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 mixedreviews, 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.