But then, the world had changed.
For one thing, there was Angelina Jolie, who had emerged as an alternate Madonna, the Gallant to Madonna’s Goofus, her cultish sanctimony somehow more earned. In every other previous iconic face-off— Madonna versus Cyndi Lauper, Madonna versus Britney and Christina—Madonna won, or, in the strange case of Britney Spears, seemingly sucked out her soul live onstage, a vampire-lesbian smooch that left poor Brit stumbling away into young motherhood and nervous breakdowns. (What kind of amazing celebrity act is it when you kiss Christina Aguilera and no one even notices?)
So yes, there was something amazing about her ability to suck the soul out of Britney Spears and also to survive the desire of all horses to kill her, à la The Ring.
And yet, I finally had to face the fact that the Madonna I had loved for years—who’d become to me, of course, not a real person but an abstraction, which I’d like to believe was her aim all along—was giving me chills of discomfort, just as she was returning to my city. And of course, it was a new city as well, a Times Square filled with people rearranging the deck chairs.
The selfless Madonna is less inspiring than the selfish one in so many ways.
So I wandered over to Love Saves the Day on Second Avenue, where Madonna’s Susan traded her pyramid-embroidered coat for those tempting boots. (Why do all New York girl-fables center around footwear?) It was gone: closed shop in January. I checked out her recently purchased redbrick Upper East Side mansion in its peculiarly staid uptown location between Lexington and Third Avenue—and then went over to the Kabbalah Centre, likewise quiet, with a maid mopping up as I flipped through the sequel to The English Roses. (Just as grating as the original.) And I called some people who I felt could argue me back into my more welcoming self.
“I totally love and worship Madonna,” music critic Rob Sheffield tells me. “She brought New York to the rest of the country—the rest of the world, I guess.” Long before he became a critic, Sheffield saw Desperately Seeking Susan at a mall in suburban Boston, and it defined Manhattan for him: “When you’d walk past one of those scenes, you’d feel ‘Madonna has trod here.’ ”
Every time I start in on my troubles with her persona, Sheffield steers me back to her music. She propagated a unique fantasy, he says, “different from the punk idea, which was that you could become a decadent figure of cinematic tragedy, of sinister charisma.” Madonna may have had punk trappings, might have dated Basquiat and mimicked Blondie, but her take on urban squalor was optimistic: not the “beautiful loser” but the disco winner. And while other disco stars longed to do gospel or soul instead, Madonna was a rare devotee: “She never stopped loving that particular sound.”
Sheffield’s never heard of The English Roses. As for Kabbalah, he points out, “You know, if she made bad records about being spiritually awakened, that’s one thing—but she made a really good one, the Ray of Light album.”
This is the way writer Wendy Shanker sees her, too: as a spiritual figure. Shanker’s written an upcoming book about finding a guru, concluding that it is Madonna. (“I hope she thinks that’s cool and not weird.”) Like me, Wendy identified strongly with Madonna’s vision of freedom, after a “conversion” experience at a Blonde Ambition concert; her most cherished memory comes from a brief job at MTV, when she found herself assisting the singer, yelling at the head of the network: “Madonna is going to do what Madonna wants!”
But unlike mine, Shanker’s loyalty never faded. “Yeah, I think the Kabbalah stuff is crazy. But is that the craziest thing a celebrity has ever done? So Madonna wants to drink expensive water, so what? She wants to help a child, she pays for 10,000 orphans to get food! I don’t know why people hate her so much.”
It’s the body, we conclude simultaneously. That aging/ageless body. “It’s shocking to look at this picture on my wall, compared to the way she looks now,” admits Shanker, describing a 1990 Harper’s Bazaar portrait above her desk. “Somehow, she seems to stress people out. She still seems to have something to prove.”
It’s true. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older along with her, but watching Madonna strut past 50—hips grinding in high heels, posing legs spread—brings out anxious, contradictory emotions. It’s become taboo to criticize stars for plastic surgery—both because it is their choice and because they have no choice—but each time I glimpse that grinning mask, I wonder why it’s impossible for Madonna, with all her power, her will to shock, to ever stop “giving good face”? I try to persuade myself to admire her most New York qualities (ambition, workaholism); I tell myself she’s a dancer, and this is what dancers do. But I feel exhausted just witnessing the effort it must take to maintain this vision of eternal youth. This didactically selfless Madonna is less inspiring than the selfish one in so many ways.