Desperately Seeking Madonna

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In tribute to Like a Virgin, released twenty-five years ago yesterday, we present this 2002 Nerve rumination on Madonna, by Emma Taylor of Em & Lo fame. — ed.

I’m seven months shy of thirty, and until recently I thought I was handling it pretty well. There are certain things you expect in your twenty-ninth year — you know, baby panic, breasts sagging, no longer getting ID’d for smokes — and I was well prepared. I quit smoking, joined a gym, and took an apartment in the East Village, where a white picket fence, two kids and a husband would be absurdly out of place. It’s not quite what I imagined back when I was eighteen, but then again, being a stay-at-home mom with a position of responsibility at the local church doesn’t exactly mesh with my schedule right now. Besides, I’ve managed to make something of a career out of dishing amateur sex advice, and as everyone knows, sex is one of those things that does improve with a woman’s age. 

But what I was not prepared for, what really swept me away, you might say, was that Madonna would not be there for me. As I have moved from priss to prurience, nave to Nerve, she has always been a little kinkier, a little cooler, a little more interested in sex. (Okay, a lotkinkier, a lot cooler, and a lot more interested in sex.) Like a benevolent fairy godmother — albeit one who looked like a godfather in drag — she was there at every Big Moment, and she stuck with it (unlike Judy Blume, who stopped showing up right after Forever taught me that first-time sex leaves a bloody stain on a white rug). Madonna was there the day I learned the definition of "virgin" and realized that sex was an actual act with a before and after: at a co-ed sleep-out in my friend’s backyard, the boys blasted "Like a Virgin" from their tent to make some kind of point, and my friend’s older sister made like Webster’s for us. 

(I think the boys’ displeasure stemmed from our decision to spend the night choreographing a dance routine to "Material Girl" rather than visiting with the opposite sex.) Though it would be at least another decade before I understood the true meaning of "boytoy" and "bondage," I still managed to dress the part. In fact, I wore Madonna’s stupid black-rubber bracelets twice: the first time in the ’80s when she made them cool, and the second time a few years ago when the ’80s became cool. 

Madonna taught me that girls can talk dirty, play dirty and love-’em-and-leave-’em with the worst of the men. I never cared that she shed identities faster than a jewel thief on the run, because that was what growing up felt like: every Madonna outfit you donned was a possibility, and every Madonna song you lip-synced in your bedroom was a new mantra. She wasn’t a role model, exactly, but I didn’t need one of those (I was already well-behaved enough for my entire grade); she was, rather, a benchmark. If the sexual universe was a finite place, then she was one of its back walls — and if it wasn’t, then her constellation of sexual possibilities was as far as I wanted to see. And I liked the fact that Madonna’s star status was barely tarnished by her abysmal lack of acting skills; it was proof positive that she was her own damn genre. 

Even as I moved into my twenties and started to find some of Madonna’s earlier antics (like faking fellatio on an Orangina bottle) a tad juvenile, I remained a staunch evangelist. Something told me that she, too, now found those antics juvenile, and that her sexual appetite had taken a turn for the gourmet. So what if she adopted a plummy English accent — I figured it was just a side effect of her sponge-like ability to absorb what was happening around her, all the while convincing you that she thought of it first. Yeah, I know she stole "voguing" from the gay men, but it wasn’t like I was ever going to take time out from studying for AP Calculus to scope the downtown clubs. She made herself the medium. 

Even when Ms. Ciccone decided to tie the knot, I didn’t feel abandoned. There was nothing in her contract that said a fairy godmother couldn’t wed. Besides, she flipped the bird to the biological clock by having a kid first and then marrying a guy eleven years her junior. 

No, what really pissed me off was when Madonna started to act like wifedom was cool. And not cool because she had mutated it in some way, but cool simply because She had done it. No way, the ultimate sex icon wants to be called "Mrs. Ritchie"?! How controversial! It’s like watching that kind of excruciatingly annoying performance art where the "artist" sits in silence on stage for an hour to watch the audience squirm.That’s deep, man. 

If you’re looking for an on-screen metaphor for the demise of the Divine Miss M, then look no further than Swept Away. I watched the entire ninety-three minutes (it felt like days) through laced fingers as if it were a horror movie, blushing with second-hand embarrassment. (And trust me, I’m easily entertained: I shed a tear during the "mother scene" inCrossroads and the "hospital scene" in Coyote Ugly.Swept Away is a remake of the 1974 Italian film in which a rich American bitch is stranded on a desert island with a hunky Italian fisherman. You might have heard that the film is "controversial" and "not very PC" and "raw" — kind of like the Madonna we remember fondly. Except that in the 1974 version, the bitch falls for the fisherman when he rapes her; in the 2002 version, she falls for him when he doesn’t. (Oh, right, plot spoiler — sorry. Here’s another: this movie sucks balls.) You’re supposed to be shocked that Madonna gets slapped around and beat up on screen, except she’s so fucking buff that mostly you’re just thinking, "How is he still winning?" And she’s so whiny that when she received a particularly brutal right hook to the cheek, the guy sitting behind me blurted out "Yeah!" 

All the nudity and raucous sex scenes in the original have been distilled into one brief nipple shot, two bare ass scenes and some G-rated rolling around in the sand à laFrom Here to Eternity. You’d think that if you were stranded on a desert island for six weeks with a Mediterranean hottie, you’d go topless at least once, right? Unless, perhaps, hubby was spying on you from a camera six feet away and calling "That’s a wrap!" whenever he felt like it. 

Madonna plays Amber, a chain-smoking, lizard-skinned, foul-mouthed capitalist in a loveless marriage (a.k.a. Material Girl suffers mid-life crisis). Adriano Giannini (in the role his father played in the original) stars as Giuseppe, a handsome (in that swarthy-hairy way), poor-but-happy Communist fisherman. It’s not hard to figure out why she falls for him once they’re on the deserted island: he’s the ultimate alpha man, catching fish in his bare hands and making fire from two twigs. Oh yeah, and he slaps her when she gets annoying — but only ’cause he’s secretly in love with her and knows she needs it, of course. What I can’t figure out is what he could possibly see in her — after he’s smoked all her butts and literally beaten the bitchiness out of her, all that’s left is a sniveling, used-up mess of a woman who’s too scared to leave their island for the real world. (And so she should be — have you heard the advance word on this movie?) Is it because she’s Madonna and yet she calls him "Master" as she kisses his feet and thanks him for the chance to clean his clothes, is that why we’re supposed to believe he could fall so hard? How controversial! 

When Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie discuss the making of this movie, they’re like two doting parents who refuse to shut up about their "adorable" new wrinkly baby. And ultimately that’s what makes this movie Madonna’s worst: you can’t dismiss it as a lark, and you can’t pretend that she doesn’t care what anyone thinks about it, because she tells you she wants so hard to make her husband proud of her acting skills. All of a sudden Madonna wants to excel in someone else’s genre — and she wants someone to respect her for it. What happened to making him respect how you feel, Maddy? 

Madonna was never supposed to sit back and pretend to be "Madonna" while living the life of the ordinary — that’s what the rest of us do. She was supposed to be the lord of the dirty dance into her seventies, busting taboos along the way. Why’d she have to go and get so sated at forty-four? As abruptly as Judy Blume once departed, Madonna relocated to England (because What-a-Guy Ritchie didn’t want to leave old Blighty) and set up house, putting her stamp of approval on wifely obedience. She recently admitted that she hasn’t learned how to drive in England and that returning to L.A. makes her feel "like a grown-up" because she can drive. You go, girl! What do you do when you reach your end-of-the-world benchmark and she’s baking a cake?   

Emma Taylor Emma Taylor is one half of Nerve legends "Em & Lo," now to be found at emandlo.com.
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