In 2010, Camille Paglia wrote an essay for The Sunday Times entitled “What’s Sex Got To Do With It?” Despite the vagaries of the title, the essay is a pointed and methodical critique of Lady Gaga.
One of the primary critiques discussed in the article is Gaga’s then preference for corporate-produced over-the-top costumes. Paglia describes as the singer as “a manufactured personality, and a recent one at that.” She writes that, in contrast to older photos that “show a bubbly brunette with a glowing complexion,” Gaga circa 2010 appeared “lavishly scripted in advance with a flamboyant outfit and bizarre hairdo assembled by an invisible company of elves.” Paglia goes on to ask how “a figure so calculated and artificial, so clinical and strangely antiseptic, so stripped of genuine eroticism” could have become the icon of her generation.
Of course, Gaga has re-branded herself at least a few times since then. There was the Tony Bennett moment, the Joanne moment, the Star is Born moment…the list goes on. Gaga circa 2010 is now just a distant memory of meat-dresses and (little) monsters.
Well, at least it was, until recently. Until Madonna brought it back.
The irony, for those paying attention, is that Madonna famously slammed Gaga a few years back for being reductive.
But now? Now I’m waiting for Paglia’s follow-up piece. The one where she writes about Madonna’s artistic expression being lost somewhere amongst credit card receipts. While many critics have long resisted using the words “Madonna” and “artistic” in the same sentence, the truth of the matter is that Madonna has always been brilliant at presenting her own internal issues as universal ones. Whatever Madonna lacks in vocal talent, she could communicate with emotional honesty and naked vulnerability, and she could do that in spades.
There is a reason tracks like “Live to Tell” and “Open Your Heart” and “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself” have become iconic. I remember sitting on a porch swing in junior high, “Live to Tell” embedded in my ears via headphones, and feeling more connected to Madonna than to any of the teenage girls around me. Madonna could do that for me, and she did it for thousands.
However, that Madonna seems as long gone as Gaga circa 2010, and Madonna’s recent spate of Madame X music videos make that uncomfortably clear.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Madonna hater. There was a period in my life when I watched The Girlie Show tour video at least once a year in order to keep me moving for the next twelve months. I own every one of her albums. I’ve been to several concerts. I’ve read a few biographies. I keep up with the latest gossip — and do some gossiping myself.
That said, I’m also not a fan, at least not right now. All this “Madame X” nonsense reeks of entitled laziness, of an album campaign based on shopping sprees and soundbites and, to go back to Paglia and Gaga, costumes. Yes, Madonna loves her clothes, and Madonna is known for those iconic clothes (bullet bra, anyone?), and Madonna has always expressed her newest identity with carefully curated clothes (and hairstyles), but what she is doing now feels like a costume. There is not even a pretense that there is a connected identity.
I mean, can someone explain the eye patch? The grill? And no, she can’t just call it “fashion” and expect me to let it go.
Who is Madame X, anyway? What is the narrative behind videos for songs like “God Control” or “Medellin” or “Dark Ballet”? (I don’t ask about “Crave” because there is clearly no narrative there.) I can lecture to my students about the narrative complexity of “Express Yourself” or “Open Your Heart” or “Bad Girl,” but with these recent videos? I’ve got nothing.
Rather than communicating the artistic seriousness with which Madonna desperately seems to want to be associated, all her recent videos and performances reek of Daphne Guinness-styled productions with excessive budgets, a messy divorce, and bought friends/fans/minions telling her that she is FIERCE and FABULOUS. Much like those costumes and friends, the drama and the issues also feel purchased, acquired for their specific impact, for their supposed cultural and social relevance.
Don’t get me wrong — I think the lack of gun regulation in the United States is a horrific embarrassment and tragedy. That said, the chaotic posturing in Madonna’s latest video for “God Control” is as confusing as the song’s lyrics. What, exactly, is the message? What, exactly, is the chronology of events? Who, exactly, is typing away and what is she typing? What is the narrative?
Perhaps I would be less cynical if Madonna had spoken up about gun control once or twice before. Perhaps I would be more forgiving if the video had a clear message. Perhaps I just miss the old Madonna. Perhaps I’m mad because she’s selling us (and herself) short. Perhaps I need her to do more (and do better), especially right now, when corporate sponsorship and slogans appear to be the underlying motivator for everything.
So while Gaga finds her way back to her Stefani roots, Madonna appears to have switched places, layering on costume and artifice, adding brand messaging by committee, constructing a corporate commodity that is all slogans and no soul. The generation Gaga helped mobilize (all her “little monsters”) are now styling the old queen, and they are styling her with crowns and titles that she never needed before.
Reductive? Look it up.
[Thank you to Xavior, who not only inspired this essay but who inspires me on the daily to think more and do better, and to him and Richard O’Mahony for the endless conversations about all things Madonna.]