The Madonna complex

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She's the biggest-selling female artist of all time. Why, wonders Kim Knight, do we love to loathe her?
"Madonna was pure pop joy."
"Madonna was pure pop joy."

"It's a defence of Madonna," I said.

"The singer or the real one?" asked my friend. "Both could be difficult."

Excellent observation. The woman who sang Like a Virgin is at least as polarising as the woman who actually claimed to be one.

How do we hate Madonna? Count the publications (The Anti-Madonna Handbook), the social media accounts (Madonna, the Queen of Flop) and the websites (Madonna Blows Chunks).

Too old, too thin, too gapped-of-tooth and fish-netted of thigh. Unsexy, unattractive and deeply untalented. Sample non-fan forum post: "Madonna is an unoriginal, trashy, arrogant narcissist - discuss."

Her name and back catalogue have spawned a gazillion-and-counting mean girl headlines.

Grandma-donna. Desperately Seeking Stardom. Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies. Etc.
Why does everybody hate her?

If she died, she'd be lauded around the world: an important artist who defined herself on her own terms and spawned a midriff-baring army of copycats.

The problem with Madonna is that she's still alive. Alive and butt-kicking. Alive, and commanding $1000-plus VIP party package fees on her Rebel Heart tour. This past weekend, the superstar the media long ago dubbed "Madge" played Vector Arena. It's her first visit to New Zealand and, back in June when the shows were announced, the haters, predictably, hated.

According to those fine specimens of humanity who prefer an internet username to, you know, civility, Madonna is a "greedy hag" with "as much depth as a recently formed pothole". Also, her legs have "old lady lumps".

Kinder, possibly, than a rant from journalist and one-time fan, Piers Morgan. In February, when Madonna fell backwards off the stage at the Brit Music Awards, Morgan wrote that the incident was, "God's way of telling you you're too old to cavort like a hooker".
(Probably, if God really wanted to punish Madonna, this might have happened after she appeared in a music video groping a saint and dancing in front of burning crosses; certainly, after she faked her own, glittery crucifixion on a live stage not very far from the Vatican).

More recently, Madonna been slammed for a Very Public child custody battle, calling one ex-husband the C-word on stage, and allegedly performing drunk. She denies the latter. But really, does she care what the critics think?

Fast forward to track six of her latest album: Bitch, I'm Madonna.

Some statistics, courtesy of a TimeOut story that reminded readers this was a woman who went viral well before the internet existed: Madonna is the biggest selling female artist of all time. Worldwide, she's shifted an estimated 300 million albums. In New Zealand, over the past 30 years, she's had five number one singles and holds the record - 53 - for entries into the top 40 single charts.

BBC Radio 1 vetoed a recent single, saying the singer was "irrelevant" to a younger target audience, but Wikipedia lists more than 150 artists who credit her as an influence, including Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and Britney Spears. Controversial former X Factor NZ judge Natalia Kills got a writing credit on that last album. And that Bitch, I'm Madonna song? It features Nicki Minaj on vocals - and a cameo strike-a-pose appearance from Beyonce.

It would appear unlikely that Madonna lies awake at night worrying that the internet - or the male-dominated middle-class music establishment - hates her.

Back in 2008, I interviewed Madonna's brother, Christopher Ciccone. His recently released memoir was aimed, he said, at smashing the "pure mythology" his sister had constructed around her life.

Ciccone had been there for much of that ride, working as a set decorator, dancer and dresser. But even he didn't like her. He recalled the email he'd sent her, after an argument over money: "I gave up my f***ing life to help make you the evil queen you are today. Fifteen years of listening to your bitching, egotistical rantings, mediocre talents and a lack of taste that would stun the ages ... "

And yet, in a breathtakingly blatant search engine optimising move, he'd called that book Life With My Sister Madonna.

Madonna is about Madonna. And that's why women of a certain age love her. Material Girl? Right now in New Zealand, the median wage for men is almost $8000 more than it is for women. Refusing to age gracefully? Let's talk about that some more when AC/DC's Angus Young grows into long pants. Control freak? Show me a single human being who doesn't want to call their own shots.

The problem with Madonna is that just like, say, David Bowie, she has always been more than a musician. Both spoke to the marginalised (I don't care what anybody says, women are still marginalised). Both reinvented themselves for successive generations of music listeners. Both extended their craft to the cinema, inhabited carefully constructed personas and - ultimately - became icons.

Madonna performs during the Rebel Heart Tour 2016 in Atlanta. Photo / AP
Madonna performs during the Rebel Heart Tour 2016 in Atlanta. Photo / AP

I tested the Madonna-as-female-Bowie theory on a few people this week. Russell Baillie, editor of TimeOut, laughed politely: "Bowie was ahead of the curve - Madonna's trick was always, perhaps, being right on it."

University of Otago thesis candidate Alison Blair's current focus is Bowie and T. Rex's Marc Bolan. She has "an academic interest" in Madonna.

"Madonna has constantly reinvented herself over the years, not just in terms of her image, but also her music. The difference is that Bowie had a unique way of bringing different elements together to create something new," says Blair. "His influences were a bit more surprising, more 'underground' at many times, and he really seriously innovated."

Madonna, says Blair, has been "very canny", teaming up with producers and artists who are either innovative and a bit edgy - Massive Attack, for example - or very popular, like Justin Timberlake or Minaj.

"She's an expert at taking the already popular and making it into her own thing ... I wouldn't say she's a musical innovator in the way that Bowie was, but still, most of the time, she's been absolutely on the money at picking up on what's cool or popular."

And those cries of double standards when it comes to gender and ageing celebrities? "They've been around a long time. We hear a lot about it when it comes to Hollywood, and that's down to a number of actresses speaking up about it in recent times.

"The ageism and sexism that has been levelled at Madonna is something she appears to have taken in her stride - she's not letting the critics get in her way. That is empowering to her fans, to see that no matter what anyone says, she's up there doing exactly what she wants to do, wearing exactly what she wants to wear - and she's a powerhouse." Madonna hit it big, says Blair, because she had something different.

"Her attitude, the way she danced, the way she dressed. When she rolled around on the floor performing Like a Virgin on the MTV Music Awards, that was a big moment. She broke new ground in pop music and became one of the 'pop greats' alongside people like Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, those really big acts."

It was the decade where everybody wanted it all - but young women were still, somehow, supposed to be more earnest in their desire.

Feminists had broken the truly hard, hard ground, but they hadn't done it in a bespoke Jean Paul Gaultier bra. (Besides, many of those feminists had turned into our mothers - what did they know?)

There were plenty of other women in the music charts, but none were like Madonna. Annie Lennox was androgynous, Cyndi Lauper was kooky cool and Chrissie Hynde was rock chic. Grace Jones and Tina Turner were hot and fierce, but also a little scary. Madonna was pure pop joy. Sexy, slutty and unashamed of her honed body and grand plans - and utterly unable to be objectified because she was in charge. Not so much a role model, as an inspiration.

Jean McAllister is a tutor at Auckland's Mainz Music and Audio school. In the 1980s she was a member of Kiwi band The Drongos, living and playing in New York, when Madonna first came to town.

"There was this big buzz. She hit the club scene in a big way and very quickly made a name for herself. From all accounts her first performances were not very good, but she was a personality. There's no question she's a highly intelligent woman, but she was also street-savvy and she really traded on all of that ... she just came at absolutely the right time. "My first opinion? I didn't particularly rate her as a singer, but I could see she had incredible pop appeal."

McAllister disputes the "groundbreaker" label - particularly around the singer's use of her sexuality.

"That has been going on forever - the attractive young woman using her body to sell records. Madonna came in as though she invented it. She hadn't. She was just very 'out there' about it. And it was very calculated. It was totally, and utterly calculated in her case.
"America is quite a repressed society in many ways, and so the reason Madonna gets so much attention there is because of that straight, conservative undercurrent. They're more easily titillated."

This week, McAllister asked her students for their thoughts on Madonna.

"They said, 'oh, I saw her on Ellen and she was awful ... I saw her on Graham Norton and she took up the whole couch and I heard her people made demands and she was a bitch'."

They didn't like her as a person, says McAllister - but they did comment on her catchy 80s oeuvre.

"They're 18-year-olds, and they still know her old songs. So that's interesting - though having said that, this generation does seem to be more willing to embrace older stuff."
Madonna once called herself "my own experiment ... my own work of art". Last year, The Cut ran a piece from Carin Goldberg, the art director behind Madonna's first album cover. It was, said Goldberg, the easiest job she'd ever had.

"Madonna walked in ready-made. She knew who she was. We didn't have to worry about styling her ... It was short, it was sweet. She was prompt, she did everything we asked her to do, she said thank you ... I would not call her in any way warm and cuddly, but she was not unfriendly. She was just all business."

That first album was called, simply, Madonna. It was released in July 1983 and, by December, it had generated its first Billboard Hot 100 Number One hit. Like a Virgin took the top spot from Daryl Hall and John Oates. Their single? Out of Touch.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Canvas

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