When Madonna climbs out of the shining water in Desperately Seeking Susan, the audience gasps. At this recent late-night showing at 92YTribeca, the 1985 comedy holds up remarkably well—there’s all that East Village New Wave energy, those dizzy scenes in Battery Park, the whole notion of New York as a machine that makes you more interesting the minute you enter Port Authority. But really, it’s all about Madonna, squishing poor Rosanna Arquette right out of the picture. With her Italian nose and that jutting jaw and the baby-Elvis air of manipulation, Madonna is at once recognizable and something we haven’t seen in years. She’s a human wink.
Afterward, in the bathroom of 92YTribeca, I notice three girls from the front row. They’d been sitting dead center, but even from the back, they looked like the kind of people who knew they were attracting attention: a pale girl in black braids and a white eyelet dress, a tomboy in an oversize gold lamé baseball hat, the third in a bright orange romper. They are all in their twenties, they explain, co-workers at the same clothing store in Brooklyn. And in a chorus of enthusiasm, they gush over the Madonna of the movie, who is the reason they’ve come, their role model, their inspiration—even back in high school, which was not so long ago.
“She’s so incredible!” they say. “So badass!”
One tells me dreamily that Madonna reminds them of the character Rayanne on My So-Called Life, another bad-girl catalyst—that special person who will bully us into becoming not better, exactly, but more exciting, with stories to tell. Yet when I ask what they think of Madonna today, they look uncomfortable and glance in unison away from me and into the mirrors.
“Now it’s like, what do we have in common—?”
“I mean, she’s 26 in this movie. She’s a very hip 50-year-old, but now it’s just for show … ”
Everything about the current Madonna makes them uncomfortable: the Kabbalah, the adoptions, the British accent. But they don’t want to betray her. Maybe she couldn’t always be “the girl you saw on Second Avenue.” The plastic surgery troubles them the most, but then Orange Romper blurts out aggressively: “Hey, I’d do the same thing! I’d get surgery and Botox and … ” She looks at her friends with a pugnacious air: “When you’re that big a star, would you want everyone to see you that way, old and saggy, a has-been? What else could she do? Wouldn’t you do it, too?”
Madonna has returned to New York.
This makes a strange kind of sense.
After all, Madonna Louise Ciccone’s original arrival here, seven years before Desperately Seeking Susan, has long been one of Manhattan’s primal myths. She was that brassy, motherless 19-year-old dance major from Michigan—the busty one with the unshaved armpits—who asked a cabdriver to drop her where the action was. That was Times Square, late summer 1978. She jumped from the dance world to Danceteria, from the Russian Tea Room coat check to nude modeling, spending four years seducing and abandoning D.J.’s, agents, and artists, impatiently waiting to become the famous person she clearly knew herself to be already. Terrible things happened to her (early on, a stranger forced her up to a tenement roof at knifepoint and raped her), but that didn’t sap her ambition, it fueled her: She kept snapping up influences like a magnet, pursuing a modern style of fame that was as much about her own charisma as about anything she created.
In those early years, with the rubber bangles and huge crucifixes hanging off her like bell tongues, Madonna was paired in the public imagination with Michael Jackson. For a while, they were twin MTV phenomena, each with an outsize, candy-cartoon quality, dancers as much as they were singers, crossing lines of race and sexuality (they even had that weird publicity date at the 1991 Academy Awards). But unlike Jackson, Madonna was no child star. She’d built herself; and while Michael Jackson’s image was vulnerability, hers was proud control. She rejected the idea of being a victim, almost to a fault. Over the years, this vision of discipline as transcendence crackled, hardened, becoming at once awesome and alienating, creating a riddle for fans: How to reconcile that early Madonna with what she’d become?
Because now Madonna is back in Manhattan and, according to the gossip press, very busy: divorcing, adopting, hypnotizing baseball stars out of their marriages with Kabbalah, dangling Latino boy toys, occupying an uptown mansion and “shocking” people with bunny-eared fashion statements. I want to feel happy about this, since I am the kind of fool who gets excited by stars inhabiting my city. But instead, I feel unnerved, unsettled—thrown off by the Madonna who slouches toward the Upper East Side to be (for the thousandth time) reborn.