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.
Now, bear in mind, for many years I adored Madonna, defended her to strangers—I was a fan, if not quite a wannabe. I graduated from high school the year Madonna exploded, and even in that initial incarnation it was clear that the woman was going to be a living collect-them-all doll collection. She seemed to shoot out new selves every six months—from Jellybean Benitez Madonna to Madonna of the Boy Toy Belt, Unshaved Leaked Photos Madonna, Madonna masturbating on a wedding cake, bouncing beside the waves in “Cherish,” dancing with the little boy in “Open Your Heart,” Who’s That Girl Eyebrows Madonna, Ideal Brunette Madonna (my favorite) saving Black Jesus in that incredible slip, Banned by the Pope! Madonna, “Vogue” Madonna, Fritz Lang Madonna, Wrapped-Plastic Sex-Book Madonna, Shame-Free BDSM Madonna, Sandra Bernhard–BFF Madonna, Bratty Letterman-Taunting Madonna, Self-Mocking Wayne’s World Madonna, the Madonna Who Ate Your Exotic Culture (“Vogue,” “Rain,” “La Isla Bonita”), Abused Sean Penn Madonna of the Helicopters, Contrarian I’m Gonna Keep My Baby Teen-Slut Madonna, Secretly Pregnant While Filming Evita Madonna, Underappreciated Dick Tracy/Sondheim Madonna, Water-Bottle-Fellating Truth or Dare Madonna (with Warren Beatty accessory), Bad Actress Madonna (Wax-Coated/Mamet), Momma Madonna, Kabbalah Esther, British Madge, and on and on.
For years, Madonna felt like a slippery, elegant key to all feminine mythologies, a shape-shifter inspiring to any young girl (or anyone) who felt her shape shifting. In high school, I was friends with a Madonna wannabe, a girl who jumped right on the underwear-as-outerwear phenomenon. At a party, she confided in me about kissing strangers: She loved that BOY TOY belt Madonna wore—she got the humor of it, the wink. For so many women I knew, she was a living permission slip, suggesting not bravery, exactly, but something more accessible: bravado.
Besides, her music was fun to dance to and she fit nicely with a lot of things I liked, like third-wave feminism and reclaiming words like slut and queer. Half her songs were about orgasm (“Borderline,” “Like a Virgin”), way before Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga. And she had an intriguing ability to inspire startling hostility and contempt in men. One hippie-ish boyfriend hated her but couldn’t say why, almost stuttering as he tried to explain: She seemed to be taunting him, he decided. A male friend who did like Madonna told me he felt required to have sex with her if asked: “It would be like being seduced by PepsiCo.” (He meant this as a compliment.)
I enjoyed mouthing off in her defense right through the whole plastic-wrapped Sex-book period, until suddenly, somewhere in the late nineties, something bad started happening to my beloved multiple Madonnas, and my loyalty was severely tested.
The first shock was the morning I flipped through her children’s book The English Roses in the now-closed Astor Place Barnes & Noble. The English Roses was the story of a sweet and perfect girl, Binah, picked on by a clique of jealous conformists. Then a fairy visits them and they discover that Binah is not merely prettier, but also kinder, simply better in every way, and they are ashamed when they peer through her window, only to discover that (a) she had no mother, and (b) she worked very, very hard.
It was her daughter Lourdes’s envied-child-of-the-famous story braided into Madonna’s tragic history of having lost her mother as a child—and the moral was that if you didn’t like someone, you were just jealous. Except the book seemed oddly bullying in itself (the Roses were named after girls who went to school with Lourdes, after all). And the protagonist was the blandest, most passive good-girl on Earth, the opposite of Madonna: Patient Griselda Madonna, not Susan.
This was something new. Madonna had always been preachy (which kind of worked during the sadomasochism-is-freedom stage, when she chanted, “I ain’t your bitch / don’t hang your shit on me”), but now she’d turned downright sanctimonious—and worse, Millennium Madonna, unlike earlier Madonnas, was chiding her former selves instead of shedding them, turning those baby Madonnas (skanky, effervescently selfish visions!) into lessons. For a while, I wavered between Madonna Love and Madonna Hate. I did not much like British Madge, but I was okay with the pathos of the Guy Ritchie Swept Away era—there was something affecting about Madonna’s failure to be a movie star (her bossy self always poking through), and all those quotes about learning to compromise. That wasn’t very Madonna, but it’s not like I wanted Madonna to have a bad marriage. And who doesn’t want to share, to grow? It’s good to be unselfish!
But soon the bad Madonnas were pouring out in a rush: Lady of the Countryside Madonna, Tone-Deaf Antiwar Madonna, and particularly Hard Body and Plastic Surgery Madonna of the Purple Bodysuit. There were elements of this stream of Madonnas that I admired and feared, kind of the same thing when it comes to Madonna. There was Never Grow Old Madonna, turning 50. There was Healthy Yoga Madonna, which I couldn’t trust, because she was hard to distinguish from Baby-Cheeks Botox Madonna. There was Momma Madonna, to whom I was sympathetic, and I didn’t have a problem with the Malawi thing per se, although it didn’t look great from the outside.
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.
Two days later, I find myself doing my daily Google search. Two workers died in an accident at her stage in France; she’s broken up with Jesus Luz; also, the Poles are protesting because she’s performing on a Catholic holiday. She’s collaborating with the New York artist Marilyn Minter! A greatest-hits album drops this fall. And bloggers are examining her upper arms for indications of “bingo wings.” Then I follow pointers on Twitter and find myself watching a YouTube clip of “Hung Up” from the 2006 Confessions Tour—one of many recent songs, I suddenly notice, studded with ticktock sounds and countdowns—with Madonna doing seductive pelvic pops, then reaching out, drawing from her fans the eerie chant “Time goes by! So slowly … ”
And hearing the roar of the faithful brings me back, all over again. Because, perverse as it sounds, the tougher Madonna gets, the more she invokes protectiveness and a kind of pride. In the eighties, during those endless debates about date rape and porn, she was our sacrificial anti-victim, jumping into the slut-pit before she could be thrown, magnetizing contempt: She’d play the tease, the porn star, the dominatrix, eager to control that imagery rather than let it swallow her. She predated and predicted Girls Gone Wild culture, blogs, reality TV, the whole exhibitionistic brand-me wave of modern female culture; she surfed over and then tried to surf past it. If she’s hardened in the process, maybe that’s because she was the first to step up and take it; she was a shield. Now she’s catalyzing a new set of insults, that cougar-MILF catcall, with its attendant put-downs—she’s “desperate,” “pathetic,” “trying too hard.” And maybe she is. Sometimes I think she is. But while other female icons fade, fold, or fossilize into camp, for better or worse, Madonna seems determined to do something unsettling and new: spin to the center of the dance floor, till the end.
i-D March/April 1984
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Madonna Monthly June 1991
Japanese Cosmopolitan July 1991
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French Elle May 13th, 1991
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