10.05.2012

Why Madonna Still Matters

Madonna IS, for better or worse, regarded (both high and low) as the Queen of Pop, and, contrary to popular belief, the title does mimic the sound her veiny arms make when stuffed in cheerleading garb, flailing left to right. One gets the very real sense when looking at Madonna in 2k12 that we have in every way reached the endpoint of the 1980s. Where once one was speechless looking at ol' Madge, a single phrase comes to mind when seeing her now: "It has literally come to this."

She is, however, still Madonna, and she's still coming to San Jose for a two-night stand at HP Pavilion, Oct. 6-7, and in the same way that parental advice may not hold the same weight it once did but nevertheless remains at least peripherally relevant, Madonna endures, cementing her place as pop-culture's slightly enjoyable mosquito bite.

In honor of the queen's arrival, a moment must be spared (just one) to truly digest what exactly it is that Madonna represents in the vacuum of contemporary culture. Because, as you're likely to be reminded—often by Madonna herself—she has opened doors for many young people with vaginas and a desire to sing.

The door is also often left ajar for spores of the sincere flattery of imitation (valid or not—here's looking at you, Lady Gaga, also coming to San Jose, on Jan. 17), but any comparisons seem moot: There will never be a "new Madonna," because there will never again be a moment like the one when Madonna came into prominence. She is so purely the byproduct of her era that discussions of originality are almost wholly aimless.

For instance, believe it or not, Gen Zers, there was a time in which the ironic appropriation of religious imagery was actually a big deal. As in people actually cared. As in affiliates of the Catholic Church actually protested. Now it's just this side of yawn-inducing (at least in the West), with everyone flipping a cross upside-down as a way of making a statement.

Even Madonna is still beating her own sacrificed horse to death; her current MDNA Tour features cathedral set design and some holy cooing that may be more the result of bad acoustics than aesthetic intention. Either way, Madonna (whose own name stands as a sort of self-fulfilled prophecy) was one of the first to really push the buttons of all who love that Birkenstock-wearing-long-haired hippie.

True, she wasn't alone. The 1980s was the time when scorned Catholic kids grew up and started putting their religious resentment in their art (Bruce Springsteen completely; the Cure maybe in part). But Madonna did it first, did it best and literally won't stop doing it, so some sort of praise must be given as a way of shutting her up.

She's elsewhere too, namely any heinous "'80s-themed" party that a friend made you attend. Walk in and feast your eyes on the striking binary: vague neon for the men; eclectic mixing for the women. The whole "throw-and-see-what-sticks" fashion style—which ended up turning into "throw-and-everything-sticks"—was at least partially constructed by the pop star.

I'd like to say also that the word "star" in the previous sentence was autocorrected to "store," and if that doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the current state and inherent nature of pop and music and culture, then I don't know what does.

Yet putting together Madonna's roughly 300-year career actually proves difficult, because Madonna was really the first pop star to be born simply as a series of images and ideas more than any singular catalogue of songs, or music videos, or film endeavors, or even high-profile relationships.

Her most enduring elements are narrowed down to choice photographs taken by Richard Avedon and the like, while she was made up like Marilyn, dressed in Jean Paul Gautier, shot often in black-and-white—and with a similar sense of minimalism applied to her own mythology: girl from Detroit runs off to New York at the height of the city's fusion of art, music, fashion and energy, and girl exploits punk and pop to culture-dominating effect. This is the story of Madonna; does it really matter how much of it is perpetuated exclusively by Madonna herself?

No one was curating an image meant to sustain itself for some 30 years more than Madonna. She has always been fixated on being a few steps forward. That tactic applies to her music, too; who else has made a career out of pinpointing the sounds coming out of the most obscure alleyways and putting them on the radio roughly six to nine months before they really hit big (think New York clubhouse and the Vogueing movement; electronic house music and "Ray of Light").

The thing about constantly reinventing yourself is that at a certain point, you're no longer helping define the culture but just struggling to stay relevant in it. Superficiality is embraced as part of the postmodern lens. But Madonna's legacy is rooted in a genuine belief that those elements hold weight. And when your legacy becomes button-pushing, how much of that provocation is due to an artist's finesse and how much is due to the public's inborn sensitivity? Was Madonna ever really that brilliant in how she broached subjects as taboo as sex and homosexuality, or was America just that buttoned up, that unwilling to hear it, that easily shaken?
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Hard to say for sure; harder to say if it matters. As a pop star who loves to embrace exaggeration and distraction as vital elements of what she loosely called "[her] art," Madonna has managed to craft herself just as she wants to be seen, even (or maybe especially) now. In that way, she has always positioned herself as a pop star meant to be deconstructed into a series of motifs and ideas, a vague sketch of what the 1980s must have been like—even for people who could have sworn they knew.

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