In 1984, the school newspaper where I went to college ran an editorial called “It’s Time to Get Really Mad About Madonna.” Her message, as the male writer repeated, was “fuck me.” If there was an additional message behind the “banal” songs and videos for “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” it was “fuck me again.” The world’s biggest slut had been born, and the country needed to stop caring about the arms race or Reaganomics or the widening income disparity between rich and poor, and obliterate the cunt among us.
Something happened on the way to her circumcision, and Madonna, unlike most of her detractors, remained intact. More than 25 years later the vitriol mob remains, exhausted but as angry as ever, and they’ve added to her list of whore crimes, “fuck you.” Madonna is about as “over” as the Common Cold, and just as infuriating, and when you can’t stop someone you can only reduce them. Good luck with that.
Gearing up for a new album, a new movie, and a Super Bowl half-time appearance, the Queen of Pop Provocation did a couple of talk shows and, as effortlessly as the reactions were strained, marketed a maelstrom. Never mind Madonna’s take on mothering a 15-year-old girl or her penchant for dating young men or even her just announced 40 million dollar record deal, all anyone cared about was Madonna’s opinion of Lady GaGa, and both Graham Norton and Cynthia McFadden were determined (rightfully so) to satisfy the audience.
Madonna said lots of things about Lady GaGa; lots of good things. She called her “a very talented artist” and said, of her work, that “sometimes I think it’s amusing and fun.” None of that matters either. When she told McFadden that GaGa’s “Born This Way” tune “feels reductive,” the definition of the word was over before the search began. Madonna, the bitch, the shrew, the hag, the has-been, and, quite possibly the most critically reduced artist on the planet, had crossed a line. Ironically, she also invented the line.
Whatever one personally thinks of Lady GaGa or the song “Born This Way,” the fact is that for the past year both the artist and the tune have been put under the Madonna microscope. No sooner did the single hit the airwaves than the other bleach-blond Italian American gay-loving pop star got accused of copying Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” inciting a plethora of YouTube parodies and mash-ups and criticisms that would make “reductive” sound like high praise.
It probably didn’t help much that GaGa (who called any song similarities “retarded”) took a sudden liking to videos where she dances in her underwear and wears bullets for bras and throws in a lot of crosses and rosaries and pisses off the Catholic Church. It also probably didn’t help that, when GaGa won a Grammy for something other than “Born This Way,” she took to the stage in a Blond Ambition ponytail and cone-breast corset and thanked her “Born This Way” muse Whitney Houston—the woman who once said she’d kill her children if they turned out to be like Madonna. And it also probably didn’t help that, when asked why people compare her with Madonna, Lady GaGa, wearing bright red lipstick and the “Express Yourself” platinum-blond locks, said it was because they “sort of” look alike. Yes, and when I let my beard grow in I “sort of” look like Jake Gyllenhaal.
The counter-argument most people give when the GaGa/Madonna imitations arise is that Madonna has copied everyone under the sun, and therefore has no right to criticize her predecessor. It’s a valid point, even if those same people don’t generally acknowledge that Madonna never did criticize GaGa until the McFadden interview, nor has she ever denied taking on the personas of other image makers.
What Madonna accomplished is unprecedented genius. Colliding with the 1980s MTV Generation, and her spoof of Marilyn’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the singer grabbed the 20thcentury’s most iconic ladies and photographs and films and fashions and trends, and spun them into three-minute movie musicals, complete with the catchiest soundtracks on tap, and all the while keeping her signature wink intact. She resembled a lot of women, but none of them more so than the one calling the shots. In her crass sentiment, Madonna did something utterly original. To sum it up as clever marketing, the one area where people begrudgingly give her credit, is reduction in the most demeaning sense.
Madonna forever changed the way female pop artists are marketed and sold, and every girl with a material dream has studied or has been instructed by someone who’s studied Madonna. Whereas “re-invention” used to be frowned upon as too dangerous, it’s now de rigueur for longevity. Whereas “Bad Girls” used to be the victims of a Donna Summer song, they’re now the envy of innocent fools. From Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” to Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I Did It Again” to every song by Ke$ha, if you want to prove yourself as a commodity, you have to light a fuse.
If Madonna made a major mistake in her professional life, it wasn’t her acting career or her Sex book. It was getting older. We’re a country of ageists, especially in regards to women, and if there’s anything we hate more than a woman getting older it’s a beautiful woman who doesn’t apologize for her disgrace. Had Madonna any dignity, she’d have offed herself years ago. At 53, she may be the biggest selling female artist of all time and she may have more hits than Elvis Presley (a one-time looker/singer/provocateur who was smart enough to overdose), and she may still be one of the most famous women on earth, but none of that matters when she spits in god’s eye by deciding for herself what’s attractive.
Last week, on the heels of the “reductive” comment, Madonna won a Golden Globe award for her song “Masterpiece.” If there’s another way to stop the unworthy, it’s to deny them praise, and Madonna’s career has been peppered with everything but legitimacy. Her critics dove right in, and, not surprisingly, the biggest offenders were women and gay men. The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley became psychic and said they only gave her the award because “everybody wants to see her,” that few will hear the song (it’s that rare thing when people listen to a Madonna track), and that they were forced to start the music to cut short her ego-laden speech. Stanley, apparently, missed the rest of the show, as pretty much everyone was cut off by the music, including that self-involved, talentless unworthy egomaniac Meryl Streep.
The Huffington Post ran an “Onion”-worthy piece called “A Letter to Madonna from a Concerned Gay,” in which the writer, Domenick Scudera, colors Madonna homophobic for calling wise-ass straight comedian Ricky Gervais a “girl” (yes, you read that correctly), and then goes on to pretty much fault Madonna for everything but Global Warming. He writes, at the end, “I am desperately seeking the Madonna of yesteryear: daring, a ray of light, in a league of her own. That girl is still inside you somewhere, I bet. Please bring her back. Open you heart, express yourself like you used to do, so that I can justify my love for you again.” I’m not sure what’s more offensive, that Scudera penned this piece of tripe or that Arianna Huffington allowed it to go to print.
Elton John and his husband, David Furnish, expressed themselves in a way that set back gay men about 50 years. John started the Bitch Brunch on the red carpet, saying Madonna couldn’t win with her “fucking” song, then sat stone-faced when she did. His charming spouse took to facebook afterward, decrying Madonna’s win—“Madonna. Best song???? F**k off!!!”—defaming the Golden Globes as being without merit (an awards show that doesn’t always give to the most deserving? No!), and ending his tantrum by saying Madonna’s “criticism of GaGa shows how desperate she really is.”
It’s always the work of the truly desperate to use the “D” word when describing Madonna. She must be desperate because she cannot be good. She’s not allowed to be attractive because she’s a whore. She certainly can’t be happy, because that will make us miserable. And she’s not allowed to criticize Lady GaGa because she never earned her place on top.
Lady GaGa’s second chapter of fame has played out like a bad sequel to a great first flick. She started out wonderfully, with a strong voice and savvy song-writing skills. If there was a message behind her work it was to embrace your oddity and celebrate unconvention. In that regard, she resembled Cyndi Lauper or Bette Midler more than Madonna. Last year, on the heels of “Born This Way,” she set herself up for failure by repeatedly telling everyone how wonderful her new album would be, then started hammering out weak singles and ridiculous stunts to stay topical. Showing up to an awards show in an egg carries no message other than that you are showing up to an awards show in an egg.
Like countless other female stars, GaGa then read the Cliff Notes for Madonna’s career and decided to re-invent herself as Madonna 2.0. That never works, especially when the first version is still selling. Whereas Madonna hiccuped and the world reacted, GaGa tells us she’s about to cough and then informs us of its importance. Call her videos and outfits what you want; imitation, homage, copies—ultimately, they look like poorly designed remakes of Madonna’s material. Bigger budget, more pyrotechnics, but forced and lacking vision. The only rule of re-creation is to do it well, and she’s failed. If Lady GaGa is as smart as she is talented, she’ll pay attention to the woman who set out “to rule the world” and carve out her own path to universal domination. Madonna’s message isn’t “fuck me” or “fuck you”; it’s “Fuck It!” And she does it better than anyone.
David Toussaint is the Senior Editor for GuySpy.