fame seemed to cause them personal strife, Madonna seemed especially capable of handling her own rise to celebrity.
Madonna Ciccone had a bittersweet childhood in a suburban town in Michigan, losing her mother to breast cancer when Madonna was five years old. As a young adult, Madonna left her studies at the University of Michigan to pursue her career with vigor in New York. Seemingly impervious to most criticism, Madonna trusted her own instincts as she embarked on her own path.
Madonna's initial acceptance by the critical mainstream of rock was, to say the least, chilly. Madonna originally appeared too glossy, too egocentric for the left-leaning, humanist rock critical establishment. It was easy for such critics to like Prince—himself a sexually obsessed, ego-centric male ex-disco singer. He was described as "daring," and "challenging." He too had a decidedly less than charming voice, was capable of producing glossy records, yet his violence and machismo saved him from the scorn experienced by Madonna. Even his desire to leave R&B behind in favor of a rock style so whitened that MTV played his videos before they would touch those of the "too black" Michael Jackson earned him immediate praise as another great barrier-smasher in the rock pantheon. Prince was the critics' darling years before he hit it really big.
That Madonna accomplished similar maneuvers from the opposite direction initially earned her derision. When the general music buying and listening public connected immediately with her, the dissenters wrote her off as a concoction of pure music-biz hype. By early 1985, however, this became an increasingly laborious task. After Madonna's first single, "Everybody," crossed over from the dance charts to Billboard's "Hot 100" and her first and second albums, Madonna and Like a Virgin, had become the latest post-Thriller sensations, she demanded some serious attention.
Madonna is the one performer of all those caught in the mid-1980s pop mania who used it successfully to make her point. Madonna relished the massive attention, knew how to use it to further her personal and artistic interests, and literally had no other ambition than to dominate popular entertainment for as long as possible. If it meant hiring Michael Jackson's manager, she did that; if it meant creating disconcerting publicity stunts that deliberately subverted religious, sexual, and racial mores, she also did that. "Unlike the others, I'd do anything/I'm not the same; I have no shame" she sang in "Burning Up," a single from Madonna, her first album. She courted mass attention and her pursuit of it became an essential part of her presentation. Madonna quickly found her voice and it was and remained for a long time a dead-on connection with her audience. Her work needed no further justification. Her personal striving, at first glance so redolent of an 1980s Reagan-era ethic, contrasted intriguingly with her clear ambition to share this sense of limitless possibility with her largely adolescent female audience.
Even as Madonna achieved sensation status, she continued to have critics. Rolling Stone magazine accused Madonna of having "one guiding emotion: ambition." While it is difficult to recall any male rocker taken to task for committing that particular infraction, Rolling Stone leveled a worse claim: that she had "used her boyfriends" in her climb to the top. "The men who have gotten close to her—tough guys a lot of them—have gotten their hearts broken as often as not." Unlike many other women, Madonna seemed aware of and able to use her sexuality to further her own ideas.
As her popularity increased, many tried to find comparisons and influences. Some tried to equate Madonna to Marilyn Monroe, especially given the 1984 "Material Girl" video, with her take on "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." But Madonna soon made it clear that she was really nothing at all like Monroe. Madonna projected an image of the self-possessed woman who will get out of life exactly what she wants regardless of what any man might want her to be. She conveyed a strength of will rarely matched by any other pop singer, woman or man.
Madonna had the ability to stir violent emotions. As the years progressed, she used this ability in increasingly daring ways. In one particularly audacious episode, Madonna used a 1989 video for the song "Like A Prayer" (also featured in a simultaneously released Pepsi-Cola commercial) to create a firestorm of barely suppressed racial and sexual anxiety. In the video, Madonna depicted a black man crucified for trying to save a white woman from a gang of white rapists. Catholics were outraged, and Pepsi pulled the more innocuous ad. With 1986's "Papa Don't Preach," Madonna offers an unorthodox pro-choice message rejecting abortion as her personal choice. In another 1986 video, Madonna played with a more serious taboo and depicted a pre-pubescent boy lusting after the sexually potent female pop star. In the early 1990s, Madonna depicted lesbianism in the video for "Like A Prayer," and suffered an interrogation of sorts on ABC's "Nightline" program. She later remarked in a taped interview with MTV that it felt like being called into "the principal's office." She acquitted herself by defending her first amendment rights to artistic expression on the program. By the early 1990s, everyone had an opinion about Madonna. People were either attracted to her or violently repulsed by her. Some even felt themselves pulled in both directions at once.
But in her 1991 rockumentary Truth or Dare, Madonna seemed to lose her focus and simply tried to create controversy for its own sake. And though her book called, simply, Sex, featured a series of sexually explicit and sexually violent photographs, its publication elicited indifference instead of outrage. It wasn't that "she went too far," as some thought; it was more that she seemed to be going in circles, trapped in her own idea of her cultural significance.
She did recover from the episode, and continued to have consistent success during the mid-to-late 1990s, a time when many artists were having trouble selling records. By century's end, it was clear for the first time that perhaps Madonna's music was what mattered most of all. It did not take her long to recoup and redouble her efforts in this area. When she made films, she seriously considered the music. Her part in Evita remains a musical triumph before it is anything else. Despite her more controlled public presence after the birth of her first daughter in 1996, Madonna's defiance, her shamelessly violent sexuality, her basic honesty of spirit, as well as her ambition, continued to permeate her music. And her first two albums had created an indomitable radio presence that, by the late 1990s, never entirely subsided.
During her rise to fame, Madonna had resisted the censure of some traditionalist "feminists" who insisted her embrace of pure sexuality was counterproductive and had become one of the first artists to stir the cauldron of "political correctness." Her initial self-titled album presented an entirely new persona for a female pop singer. Unlike Cyndi Lauper, Madonna would never write a line like the one Lauper changed for her version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" which claimed "we're not the fortunate ones." Cyndi had imposed a feminist subtext on a song written by a man. But Madonna already considered herself quite fortunate; she reveled in her womanhood even as she drew the very concept into question. She negotiated the idea of sexism carefully: not directly confronting it using traditional means yet never denying its reality. Madonna continued to wear her boy-toy belt buckle beneath her bare navel in the face of resentment on the part of sexists, ultra-conservatives, and protectors of feminism alike.
But in the 1990s, Madonna became the new darling of young feminists who found her work to be a sophisticated critique of post-seventies patriarchy. Young academics padded their curriculum vitas with their "Madonna studies" and this too became a point of controversy among conservative cultural critics. While this is unusual in pop music, it is not unheard of in pop culture; Mae West put across a very similar persona in much tougher times. Cyndi Lauper appealed to a mass audience because she was simply able to cut her feminism with an endearing weirdness and cuddliness. Madonna has never been cuddly; she is not weird either, merely offensive.
Madonna carries this defiant offensiveness right into her singing. Although critics have always questioned Madonna's talent, her longevity has proved the cynics wrong. Madonna's singing is not formally soulful, not tasteful, finally, not actually pleasant. Her voice cuts right through a listener so that the listener is forced to either become involved with her singing or be repelled enough to turn her off—the voice's very offensiveness is absolutely essential to its power. In this she has perhaps more in common with punk originator Johnny Rotten than with master vocalists like Michael Jackson or Sam Cooke or Tammi Terrell or any of a number of others. The sharp, childlike, high and husky tones communicate all the sexuality, violence, self-possession, and extreme confidence of the image she projects. In her music, the image, the ideas, the voice are all a totality, inseparable.
Madonna sums up her achievement on "Dress You Up," a very early single and video where she clarifies the breadth, contradiction, and ultimate scope of her ambition. In the complete version of the video, we see what at first appears to be typical rockumentary pre-concert footage of young fans, dressed "up" as Madonna, excitedly heading for a concert. Unlike other similar "live concert" videos by other artists that appeared at this time, there is nothing self-congratulatory about this one; Madonna was out to dress her fans up in whole new way of looking at themselves and their world. Madonna's projection here, as elsewhere, is essentially about freedom—personal freedom, freedom of expression, perhaps most importantly a freedom from fear. Critic Dave Marsh pointed out early on in his Rock and Roll Confidential newsletter that while Cyndi Lauper sings of girls who want to have fun, Madonna is a girl actually having fun without regard for the consequences. The consequences are, of course, of great importance, but Madonna has not solved the riddles of all that which divides and unites men and women. What she did is to bravely attempt to crash through some very limiting barriers to understanding what such freedoms might be about.
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Editors of Rolling Stone. Madonna: The Rolling Stone Files: The Ultimate Compendium of Interviews, Articles, Facts, and Opinions from the Files of Rolling Stone. New York, Hyperion, 1997.
Metz, A., and C. Benson, editors. The Madonna Companion: Two Decades of Commentary. New York, Schirmer Books, 1999.
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