18 May 2008

Madonna: A Comment

The new fascination with the diva as kitsch, a laughingstock, a reptile in a dress who cussed like a trooper and threw drunken tantrums in public places, was the result, not only of a contradiction intrinsic to the gay sensibility, but of a contradiction intrinsic to two extremely important things, to the very nature of glamour and the medium of film itself […] They provided the impetus for a form of gay mockery that originated in our disillusionment with our once “empowering” role models who, as they became older and lost their position of preeminence in American society, could not sustain their prestige in the eyes of their gay fans […] What happened to the real diva also happened to the imaginary one, so that the fate of these two mythical beings was closely linked. They had become part of us; we had incorporated their style onto our own. When they declined, we declined; when they were discredited, we were discredited.

— Daniel Harris

Madonna recently released her latest album, Hard Candy, to decidedly mixed reviews, the strangely overriding note seemingly being “Isn’t it great she can still walk and talk?” I am hardly an avid Madonna fan now, imbued as I am in the feeling that most popular culture, in its ephemera, cannot answer the questions I face now as a middle-aged man. I have returned to literature, to the somber embrace of private words and images, personally interpreted in the quiet of my garret.

Yet, Madonna, her image and sound, do form a soundtrack to my life, even if such a soundtrack is now but an echo rather than vibrantly pounding, an occasion for sentimental nostalgia. What once proved endlessly fascinating for a more innocent American public (not to mention a generation of overly enthused feminist scholars) is now inundated in a sea of flesh: part-time Lolitas and full-time Gold Diggers now shake their posteriors lasciviously before cameras, and the spectacle of unleashed female sexuality, so beguilingly apparent in Madonna’s earlier work, now all seems rather old hat. And while Rolling Stone may proclaim, incoherently, “name another near-fifty-year-old who can still rock a hot crotch shot on her album cover,” to paraphrase Andrew Holleran, the thousandth crotch shot is not what the first one was.

Gay men and the iconography of the star has been the subject of much debate and speculation: how gay men came to identify with the star and her glamour, the social and political implications of such identificatory displacement, the use value of such adoration from the position of Capital. On the release of this latest album, and through some heated discussions with other gay men on Madonna, I began to think through the decomposition of the star, but in particular the personal eroding of Madonna’s star image.

Again, part of this is hardly Madonna’s fault. Our popular culture is now a 24-hour media-saturated abattoir that is fleeting, scopophilic, and full of schadenfraude and glee. What once made Madonna so spectacularly special is gone, and therefore, so is much of her iconographic power. As a long-term survivor of popular culture, there is little left she could do anyway, other than perhaps a more radical mutilation of the body itself, akin to Michael Jackson. But such changes do not demonstrate relevance, only spectacle. Changing one’s hair color or wearing outrageous clothing will clearly no longer cut it.

And one of the most distressing aspects of the new album for me was not the music, which is appropriately banal, but the still photography associated with it, which does indeed show Madonna ‘rocking’ a crotch shot in boxer’s gear and a unitard. But, present there too is the tell-tale marking of entropic decomposition: the hair is wrong, matron-like and dull; her skin coloring is off, waxy and ashen; the ridiculous open-legged poses in ostensibly sexual clothing, the obligatory salacious tongue displayed, only sets off just how unsexy the whole performance is. Isn’t there a better way to reflect middle-aged sexuality and sensuality beyond the patently obvious? If there is (and of course, there is), Madonna has not discovered it, or perhaps she feels she cannot afford it. Apparently, she’s dancing as fast as she can.

I suppose for many younger gay men, Madonna still strikes at some heart of their identity. She did for me, as well, when I too was younger. But this dissonance is not necessarily only a paean to middle age curmudgeonry, although there is some of that here too. Rather, it is, in some larger part, reflective of an evolution beyond the mere symbolic, beyond the star as displaced apotheosis of voice, of identification and desire. Quite frankly, I don’t need Madonna anymore, because I have myself, in its fractured, curious, confused, questioning glory.

In thinking through this point, I returned again to Daniel Harris’s rather smart disquisition on the star and gay men, “The Death of Camp,” where he locates the decomposition of classic camp star culture for gay men in post-Stonewall socio-economic politics, when gay men no longer needed the cipher of the star to articulate their inner selves. This argument is compelling, for it locates the increasingly abuse of the star (“the change from reverence to ridicule, from Joan Crawford as the bewitching siren to Joan Crawford as the ax-wielding, child-beating, lesbian drunk…”) in a hyperconsciousness of her degradation, through aging and the contrast of image and reality, which strips gay men of their cult of adoration and forces them, on some level, into the light of day through a recognition of materiality and an evisceration of the glamour of the image. In Harris’s perhaps cynical calculations, gay men do not evolve to higher level of consciousness however, but rather replace the cult of the Star with shopping and other mainstream consumerist practices.

This is most likely truer than not, and to be fair, aside from the most fiercely engaged partisans, Madonna is an ironic icon for most gay men, a decidedly guilty pleasure, or as one gay man put it to me recently, “That bitch can put on a good show.” However, one of the most compelling aspects of Harris’s essay is his discussion of the literary end of the cult of the Star for gay men confronted by the HIV crisis, by mortality, by the body itself, that for many men, unhooks representation from reality. Harris quotes John Weir’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, one of the most powerful eighties fictions of AIDS, as the protagonist recognizes the ineffectiveness of star worship upon confronting his impending death—

"Who’s the main character in my life? … Who is starring in my life? It can’t be me… I’m just a walk-on… Not even a supporting player. Not even a cameo appearance by a long-forgotten star. I’m just an extra. No one else is starring in my life. That’s why they’re halting production. It’s a bad investment for the studio."

So, invariably, part of the fall of Madonna for me, and the greater decomposition of Star iconography, is a recognition that, in the end, we ourselves are the stars of our lives, we must be the stars of our own lives. As comforting as the image of the Star might be, it strikes me as far more important to turn towards one’s own self, and invest in that particular limelight, even or perhaps especially if one is not quite ready for one’s close-up.


Maggie said...

Like so many things that you write, I felt like I was *feeling* this, if only kind of vaguely and incoherently, and now you've gone and given my inchoate feelings beautiful words to go with them. So thank you.

Because like you, Madonna's music has been something of a soundtrack for my life (even when I wasn't that interested in her, she was always there). She was like this amazing and distant older sister figure in some ways to me and my friends.

But this latest album cover -- and all the paparazzi shots I see of her lately-- are just depressing to me. Arms chiseled within an inch of their lives. A consistent grey, unhappy, angularly be-cheekboned look. I wanted Madge at 50 to be joyful and wanton and a little soft. Instead she's... well, exactly as you describe her. And that's kind of sad.

adjunct whore said...

if i knew you in real-life, it is at this point that i would proclaim my undying love for you.

i'm woefully behind on blogs and i see i've missed a series of revolutionary statements...i'll be back.

Rad Readr said...

When the Madonna first broke out she had an edge -- and was able to keep it in various apparitions. But the contortions and body make-overs that she goes through to attempt a replica of that edge on a sexual/sensual track (a youthful edge) is reflective of all those middle-aged people who try (or want to) look as if they were still in their 20s. I love the language where you describe the body -- distressing, wrong hair, unsexy performance. She is a refined and worked out version of a desperate augmented housewife longing for the days when she could still be fresh without also being gross.

As far as madonnas go, I think Guadalupe holds up much better over time.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Madonna's hair is matronly - she is imitating the current London drunk girl hairstyles of people like Amy Winehouse that harken back to the 60s and earlier.

And if you don't think Madonna is in control of every facet of her image and knows exactly what she's doing, you've got another think, blah blah blah.

Anonymous said...

The charity 'Raising Malawi' (PR firm) founded by Madonna AND TWO OTHERS over three years ago held fund raisers for over two years before finally getting registered as a non-profit. In other words, Madonna and the others were free to squander the lion's share of that funding any way they saw fit for those first two years. In fact, they still havn't accounted for the 3.7 million raised from a single event in the fall of '07' (The opening of a Gucci flagship store in Manhattan.). She also pleaded with her fans worldwide for donations along the way. In the meantime, she toured the world to promote her latest CD and raked in another $280,000,000 gross in just over 12 months. To date, the basic financial info for 'Rasing Malawi' still hasn't been posted on the website or anywhere else. The 'progress' page only tells of the collective works by over 20 seperate charities. Each of which have their own sources of funding and may have recieved some sort of promotion or support from 'Raising Malawi' in order to be considered 'partners'. But no indication is made how much of their funding came from 'Raising Malawi' or how much of their progress if any could be directly attributed to 'Raising Malawi'. The fans/donors have no clue how many millions of dollars were raised in that first two years, no clue how much Madonna herself chipped in, and no clue how the money was spent before they finally registered as a non-profit. No clue what fraction of funding or works listed on that 'progress' page could be directly attributed to 'Raising Malawi'. Nothing to go on but the vague word of Madonna. The vague and very misleading word of Madonna. For example: She states in her latest promotional video that she will match any contributions made to her charity (PR firm) "dollar for dollar". However, there is a disclaimer posted on the website for 'Raising Malawi' that Madonna's total contribution will not exceed $100,000. Thats not per donation. Thats a maximum of $100,000 TOTAL. Less than a single days pay for Madonna. Also much less then she will surely rake in by promoting her own CDs, DVDs, and 'for profit' merchandise through this massive worldwide publicity stunt. So I called the office of 'Raising Malawi' in an attempt to verify some sort of efficient financial operation (310) 867-2881 or (888) 72-DONOR). These details are ALWAYS made available by legitimate charities to their potential donors. But not in this case. I got nothing but recorded messages and hangups. So I did some research on my own. 'Rasing Malawi' still hasn't been given any kind of rating by ANY independent charity watchdog like Charitywatch.org. The vast overwhelming majority of 'celebrity' foundations never are. In general, they are inneficient and riddled with corruption. Like the promotion of CDs, world tours, commercial websites, entire lines of jewelry (not just the single piece from which proceeds are donated), and high end fashion retail flagship stores. Celebrity foundations are also notorious for squandering much of their funding on private jet rides and super high end accomodations for their managers, PR crews, and celebrity figure heads. Its legal even for a nonprofit but not noble or efficient by any stretch of the imagination. In general, 'celebrity' foundations are a twisted inefficient mutant of charity, self-promotion, exotic travel, and PR crap. Still, they compete for funding with more efficient legitimate charities who do more work with less money. The celebrity figure heads often disregard the primary donors, co-founders, and managers, take personal credit for any collective work done, and seek maximum publicity shortly before or after the release of their own commercial projects. Its a sham. So if its not rated, then don't support it. Instead, support a top rated charity like any of those given high ratings at Charitywatch.org.