First there was Madonna. To explore how she shaped the music industry as we know it today… to explore how with the “Material Girl” video Western woman evolves before our eyes… to explore that four-decade long artistic project which surpasses Andy Warhol’s in scope… would take another, much longer blog. I’ll instead focus on her descendants who’ve emerged this century and built on and diversified her vision, while touching on her confused dialogue with them.
A Madonna-inspired pop experience is not an album but an era, spanning music, visual art, dance, fashion and more. An era is usually spearheaded by an album, but doesn’t conclude till the last single is released. Eras are appraised by their coherence and meaning, each one possessing its own delicious taste, and the transition from one era to another should be natural and seamless. The young artists I’ll explore are visual artists, only satisfied once they’ve achieved beauty… they flit between personae, though beneath their masks should have a recognisable identity which suffuses all their work… their music is ingenuous and melodic – it’s not literature as the lyrics are secondary to the melody, which is pop’s poetry, the world’s new poetry. Theirs is an extravert’s medium, and is democratic – most of them are visionaries who’d have been excluded from art in an earlier age due to their background and lack of formal education… their broad education consists in experience, fashion magazines and Madonna, and their aliveness is seen in their dance and their eye. They reject the stultifying side of modern life and champion a transgressive wildness that was once the territory of novelists… they’ve done more to empower the masses and advance social views than any other figures in our culture… they’ve consciously, successfully defended the sexual revolution, all while retaining a negative capability. A carefree appropriation of anything and everything is part of their incarnation of liberty, and while their world is sensuous, their greatest work makes us think – as they work in such a young tradition we haven’t yet trained ourselves to see all its meaning. Contrivance is a charge often levelled at them, but art is contrivance… their best work reflects the vitality of being alive more than most things in modern culture. The staggering logistical complexities of all aspects of the pop experience – particularly touring – demonstrate how a pop act is a vast alchemy in which the star herself is in some instances just the beguiling figurehead… and she’s always an entertainer… not precluding art! The degree to which artists can take themselves seriously while avoiding pretension depends on their talent, certainly, but the very best ones never lose their sense of fun. I’ll ignore unsuccessful ‘pop’ acts as pop is by definition popular… if an artist wants to endure, the more time they spend in the stratosphere of mainstream consciousness the better, and if they’re serious they’ll do everything in their power to ensure their truth touches as many people as possible.
Back to Madonna. Her work from the 2000s, while deserving of critical attention, is blemished by her anxiety over the younger women who offered up their own fresher identities with the confidence and tenacity that previously only Madonna had had. At times, she takes her reputation in her stride. In the great “Me Against Me Music” video from 2003, an elegant, mature Madonna looms on screens over the young Britney Spears, who tries to prove her worth with a lively dance routine. But when the unwitting Spears searches for her mentor she’s teased and evaded, finally vanquished and left to agonise over the greater star’s influence. Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005-6), an unabashed dance record, succeeds by refusing to compete with younger contemporaries who were expanding pop sonically. Instead it innovates within its subgenre, borrowing from Kylie Minogue (always a more interesting Madonna clone than Spears), and such a concession allows Madonna to find her last true nirvana. She also cultivated an angelic image around that time, compounded by her high-profile philanthropy, which entrenched her status as the divine mother of pop:
At Live 8
The beginnings of her slide into denial over her age are seen in Hard Candy (2008), a sleazy, slightly desperate era which apes and exaggerates Nelly Furtado’s Loose (2006-7). But Madonna’s most extraordinary achievements in the flawed final chapter of her career are her tours, where she can most uninhibitedly celebrate her legacy, and where her money and unrivalled position in the industry result in far more ambitious productions than those of any starlets. I believe her performance of “Vogue” on the Sticky and Sweet Tour displays more energy and beauty than anything we’ve seen from Beyoncé or Lady Gaga. It’s also worth acknowledging that Madonna’s continued stamina throughout the decade demonstrates the consciousness of her entire artistic statement. Whereas Michael Jackson, whose embodiment of mystery was at first so magical, was drowning in personal traumas by the 2000s, Madonna’s focus and reinvention confirm how she pursued fame in order to prod it; from her exalted position she could play to and challenge the general public’s conceptions of celebrities and icons. But, again, that’s an exploration for another time!
Over a decade after “Me Against the Music”, “Bitch I’m Madonna” (Rebel Heart, 2014-5) shows her identity crisis unresolved, although her palpable frustration in the song and video are offset by her effortless appropriation of the artists who feature in the latter, including Katy Perry and even Beyoncé. It points to what Madonna has always known: that she must never apologise for being herself, an artist to whom every woman pop star and a great many other women today are indebted.