This question is more complicated than it looks.
by Alex Heigl and Laura Barcella
Madonna has a new album, MDNA, out this month, but more likely to inspire debate is Madonna & Me, a collection of Madonna-related personal essays by female writers. (Long-term Nerve readers will appreciate a piece by Erin Bradley, our original Miss Information. Hi, Erin!) To finally settle the question of Madonna's artistic worth (long a subject of controversy), we invited Madonna & Me editor Laura Barcella to face off against our own Alex Heigl. Alex is donning his rhetorical rocket-bra as we write this intro. Okay, blast off!
Madonna is an empty figurehead
Madonna is bad. Objectively. Scientifically. Find me a person who loves Madonna's music, and they are either A) a Chelsea DJ, B) European, or C) a music journalist.
Madonna is the ultimate triumph of style over substance. Her voice is truly workmanlike (by which I mean, one, it sounds like singing is hard for her and two, she occasionally sounds like a man), and her songs, stripped of whatever flavor-of-the-week sonic dressing she's decided to apply at the moment, aren't particularly memorable. Straining, I can remember the hook to "Lucky Star," but that's mostly because of that scene in Snatch. Oh, and "Like a Virgin," I guess, but really only the chorus and that coquettish "Hey!"
Anyway, every showboating bird-of-paradise pop-tart saturating the market with their Dr. Luke-written hooks and glitter-stained cleavage is a direct spiritual heir to Madonna. You know how it was such a big deal that an "unconventional-looking" singer like Adele had such a huge year in 2011? That "convention" was established by Madonna. You don't have Nina Simones, Chaka Khans, and Arethas anymore. Hell, you don't have Joan Baezs, Joni Mitchells, or even Pat Benatars. Their death knell was Madonna writhing around on the floor at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards.
Part of what obscures her artistic bankrupcy is the fact that people find her so damn interesting. Which is bizarre: I mean, yes, she's interesting academically, but do you know what else is academically interesting? Fucking everything. Name me literally anything, and I'll find you a doctoral thesis on it. Rigorous scrutiny and dissection does not magically make something worthwhile to the larger community. Madonna's made a career out of pushing the public's buttons just to see what will work, and then backing off whenever her bottom line is threatened, as she did following the very public backlash against her 1994 appearance on Dave Letterman's show. That doesn't make her an artist, that makes her an opportunist. She's not an innovator; she's a shrewd businesswoman with a keen sense of how to manipulate the public and ride changing trends. That's not artistic, that's parasitic.
But as I'm getting drunk on my own vitriol here, there's a much easier way to settle this: the music. Seriously, does anyone actually love Madonna's music? Not "love" as in, "I'm dancing around shirtless and 'Ray of Light' is speaking to me right now," but "love" as in, "You know what? I haven't listened to Erotica in forever. I'm going straight home tonight and listening that sucker all the way through." Because it's easy for me to talk about why Madonna is terrible without addressing her actual work (or, for that matter, her unbearable movies, her assumed British accent, her grating pseudo-mysticism), but if you strip away all the academic stuff, all you're left with is a bunch of bad club jams.
Madonna is an inspiration
I'm a longtime Madonna-phile, but even I can admit: not all of Madge's boppy dance-pop creations have been good. She doesn't have the strongest voice; she's certainly not a belter of the Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston variety. But so what? As Alex acknowledges when dismissing the "academic stuff" journalists have been writing about Madonna for years, when it comes to Ms. Ciccone's impact, her meaning, it's never truly been about her musical prowess. Madonna's thirty-year cultural chokehold is about the tangled, beautiful knot of contradictions that comprises the woman herself: the attitude, the intellect, the sex, the audacity. (She's never pretended to be, well, incredibly invested in actual singing.)
She's tried on many faces and phases as she grew into the Madonna we see today: a fifty-three-year-old superwoman tirelessly promoting her successful new album. Despite all her costume changes and image revamps, part of what's made Madonna so resonant is her steadfast determination to always be unapologetically ambitious. Back in 1984, she was upfront about her life's goal when she coyly told Dick Clark on American Bandstand that she wanted "to rule the world." Note that her intention was not to be the world's greatest singer or actor or dancer or model or mom or wife. Her goal was conquest. And somehow… she succeeded.
How many people out there could even dream of achieving success on a scale of such epic proportions? (She's sold 300-million-plus records.) How many people out there would dare to confess, on live TV, that their life's purpose was nothing less than to own the planet? Um, not many. Was her proclamation tongue-in-cheek? Maybe. Grandiose? Sure. Egocentric? Probably. But Madonna's cockiness was irresistable — revolutionary, even — not just to me, but to thousands of other women who grew up watching her in the '80s. (Given what I just finished editing, you can trust me on this.)
This may be starting to shift (slooooooooowly), but American culture has long urged women to shut up, smile sweetly, and put others' needs ahead of their own — to prioritize the domestic sphere over work, success, or power. When I was in grade school in the '80s, most of my teachers encouraged us female students to start thinking about possible careers, but I also absorbed the societal message that no matter how successful I eventually became, I should prepare to shove it all aside if the husband-and-baby bit came along. Madonna brazenly flouted those gender conventions. She was single and in her mid-twenties (practically a spinster!) when she released her self-titled first album in 1983, and not only was she honest about her lofty plans for fame, she was unabashed in her expressions of sexual openness. Being, like, seven back then, my girl friends and I didn't realize it, but it was actually a pretty big deal when Madonna sang about being "like a virgin" (not an actual virgin) as she rolled around the stage, sullying the Catholic marriage tradition in a white wedding dress.
History probably won't look back on Madonna as the greatest singer of our time. (It shouldn't, anyway.) But it just might regard her as the most important female pop star of our time — one who helped an entire generation of girls rethink everything from sex to style, self-esteem to success. It doesn't get much bigger than that.
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