Thursday, March 14, 2013

Jusify My Love: Reading Madonna

This is an essay I originally wrote way back in 1993 for the late not much lamented and far too short lived countercultural Provo, Utah newspaper the Deseret Free Press of which I was the managing editor and the lone "Gentile", the Mormon term for non-Mormons, on the staff. I was in Utah--where I fell in love with the Rockies--because I was doing research on Mormonism. The Deseret Free Press was an attempt to do long form and opinionated journalism in the buckle of the Mormon belt, Utah County. It lasted for four issues because we, me and my three other colleagues, could not find advertisers for our brand of long form opinionated journalism and ran out of money. During its short run I wrote a critical piece on the handling of the Branch Davidian fiasco in Waco, my take on what it was like to be a "Gentile" in "Zion", and a review of the Nonesuch performance of Gorecki's 3rd Symphony. RIP. As you will see this essay shows the strong influence on me of the semiology I picked up at Indiana University where I was a student in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Speaking of IU and my beloved Bloomington, I remember hearing to "Oh Father" for the first time while ice skating at the public rink on the southside of Bloomington, Indiana, a city I found very difficult leaving and still dream of returning home to. It was a great song to ice skate to. So without further ado...

Yes, I admit it, this dedicated follower of “progressive” and “classical” music, is fascinated by Madonna. Of course, the value one places on a phenomenon, be it Madonna, the Gilded Age, Metallica, or social theory, as Max Weber noted many moons ago, influences ones interpretation of the objects of ones intellectual and academic gaze. One generally engages a “text” that one finds fascinating in the first place. Hence, one's reading of that “text” often reflects one’s pre-textual positive or negative ideological predilections toward the “text” one reads in the first place.

Madonna has engaged and fascinated many commentators from music critics, to rock fans, from academics to cultural critics since she appeared on the scene in the 1970s. Dissertations have been written on the “Madonna phenomenon” becoming themselves part of the very phenomenon they are trying to describe. These critiques whether negative or laudatory, are shot through with a rationalised hermeneutics where one sees in Madonna what one wants to see. This essay is no different. I write on Madonna because I am fascinated by her, because I find something of value in her and her “art”.

My first image, as far as I can remember, of Madonna is from her video for "Like a Virgin". In retrospect this video seems to embody everything I have come to think of when I think of Madonna. There is, or it seems to me there is in the “Like a Virgin” video, a wonderfully ironic critique of the female virgin/whore binary so typical of western culture, with its Madonna, her name itself feeds off of this binary, who is simultaneously pure and soiled and who, as a result, undermines the virgin/whore dichotomy itself by becoming both the virgin and the whore simultaneously.

Madonna followed the “Like a Virgin” video with what seems to me further ironic commentaries on stereotypes and caricatures of women in Western culture. In “Material Girl” Madonna draws on Marilyn Monroe in Howard Hawk’s film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to critique the dumb blonde stereotype and caricature of a woman whose only goal in life is to find a man with money whom she can marry by going off with a man, at the end of the video (the film within a film within a film) who clearly is not a man of means. “Material Girl” was followed by “Open Your Heart” which critiqued the woman behind glass for men's eyes only motif in modern society as the bohemian Madonna freed from the glass cage of patriarchy dances up the street with a young boy at the end of the video in a return to innocence (or is it a comment on how one day that young boy too will lose his innocence and find vicarious solace in peep shows?). Both videos, it must be said, have some of have your cake and eat it too sort of quality for they portray, in the case of “Material Girl” a diamond hungry Madonna and, in the case of “Open Your Heart” a scantily clad and sexed up Madonna dancing mostly for the male gaze during most of the video only to seemingly free Madonna from these caricatures and stereotypes at the very end of each video.

While critiquing or seeming to critique the role of women in contemporary western society, each of these videos plays on the eroticism and sexuality of Madonna. Sexual double entendres weave their way throughout her songs and videos as in “Open your Heart” where heart and key are not only the heart and key of everyday discourse, but also the sexual organs of male and female, and the childlike key which will free our heroine from the seedy world of the porno carousel and the patriarchal gaze. Perhaps this too is having your cake and eating it to for it allows males and females to gaze longingly at Madonna’s body and feminists to read the endings of each video as liberation from stereotypes and caricatures within which women have been locked for centuries.

Eventually multicultural themes and themes of tolerance began to crop up in Madonna’s work. There is the plea for parental tolerance in the face of pre-marital pregnancies in “Papa Don't Preach”. There's the Hispanic textures of “La Isla Bonita” which reveal a multicultural America of whites, Hispanics, and African-Americans. There's the play on interethnic love laced with the strains of black gospel, Catholicism, and forbidden sexuality, a potent and controversial mixture that even corporate America (in this case Pepsi Cola) could not handle when push came to shove, in “Like a Prayer”. There's the exploration of the difficult relations between father and daughter in “Oh Father”. Finally, there’s the gay subculture that is drawn into Madonna's multiethnic and multivocal universe in “Vogue”.

What seems clear from all these videos is that Madonna has a chameleon-like ability to both reflect her times and manipulate them via the media and through cultural bricolage. Madonna is a floating symbol or signifier, a floating signifier who, in a world in which symbols refer only to other symbols themselves, attaches herself to a variety of symbolic forms, in particular those related to sexuality, innocence, controversy, and fashion. Madonna has been able to manipulate cultural simulations thereby selling herself in her varying image forms to a consumer hungry society of record buyers and dedicated followers of the latest controversies and the latest fashions. Madonna herself then is symbolic of the consumer ordered symbolic form that late capitalist society has taken, a symbolic form in which the meanings of symbols are largely determined by their fit, their conjuncture, with consumer society. And in this consumer society nothing sells better than sex and controversy and fashion.

Such creative re-invention becomes necessary in a world of consumption with built in redundancies, in a universe where only the “new” sells and the “old” fades away into obscurity. Over the years Madonna has managed to re-create her image from New York bohemian to the blonde sex goddess, from the I am ready for my close-up vogeur to her Heidi-like pigtailed exhibitionist. Many critics have pointed out that no other “star” in recent years has so successfully surmounted the difficulties of the redundancy built into western consumer culture. These image transformations have been so successful in part because they were tied to controversies related to Madonna's sensual and sexual persona(e). The song and video for "Justify my love", for instance, were highly controversial because of their sexual content. Music Television (MTV), the major advertiser of rock videos and the images they convey in the United States, refused to run it. Here was an erotic Madonna, reveling in sexuality and her need for sexual fulfillment. This was not the bohemian Madonna of an earlier era who wore her sexuality, her lace undergarments, on her shoulders so to speak. This was not the black garbed, bangled, and necklaced Madonna of the early 1980s. Rather this was the erotic, disrobed Madonna of the 1990s, a Madonna we would see more of in her controversial picture book, Sex (1992).

Madonna’s transformations of personae were inextricably linked to controversies, real or manufactured, in Madonna's life, controversies that were often associated with sex and sexual liberation in some way, shape, or form (including Madonna’s and Sandra Bernhard’s are they or aren’t they controversy). Eventually, these persona changes and controversies became a part of the very cultural mythology of Madonna herself and an eager public awaited and consumed Madonna’s next personality shift and the controversies associated with it.

As is the case with so many of the “texts” of the late capitalist West, there appear to be contradictions within the Madonna text. Madonna's universe, as noted above, is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, peopled by African-Americans, Hispanics, and Gays. This is a far cry from the Norman Rockwellish WASP dominated portrayals of an earlier America. Additionally, there is a liberatory quality in the Madonna textual universe in the form of sensuality and sexuality (e.g., the videos of "Express Yourself" and "Justify my love"). Her Catholic sensuality, as noted by Camille Paglia and other commentators, her joy in her body, her reveling in her own sexuality (whether bi- or hetero-), and her comfortableness with both, is worlds away from, as well as a critique of, the staid Victorian sexual ideologies that still seem to continue to affect and afflict so much of America even today. As Paglia notes, even those who wish to liberate women from the patriarchal sexual ideologies of the past end up re-puritanising women's sexuality and end up hiding women's sensuality and sexuality behind a veil of moralism (a la Andrea Dworkin). Not Madonna, however. Madonna, and those who followed in her wake, are the very epitome of third wave feminists, women who did their ever changing liberated thing while looking sexy while doing it.

For Paglia, Madonna's sensuality derives from her Catholicism and her Italian background, both more attuned to sensuality and sexual expression. Both are quite different from the perceptions of sexual frigidity that some “discover” among North Europeans and Brits, among WASPS, myself included. So while Madonna reflects perhaps the pinnacle of consumer capitalism with its disposable commodities, where even individual images become redundant, she also undermines many of this culture's sacred patriarchal cows. Or does she? Does sex and the controversy surrounding her sexual escapades become just another disposable product in our heroine’s universe? Is Madonna's multicultural and multiethnic world simply another momentary ploy to raise the eyebrows of her target audience? Is it a means to sell product?

Sources, further reading, and further listening:
Paglia, Sex, Art, and American Culture
Kaplan, Rocking Around the Clock
Allen (ed), Channels of Discourse
Frith, Sound Effects
Baudrillard, Simulations
Madonna, The Immaculate Collection

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