Madonna: The Crucifixion Of A Junkyard Angel
John McCready,Lucy O'Brien, NME, 13 December 1986
Madonna: The Crucifixion Of A Junkyard Angel, part 1
"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women..."
PAPERS SELL Madonna. Madonna sells papers.
An eternal round of capitalism eats individuality sponsors capitalism. Bright, breezy, sassy, a woman supposedly at the controls, a woman building her career with tat and style.
She is attractive copy for the tabloid jungle, fodder for prurience and lavish attention – a media idol, media toy, the subject of hastily concocted exclusives and double-page spreads.
"You must be my Lucky Star/'cause you shine on me wherever you are/I just think of you and I start to glow/And I need your light/And baby you know". ('Lucky Star')
At first the papers are inclined to celebrate her stardom, but the first inklings of a brat package appeared earlier this year during the shooting of Shanghai Surprise. The 'Poison Penns' refused to speak to journalists, Sean enacting the "boorish spud-nosed Brat Packer" in his aggressive response, Madonna the aloof "fickle bride", and despite attempts to patch up the damage with Band Aid and a press conference, where in reply to "What do you think of England, Madonna?" she said wistfully "It must be rather lovely somewhere", she is now rapidly falling from Grace. A woman can sell millions of records worldwide and retain her true persona, but she cannot break Hollywood, transmute from pop to moviestardom, with the same ease, acceptance. She may not control the movie mogul: it is there to control her. Blondes traditionally are film victims, decoration, shifting superficiality to be idolised, or devoured and destroyed.
The Sun, Novembers, 1986: "Madonna strides through Manhattan in a red miniskirt, fish net tights, stiletto heels and leather jacket, looking for all the world like a real hooker."
She is filming the new movie Slammer, acting the character of a call girl protected by her pet wild cat, and according to The Sun is "tetchy" with "a whore's foul mouth". A movie industry insider says "she may be a brilliant singer, but two film flops in a row and you're dead in the movies". It is emphasised how success is necessary after the dive-bomb of Shanghai Surprise. During takes, she waves her frantic blond curls like a deranged Shirley Temple, fights with co-stars, loses her temper and courts danger by staring the cougar in the eyes – a gesture of brittle defiance. Now filing a divorce from Sean Penn, and having an affair with Nick '501's' Kamen, the escalation of her 'bad' behaviour is coolly and gleefully recorded by an unsympathetic press. Fleet Street backs the winners, and this star of shining tinsel is becoming tawdry.
"You're so fine and you're mine/I'll be yours 'till the end of time/'Cause you made me feel/Yeah you made me feel/I've nothing to hide". ('Like A Virgin')
MARRIAGE TO Penn meant entrance into the movie mafia. Though instead of wisely offering to play a few cameo roles in cult films, in the way that Grace Jones has slipped in and out of the media net. Madonna forgot the importance of being a teasing, tantalising enigma, and launched herself into a major part, one that parodied and rendered ridiculous the image which once made her powerful: the fusion of sex and religion. In Shanghai Surprise she plays the 1930s missionary Gloria Tatlock, who begins with a prim attitude towards 'immoral' behaviour and ends up as the most sexually liberated of them all.
"Nuns are sexy! Growing up I thought nuns were very beautiful. In fact if I hadn't grown up to beome a star I would have become a nun. The reason I am not a nun is because you can't take your own name. How could I change my name? I have the most holy name a woman could have. But if I had to change it I'd use my confirmation name, Veronica. I chose her because she wiped the face of Christ, which I thought was really dramatic." (Madonna quoted in the Daily Express, 8.10.86.)
Coming from a strict Catholic background, Ciccone has reaped and plundered the dynamic paradox of repression and lust. Taking what was naughty, 'forbidden fruit'. Madonna not only openly celebrated it but promoted it with leaded religious symbolism. The name. The cross. The virgin. More than a mere nod and a wink, her irony was severe – reappropriating the superstitious limitations of girlhood Catholicism and showing their inherent messages of desire. Ever seen The Exorcist? It was this combination of "sluttish sensuality" and "straight clean-cut Catholic girl" that compounded an image, attracted attention and riveted it.
Madonna represents two popular extremes in male-defined culture: virgin/whore, the agenda of contradiction and double standard which structures tabloid news. Note the "Sexy Vicar" stories, Satanists and church defamation, Victorian Tory principles plus their inner sexual deviations, Page Three exploitation next to editorials against the use of swearing, the very fact that News Of The Screws (sorry) World comes out on a Christian Sunday... Popular media exists on Popular Myths and Misconception. The Immaculate Misconception. In America, her mix-up of morality and immorality has been more specifically attacked:
"'Papa Don't Preach' is just romanticising teenage pregnancy. Youngsters should ask mom and dad and not some dumb blonde." (Otte Von Wernherr).
"Hollywood must firmly reject drugs in any form, and must not collaborate in the illusion that drugs are fun." (Nancy Reagan on Madonna smoking marijuana in Desperately Seeking Susan.)
Her blatant manipulation of 'sacred' images combined with hot dance pop ensured a selling point and a secure foothold in a market place of ephemera. But in transferring that mixture to the screen the contradictions became too apparent. Without the acting ability, the control, or the subtlety, Madonna's portrayal of a faithful missionary was simply unconvincing. Interesting that the next role she has chosen is the opposite. As a prostitute she takes to an extreme the part that made her (in)famous, one of glossy fantasy and sexual bartering. She has come to know her ascribed place, the bolshy heroine gets just deserts.
"They can beg and they can plead/But they can't see the light, that's right/'Cause the boy with the cold hard cash/Is always Mister Right". ('Material Girl')
HERS IS A gamble that may well founder. Until the completion of Desperately Seeking Susan she played every card right. Courting the correct men – from musician Steve Bray, to Mark Kamins, the NY Danceteria DJ with cred, to Jellybean Benitez, hot shot producer. All benefitted from her royalties as well as she from their services. She worked relentlessly, using her Michigan University dance scholarship to hone and invest rigour into her choreography. She chose the right combination of pulse beats to create a crossed-over chart dance pop which wiped out competition. Her vigour and shrewd business sense meant that each album – The First..., Like A Virgin and True Blue all perfectly matched and provided a background for three superlative singles.
There were her studied one-liners: "Losing my virginity was a career move", "crucifixes are sexy because there is a naked man on them"; the Playboy revelations she turned round one sultry Live Aid day by saying "I ain't taking shit off today". Raiding cheap bargain basement fashion and unashamedly tarting it up, flaunting bras and "ten cent floozy style". Madonna became heroine and role model for a mass of teenage girls. She was applauded by Left and Right after Desperately Seeking Susan for her guts, determination and forthrightness. "You've got style/That's what all the girls say/Satin sheets/And luxuries so fine/All your suits are custom made in London/I've got something that you'll really like", ('Dress You Up')
A new feminism! we cried – how we stopped worrying and learned to love the Immaculate Misconception! How we saw her as the '80s Everywoman, an updated sex goddess who proved that feminism could be fun! No problem, she's heterosexual, nay, heterosexist, there was the hint that she could make love to women too...
"Everybody spread the word/We're gonna have a celebration/All across the world/In every nation/It's time for the good times/ Forget about the bad times/One day to come together/To release the pressure/We need a holiday..." ('Holiday').
Then tales of stepping on toes. Not only men's, but women's. She was set deep in the stereotyped Casting Couch syndrome – men bleating over how many she had cast by the wayside, as if this defined her persona, her broad-based talent. It takes more than a series of good screws to get to the top, and Madonna's singing, dancing and composing produced the ultimate pop formula.
Problems arose however, when her self-confidence in the dominance of one sphere spurred her into the conquering of another. A wish to be a latter-day Monroe began to cloud the proceedings. In shedding her sophisticated kitsch-pop clothes and expressing a naked desire to succeed in the movies. Madonna relives the greatest, most pernicious of the American myths. Poor white girl, born the wrong side of downtown Detroit tracks, fixes her gaze on stardom. Not just any old Billboard chart but Hollywood. Holly Wood. Holy Wood. And with an ambition that uncharacteristically drops its calculation, she skitters along the yellow-brick road to Oz. A journey which could eventually prove to be a bum trip.
In popular terms, the blonde female star can only be an icon or an iconoclast. Worshipped on the Monroe/Bardot/Streep pedestal, or condemned (Britt Ekland, Sharon Tate...). Complexities break up the enigma; a woman seen as a whole person operating on subtle levels is not easily packaged or promoted. Madonna's fate, like her future roles, is probably to be typecast. A string of partners, a run of marriages, and depiction in varying permutations of the streetwise tart.
Pop caught her trend, she nailed it with a fun-loving message. The screen freeze-frames her superficial image, and demands a different kind of interpretation. One that asks for a sublimation of her essential self, in order to adapt to Hollywood's own rules of versatility and availability. The last venture showed her the awkward musical Misfit. Like Bowie and Prince before her, the need for fame became too greedy, her ego tripping over itself. The movies and the media now have licence to eat her up. "I have a tale to tell/Sometimes it gets so hard/To hide it well/I was not ready for the fall/Too blind to see the writing on the wall..." ('Live To Tell')
"Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death."
Madonna: The Crucifixion Of A Junkyard Angel, part 2
WE LIVE IN a world which has sold its grubby soul to a devil called celebrity.
Nothing matters except listening to stars, looking at them, buying, selling or making them. They seem to live such wonderful lives that the real world just pales by comparison. Being a milkman, a dentist or a shop assistant is simply second best. The message is irresistible. Day in, day out the noise just won't stop. If you're not somebody, you are nobody – a milkman, a dentist, a shop assistant.
"Hey, look me over/Tell me do you like what you see/Hey I ain't got no money/ But honey I'm rich on personality/My luck is gonna change tonight/There's got to be a better life" (Prince, 'Baby I'm A Star').
MADONNA LOUISE Ciccone was born 28 years ago in Rochester, Michigan. Then and there, in the glow of Marilyn and Elvis, the noise was in some ways louder, clearer and more persuasive than it is today. Of course, the tales have grown tall in the telling (recall your favourite threadbare, 'I always knew I'd be famous' quote) but Madonna seemed destined to become something more or less than a shop assistant. The received rags to riches story sees Madonna dancing in the street to the Motor City beat. It sees her turned upside down by the death of her mother and her father's subsequent remarriage to a woman she didn't like. It sees her twisted in the traditional way by a Catholic education which leaves the vested virgin with a fetish for crucifixes. At 18, a splinter of ambition stuck in her shoulder and the noise ringing louder in her ears. Madonna heads for The City Of Dreams.
She wanted stardom – "I came to New York for fame and fortune" – because its noise was irresistible and because the alternative was the usual, the everyday. But for the time being, a material girl on the make would have to make do with a part-time job at Dunkin' Donuts.
And then there were the boyfriends. Graffiti artists, amateur musicians, painters and DJs. Men as stepping stones to the limelight. Most of them worked at Dunkin' Donuts too. But Madonna was different. Everybody told her so. Turning her considerable energies to music, she discovered that the quickest and hippest route to the loot was via the dancefloor. In 1983, Sire Records told Madonna her days at Dunkin' Donuts were over. She was signed for $5,000, two white mice, a catapult and a packet of swizzels. Madonna, always a star in her head now had the opportunity to turn her Detroit daydreams into reality.
The marketing men believed her music, a stolen strip from synthesized dance-pop, could be knocked into shape. Visually, no manipulation would be necessary. Madonna had been using her body and her sexuality for as long as she cared to remember. Sexually, she exploited herself. The marketing men applauded her self-created image, not because they were capitalist perverts, but because Madonna was modern and liberated. And if you believe that, you'll believe anything.
"I'm sexy. How can I avoid it? That's the essence of me. I would have to put a bag over my head and body. But then my voice would come across. And it's sexy".
The world would not disagree. The celebrities squeezed up. There was room for just one more on top. Madonna had made it. The rest is recent history; pages and pages of words like these, minutes of gaudily glowing video; crucifixes and belly-buttons in excelsis. But there would be other things too.
Terrible films like Shanghai Surprise and terrible husbands like Sean Penn. Terrible songs like 'True Blue'. Petulance and paranoia.
Madonna is clever enough to know that pop fame can't last forever. It's the cliched candle burning at both ends, blowing in the wind. With movies and marriages and career control, she was trying to make it last a little longer. It just couldn't be. Not even a star who declared herself, "the luckiest by far", could change that.
MADONNA COULD have shot the President. Instead she preferred to hi-jack pop music and demand her release from mortality. Pop just laughed and shouted, "Next". Madonna was just another cuddly Boy Toy on the conveyor belt.
At the same time pop can be so magical. It can be spinning euphoria, a drug, a handful of glitter on a grey pavement. Little wonder that it makes those holy fools who swim in its fizzy waters feel like saints, angels, invincible stars.
By the time a drug called Like A Virgin was available on prescription, Madonna must have felt that way too. Like A Virgin was a perfect way, a swirl of dance rhythms and candied choruses. It was magical. Retouched by Nile Rodgers who, at the time, simply had to look at a mixing desk in order to make tills ring; the LP was a premature greatest hits wrapped in a sleeve which affirmed that, if Madonna was to have a calling card, it would bear only three letters. But she was never a musical Samantha Fox.
This was the sexuality of those cheeky Brezhnev girls who saw "two gorgeous fellas", tracked them down and ate them for breakfast. The belt said Boy Toy while the eyes said 'Go and play with yourself'. It was a perfect tease. Madonna was in c-c-control. And she loved it.
IT SOLD TO boys and girls alike. Lots of them. Our pennies piled high and Madonna exchanged them for star-bright confidence and self-belief. But Madonna was deceived. Like most of the beautiful pop people, she believed she could move mountains when all she could shift were units. And whatever came next could be no more than second best. Madonna, her ego stroked by those who are paid to do such things, thought she was an invincible star, a saint, an angel. The boys and girls thought so too but, after a while, looking at angels hurts your eyes. It's the glow, you see.
And besides, there were more fearless fools climbing up the ladder, waving small arms in pop's departure lounge. But Madonna Louise Ciccone was still a pop star. And she could remain one for as long as she liked. Like Gary Glitter. Like Alvin Stardust. Like Adam Ant. Whether the bulb in the spotlight would last was another matter.
Madonna does not need telling this. Hence the movies and the marriage that went with them. Madonna knows that lines on your face – the same lines that in pop tell the world you can think of nothing better to do – mean character and maturity at the movies. Film stars die when they are lowered into the ground. Pop stars like Madonna, real pop stars who light up the world for glorious seconds, die when their little bag of glamorous tricks has been seen and heard just once too often.
There are those who say Madonna is making mistakes and precipitating her own downfall. That will happen anyway. Before Sean Penn poisoned her champagne, Madonna married pop, for better or worse. There can be no divorce. She will fall because that's the way it goes.
Pop has its rules, and they cannot be changed. Not even for stars as bright as Madonna.
THESE DAYS the whirly wheel of fame and fortune spins so fast, 15 minutes seems like seconds. Madonna's three LPs are the short span of a complete '80s pop career – the climb, the wave from the summit and the long way down. The 'True Blue' single and its charmless video seems like a very painful goodbye. What was once seamless pastiche has become hollow parody. It's as if Madonna is waving to us from a big car on the road to Hollywood.
"Guess I'm one of the grown-ups/Now I have to get the job done/People give me the business/I'm not living in fear/I'm just living in chaos/Got to getaway from here" ('Where's The Party?')
God knows we wish her luck, though she needs it less than most.
© John McCready, Lucy O'Brien, 1986
Citation (Harvard format)
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