A specter is haunting New York. It is the specter of Madonna, who, no matter where she actually lives, is and always will be a New Yorker, just as Frank Sinatra was and always will be a New Yorker. For one thing, she has an almost preternatural ability to make fine distinctions of taste and judgment regarding clothing, art, and sexuality while always coming out on the side of cool, a very New York attribute, especially if you’re from Michigan. For another, she is among the now all-but-extinguished class of artists who moved to New York to invent themselves, when it was possible for an 18-to-20-year-old to live in Manhattan, doing nude art modeling or waiting tables or working in a record store.
Those days are gone. I blame Rudolph Giuliani, and I curse him into a hell where he will have to spend all eternity listening to “The Black Angel’s Death Song” by the Velvet Underground. New York is no longer the automatic destination for would-be transgressive artists, which makes me sad. But Madonna, who has over the course of her career moved the goalposts on the field of transgression, is coming home to play Madison Square Garden for five nights starting July 25. And that makes me happy.
Madonna justifies our love. The list of individuals who by sheer force of will and intelligence have changed the world’s perception of some key feature of existence over the past century or so is very short, but on it I would include Einstein, who changed the way we see time; Freud, who changed the way we see self; Marx, who changed the way we see class; and Madonna, who changed the way we see Madonna. This might seem like a slight accomplishment, but it’s not. It’s huge. Madonna, in becoming Madonna, and in never ceasing to pursue this aim as a progressive, lifelong work, proved that by changing yourself, you can change the world, and make boatloads of money while doing it.
She has, for eighteen years, made records that are at least good, and sometimes great. There are, of course, those who don’t and never will see that when it comes to talent, Madonna stands on her record(s), who believe that Madonna is basically just an excellent bargain-basement shopper, making those fine distinctions of taste and judgment to vampirically absorb the talent of others. We pity those people. They will never understand New York. They will never have the joy of knowing that Madonna is the true King of Pop.
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