one scene in Truth or Dare — a documentary, of sorts, of
her "Blond Ambition" concert tour — Madonna phones her
father to ask if he's coming to see her perform. He says he understands
her act is pretty "racy" and inquires as to whether she'll
"tone it down" for him and the family. No, she answers;
she won't "compromise my artistic integrity."
A few minutes
later, we see that uncompromised artistic integrity as she lies
on a bed onstage. The stage is dark, except for the bed. Standing
beside her are two black male dancers wearing weird conical brassieres.
As she sings "Like a Virgin," she vigorously massages
her crotch, moaning and arching her back spasmodically. There's
more, but you get the basic idea. The huge crowd goes wild.
a genius at getting attention. Everything she does gets attention
— her records, her videos, her movies, her marriage, her divorce,
her amours (including a joke that she'd had a lesbian relationship
with the comedienne Sandra Bernhard). When she showed up at the
Cannes Film Festival with her hair dyed a new color, her face appeared
on the front page of the New York daily News. She has been
on the cover of every magazine except National Geographic.
How does she
do it? as she admits, she's not a great singer, a great dancer,
or even — as least in repose — a great looker. She can't act. Yet
she has the most flamboyantly theatrical personality since
well, who was the last one? Bette Davis? Joan Crawford? Tallulah
Bankhead? Some people have what I can only call contagious vanity.
You may even dislike them, but you can't take your eyes off them.
Madonna is like that. In a country where people want to be liked
(maybe even more ardently than they want to be loved), she dares
you to hate her.
is the true feminist," writes Camille Paglia, herself a sort
of anti-feminist feminist. "She exposes the puritanism and
suffocating ideology of American feminism
Madonna has taught
young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising
total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive,
sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive, and funny — all at the
She's undeniably magnetic, but it's a calculating magnetism, a carefully
constructed aura of kink and danger. If she seems to be shattering
conventions, she's also there to pick up the pieces. One of her
steamier videos, "Like a Prayer," shows her in a Catholic
church adoring a statue of a black saint, who comes to life and
kisses her passionately. She receives the stigmata, and there are
burning crosses and things, and
well, again, you get the idea:
a deliberate fusion of such themes as sex, race, and religion. These
elements are combined in surreal montage, and the effect is eerie,
shocking Weimar decadent.
An even more
explicit video, "Justify My Love," did succeed in outraging
people, and even easy-going MTV refused to play it. "The video
is pornographic," Miss Paglia writes. "It's decadent.
And it's fabulous. MTV was right to ban it." But she chides
Madonna for coping out on Nightline by pleading "her
love of children, her social activism, and her condom endorsements."
If you want to shock people, go ahead and shock 'em. But don't blame
them for being shocked.
is that Madonna wants to have it both ways. (One problem in writing
about her is that everything tends to sound like a double-entendre.)
she clearly knows what she's doing, but wants to pretend she doesn't.
Her calculation is shown in one sequence in Truth or Dare
when her tour arrives in Toronto and she is told that the police
are prepared to arrest her if she does the masturbation bit. She
asks what the penalty is. She learns she'll probably just be booked,
fined, and released. This, to her, is a cheap price to pay for the
international front-page publicity she stands to get, so she goes
ahead with it. The cops back down and do nothing. Never has the
structure of incentives been so favorable to artistic martyrdom.
A similar event
occurs in Italy, where she finds on her arrival that the Vatican
has denounced her in advance. She holds a press conference, and
says that as an Italian-American she resents this prejudicial treatment.
Hers is no "conventional" rock act, but "a total
theatrical experience." The note of pique sounds sincere enough,
but she also knows that in her terms the Vatican has done her a
favor. Madonna has a keen sense of whom it's profitable to offend
and whom it isn't. She surrounds herself with blacks and homosexuals.
She is heavy into AIDS education: "Next to Hitler, AIDS is
the worst thing to happen in the twentieth century," she told
Vanity Fair recently — a good, conventional, and convenient
view to hold in her line of work. And when the Simon Wiesenthal
Center in Los Angeles attacked her for including the phrase "synagogue
of Satan" (from the book of Revelation) in one of her songs,
In the film,
one of her dancers worries that his scene of simulated sec with
her will hurt his career. "In this country it works the other
way around," she answers. "The more notorious you are,
the more you are going to work! Don't you guys understand that?"
Indeed. Nothing is more conventional than the daring. In Truth
or Dare, she talks nonstop raunch, bares her breasts, gets into
bed with a naked dancer and whoops about the size of his organ (it's
all right, he's gay), and much, much more.
Raised a Catholic by devout parents (her mother died when she was
six), Madonna's target of choice is Catholicism. Her concert and
video performances abound in crucifixes, dancers dressed as priests
fondling her, and so forth. It's exciting. It's outrageous. It sells.
Naturally, much of her following consists of lapsed Catholics, typified
by the columnist Pete Hamill, who calls her "a good Christian."
You can write a Hamill column with your eyes closed: Jesus preferred
Mary Magdalene to the Pharisees, drove the money-changers out of
the Temple, hated prigs — a lot like Pete Hamill, come to think
of it. This sort of approval (terribly smug, in its own way) implies
that because Jesus forgave unchastity, he didn't regard it as a
sin. Not only is this a non-sequitur, it overlooks some very stern
words in the Gospels, sterner, in fact, than anything in St. Paul,
the favorite scapegoat of lapsed Christians who want to insist that
it's only the Church they object to — nothing against Jesus,
of course the supreme Christian virtue, and those who fail in chastity
often insist that they make up for it in charity. But there is more
than one way of being uncharitable, and self-serving solicitude
for today's accredited victims — "compassion," for short
— doesn't necessarily cover a multitude of sins. In Truth or
Dare we learn that Madonna leads her troupe in prayer before
every performance. But the tone of her prayer is imperious and stagy.
The viewer wonders if praying with the boss — or rather standing
there submissively while she prays — is part of the job description
of dancer. The question acquires a special urgency when the prayer
turns into a chewing-out of some of those in the circle. She stops
just short of demanding divine retribution against those who have
even less charitable toward the Church itself. "I've always
know that Catholicism is a completely sexist, repressed, sin- and
punishment-based religion," she told an interviewer for Us
magazine. She was even blunter to Vanity Fair: "I think
it's disgusting. I think it's hypocritical. And it's unloving. It's
not what God and Christianity are all about." Nearly every
interview she gives includes bitter remarks about the Church and
its "rules." It's the only subject, apart from herself,
she regularly talks about.
But her father
is still a faithful Catholic, and in Truth or Dare we see
her fretting at the idea of his seeing her perform "Like a
Virgin." In fact she does "tone it down" when
he's in the audience, and she hales him onto the stage to be introduced
to the crowd. He seems a mild fellow, confusedly proud of his famous
daughter. Her anxiety about being seen by him in flagrante
is puzzling: she seems bent on offending everyone who believes in
the things he believes in, but not him. Why this exemption?
If she hates the faith she was raised in, why doesn't she blame
the man who raised her?
want to live off-camera," jokes Warren Beatty, her beau at
the time of the filming. "Why would you bother to say something
if it's off-camera?" Because Madonna finds everything about
Madonna absolutely fascinating, that's why. Imagine a film in which
it's left to Warren Beatty to sound the note of common sense.
myself drawn to emotional cripples," Madonna says, explaining
the odd assortment of characters she surrounds herself with. "I
like to play mother." Oh. We see her visiting her own mother's
grave (for the first time); naturally, she dresses in black for
the occasion, brings a camera crew along, and lies down to kiss
the tombstone. We see her backstage, complaining about a mike failure
to a hapless technician. We see her dining with friends. We see
her shopping in Paris. We see her meeting an old school chum, who
she tells us once did something naughty to her at a pajama party.
(The school chum, now a mother of five, denies it when informed
of it; she looks shocked by this ambush, having named a daughter
Madonna.) We see her telling someone or another that her mission
is to be "provocative" and "political." We see,
in fact, two hours of this carefully staged "spontaneity,"
and two hours trapped in a dark room with that ego fells
like a week.
Talking to Vanity Fair, Madonna gets defensive: "People
will say, 'She knows the camera is on, she's just acting.' But even
if I am acting, there's a truth in my acting
. You could
watch it and say, I still don't know Madonna, and good. Because
you will never know the real me. Ever." You mean there's more?
Well, if we
never know the real Madonna, we won't have Madonna to blame for
it. She talks about herself volubly, incessantly; she poses for
photo stills dressed up as Marilyn Monroe and other sexpots. It's
as if her privacy might unfairly deprive us of something. Or rather,
as if she wanted to become all the fascinating women of the
past, and reveal their mysteries to us. Instead she creates the
disconcerting impression that all they mystery may have been bogus;
maybe those women were like her: self-absorbed little bores
who talked in cliches about "art" and "truth,"
when they weren't talking about themselves. One would rather not
As for "truth,"
Madonna isn't interested in any that may inconvenience her. It never
crosses her mind that there may be more to Catholicism than her
spiteful parody of it, which is of an order of glibness that would
embarrass Phil Donahue. For her there is no fundamental order in
life, only arbitrary "rules." Do whatcha want, as long
as you practice "safe sex," that mirage of those who think
selfishness and sensuality can be calculating and civic-minded even
at the peak of ardor. It isn't just that she's hopelessly banal
whenever she tries to share an insight. It's that she has reached
that pitch of egomania at which celebrity supposes itself oracular.
That's when you say things like "Power is a great aphrodisiac,"
and you think it sounds impressive. (We may note in passing that
the Me Decade is now entering its third decade.)
And as for
"art," well, philosophers differ. But it's widely believed
by wise people that art and ego sit uneasily together. The true
artist, even if his ego is as muscular as Beethoven's, creates something
outside himself. Art is not "self-expression" in the sense
that its focus of interest lies in its creator; rather, it is self-contained.
Its value doesn't depend on our knowledge of the artist. Hamlet
is a great play no matter who wrote it. Parsifal is a great
opera even if Wagner did compose it.
But for Madonna,
art is defined by the censors: it's whatever they don't like. So
someone who gets the censors howling must be an artist.
a lot of people agree with her, and they buy tickers. Madonna offers
something new under the sun: vicarious self-absorption. It takes
a special kind of imagination to identify with a solipsist.
doesn't glory in herself: she glories in her self. And Truth
or Dare suggest a novel ambition: to make the self, even in
its private moments, an object of universal attention. Who was the
love of your life? someone asks her. "Sean," she murmurs,
meaning her ex-husband, Sean Penn (of whom it was once said that
he had slugged every photographer except Karsh of Ottawa). Sean,
she explains, was madly jealous and domineering, but "at least
he paid attention." Better hostile attention than none at all.
Like most pop
music, Madonna's songs are about love. But love is the subject about
which she shows no understanding at all. She is the perfect expression
of an age that has reduced the erotic to the sensual: the gratification
of the self rather than the yearning for union with another. "Lovers"
become interchangeable and succeed each other quickly, each being
merely instrumental to the self and its cravings. Real love is like
art: it demands the subordination of the ego. Kinky, exciting, shocking:
these are the attributes of love as she conceives it. it would make
no sense to tell her that sodomy is at best a stunted and misdirected
form of eros, since heterosexual love, as she exemplifies it, has
the same character. The purpose of this love is neither permanent
union nor procreation, but pleasure and ego-enhancement. For her,
in fact, the erotic isn't all that different from the autoerotic,
except that there happens to be another person present.
But the word
"autoerotic" is self-contradictory. Being in love with
yourself isn't love. and having sex with yourself hardly qualifies
as sex. The Victorians thought masturbation led to blindness. If
they'd said moral blindness, they might have had a point. At least
Madonna seems to intimate a connection. "Masturbation,"
Woody Allen has said, "is having sex with someone you love."
When we watch Madonna doing "Like a Virgin," clutching
her private parts (if they can be called private any more), simulating
ecstatic convulsions, we're seeing her having sex, as it were, with
someone she loves, all right — maybe the only one she can