A thinkpiece for Penha magazine, 2013
Over the past 30 years, Madonna has made some truly insane career decisions. She posed for a book of pornographic photos, including a shot where she climbed halfway up a wall while neglecting to put any underpants on. She simulated fellatio with a Black Jesus. She had it off with Vanilla Ice. She appeared in some terrible films. She married Guy Ritchie.
Any of these might signal career suicide for most artists, but not Madonna. Her success remains gloriously unpunctured. She has long been ennobled as the Queen of Pop, the most successful female entertainer in history. Each of her rivals over the past 30 years – Cyndi Lauper, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Prince, all of them co-creators of the MTV-driven world we now inhabit – have been brushed aside with a dismissive regal swipe. She’s outlasted them all at the top of the tree, the longest reigning monarch in pop history.
Madonna is often cited as the queen of style-over-substance pop; the role model for a thousand young Pop Idol wannabees. But the truth is that there is no way that someone like Madonna could ever emerge on an X Factor-style reality TV circus. Simon Cowell would run a mile from the mouthy, opinionated eccentric who first touted her wares around record companies in the early 1980s; besides, by the time she aroused any interest in 1982, she would have been older than the age limit for American Idol entrants.
Even when Madonna did emerge, it wasn’t through the prescribed channels of pop. There were no support slots with boybands, no variety shows, no reality TV circuses: instead she entered pop via avant garde dance troupes and the outer reaches of New York’s punk and disco scenes. Her first professional engagement was as a backing dancer for a French disco one-hit-wonder called Patrick Hernandez. She got her taste in junkyard chic and hairy armpits from supporting the British punk band The Slits in New York. She played at scuzzy
downtown venues like CBGBs and supported post-punk groups at Manchester’s Hacienda (where disgruntled locals pelted her with bread rolls).
She developed an eye for the leftfield that has defined her career ever since. Her early collaborators were African-American funk and disco specialists, like Reggie Lucas – a producer who had played guitar with jazz legend Miles Davis and percussionist Mtume – and Chic’s Nile Rodgers. She enlisted a young NuYorican DJ called Jellybean Benitez – who just happened to be her boyfriend at the time – to remix her first album. With unerring magpie instincts, she’d later reach for the weirder end of European electronica: her best work has been recorded with William Orbit, Stuart Price, Mirwais Ahmadzaï or Bloodshy & Avant.
It was easy to dismiss Madonna’s voice in the early days. “Minnie Mouse on helium,” said one particularly snotty reviewer of her first album. She responded by developing a lower register: the squawking soprano of “Holiday” and “Lucky Star” was replaced by the sophisticated contralto of “Papa Don’t Preach”, “Live To Tell” and “Like A Prayer”. “I know that I’m not the best singer and I know that I’m not the best dancer,” she once said. “But I can fucking push people’s buttons and be as provocative as I want.”
Pop music – by which we mean the high-fructose bubblegum aimed at teenagers – ages at several times the rate as rock music. The average teen pop star’s career comes and goes in the time that it takes Radiohead or AC/DC to record a single snare drum track. Pop audiences are itchy for novelty; they require constant sonic and visual innovation (shiny synth sounds, state-of-the-art production, elaborate costumes) to keep dopamine levels high. Few pop stars
last more than a couple of years: the ones that do have to enter a more grizzled pipe-and-slippers phase to their career. They go into music theatre, they present TV shows, they move into music management, or they join the ever-expanding heritage pop circuit. Madonna being top of the tree for 30 years in the capricious world of pop music is like a 100-year-old athlete still winning gold medals.
The control she’s had over her career – the endless regenerations, the changes in persona, the ruthless ability to ditch backing bands and producers – all have more in common with rock’s classic chameleons like David Bowie or Bob Dylan. Madonna’s acting in feature films has often been (unfairly) ridiculed, but her greatest acting performances have been in the world of pop. Just as Bowie and Dylan made up caricatures of their own personas, Madonna’s genius has been to inhabit fantastical versions of herself. The virgin, the whore, the catwalk model, the waspish fag-hag dominatrix, the earth mother, the art-trash raver, the rebel-slut, the
Thatcherite money-digger, the pilled-up aristocratic raver – she has played each brilliantly.
Of course, unlike the Dylans and Bowies of this world, Madonna still has to contend with a brand of casual sexism. The Rolling Stones – all of them eligible for senior citizens bus passes in their native London – might occasionally face the odd snide remark about their age. But when Mick Jagger, 69, sings about making hot love with a sexy lady, there is never any
suggestion that he’s doing it with a woman the same age as him. Menopausal women are not afforded the same liberties.
And, like the Stones, Madonna can still put on a show: theatrical spectaculars that are more like military manoeuvres, pop as an aerobic workout. She is not the only woman of a certain age who still plays vigorous arena shows – Grace Jones (ten years older than Madonna) and Tina Turner (twenty years older) both, sporadically, play the enormodome circuit and
suggest that there is more mileage for Madonna. In her 1993 documentary movie In Bed With Madonna (aka Truth Or Dare), a drunken backing singer disses Madonna behind her back. “Motherfuckin’ world tour, year 2025,” she yells, mockingly, impersonating the 2025 Madonna singing Like A Virgin while suggestively rubbing her boobs. In fact, that now doesn’t seem like a particularly unrealistic scenario: 2025 is now a lot closer to us than 1993.
While her albums and singles can still top the charts and go platinum around the world, there has certainly been some diminution in the Madonna brand. Her last two albums, 2008’s Hard Candy and 2012’s MDNA are both curate’s eggs: moments of pop genius flecked with desperate bouts of catch-up. Recent collaborations with just-past-their-prime American hip hop producers such as The Neptunes, Timbaland and Danja have not been as successful as those with European dance music specialists: Madonna seems more comfortable in the
metronomic environments of rave and house music than she is in the realms of hip hop and R&B.
She still has the instincts for the cutting edge, vampirically feasting on the young blood of Nicki Minaj, MIA and LMFAO, but one gets the distinct impression that the new wave of R&B is too brash, too brazen, too pornographic, too gangsta, too *black* for a woman living in a £6million Georgian townhouse in Marylebone. Even the MDNA title – a pun on the
chemical name for the rave drug Ecstasy, MDMA – sounds somewhat quaint in a
drug world now inhabited by crystal meth, black mamba and miaow miaow.
But Madonna need not worry, because she has carved a niche in pop music that no one else has managed. Pop songs usually come unmoored from their fixtures – we dance to a great pop single because it reflects *our* experiences and memories, not those of the artist. So successfully has Madonna branded her music that, when we sing along to Into The Groove, Ray Of Light or Hung Up, we are celebrating Madonna – her Nietzschean ambition, her work ethic, her indomitable spirit. It’s all about her, not you. That’s a mix of marketing
nous and pop genius that only Madonna could manage.