Madonna Feature. Q Magazine’s Icons Special 2004

Material Girl

How the career opportunist and media manipulator became a woman of substance.

Words: Dan Gennoe

 

The executives at MTV must have thought God himself was shining a light on them. In 1984, for the first Video Music Awards, they needed something special. Something to ensure the attention of the world. They got Madonna, performing Like A Virgin, in a white wedding dress, writhing and clawing her way across the stage like a cat on heat. 

Twenty years later, when mini-Madonnas Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera joined the Queen Of Pop to recreate the scene for the 2003 VMAs, they no doubt saw it as a symbolic handing over of her crown. When Madonna stole the front page again by kissing both young pretenders firmly on the lips, she delivered an altogether different message: she’s still the Queen Of Pop and she’s not about to abdicate. Get used to it.

There are those who’ve sold more albums, but none who’ve done so with the style, headlines or savvy of Madonna. For some being a cultural figure head is an accidental by-product. For Madonna, it’s been a life’s work. Master manipulator of the media; one woman sexual revolution; spectacularly astute talent scout; arguably, Madonna’s greatest achievement is just being Madonna. 

“She does what she likes and she doesn’t care what anybody thinks about her,” says Britney Spears of the woman who inspired her to sing and “dance around in my short tops and dream about being her.” 

“She’s the ultimate role model for a woman in the music industry,” agrees the Sugababes’ Heidi Range. “She’s shown what’s possible. In pop, Madonna’s always pushed the boundaries and set the standard.” Or as “die-hard fan” and keen note-taker Pink puts it, “She was my god.”

Maintaining god-like status hasn’t been easy though. Unlike most who garner such praise, she didn’t die young. She hasn’t had her finest moments frozen in time. Much is made of her ability to reinvent herself. In truth her most valuable survival instinct is knowing what to reinvent herself as and finding the right people to help her do it. 

As one of six children, the young Madonna, desperate to be seen as an individual, dreamed of being a “movie star”. When that looked unlikely, she studied dance and moved from Michigan to New York- reputedly with just $37 dollars in her pocket- to ‘make it’. No sooner had she realised that her hard fought individuality would preclude her from joining any dance company, she’d met musician/boyfriend Dan Gilroy and taken over his band. Madonna, wannabe pop star, was born. 

But even then she knew her true calling. When she and next boyfriend, drummer Steve Bray (who’d eventually co-write Express Yourself, Into The Groove and Papa Don’t Preach) argued over what to call their band she suggested: Madonna. “So what are you saying?” asked Bray. “You’re the leader of this band?” “Not at all,” replied Madonna. “You’re the brains. You’re the musical genius. I’m just the star.”

A shameless self-promoter, Madonna, more than any other artist, has capitalised on the power of the media to maximise her ‘star’ potential. With her videos she’s sold herself as the new Marilyn Monroe, made belly buttons and bras essential fashion accessories and relentlessly courted controversy. When she successfully outraged the Catholic Church by seducing a black Jesus against a backdrop of burning crosses in the Like A Prayer video, Pepsi quickly dropped her from an upcoming ad campaign- which got her more attention than if they’d run the ad. When MTV banned her Justify My Love video for its nudity, cross-dressing, homoerotica and gimp masks, she released it as the first ever video single and got blanket press coverage as fans queued to buy it.

Yet while Madonna may have turned shocking the world into an art, in 1992, with her ill-advised, foil wrapped picture book SEX, she found the limit of its usefulness. Showing the Material Girl cavorting less than erotically with the likes of Vanilla Ice it was met with a collective roll of the eyes rather than shock and awe, and had her labelled as desperate and past it. With subsequent albums Erotica and Bedtime Stories selling just two million copies each – Like A Virgin sold 20 million- it was clear that her greatest invention, Media Baiting Madonna, had become a liability and was systematically dismantling a career that had produced some of the defining moments of ‘80s pop. Never one to dwell on her failings, she initiated the ultimate reinvention.

Although music wasn’t Madonna’s first career choice, she’s always had an instinct for it which extends beyond her impressive knack of spotting the next boyfriend/co-writer/producer to steer her course. “She’s always made fantastic dance songs,” insists Björk and Britney Spears collaborator Guy Sigsworth who co-wrote and produced What It Feels Like For A Girl, from Madonna’s 2000 album Music. “She couldn’t make the music she does if she was just calculating and trend-obsessed. She said to me ‘I’m good at simple. I do simple well’. And she does.”

That Madonna will indeed be remembered as a musical force to be reckoned with, not just a marketing one, is down to one album, 1998’s Ray Of Light. Following the birth of daughter Lourdes- who she asked the pope to baptise, he declined- and with her 40th birthday looming, she recruited pioneering British ambient producer William Orbit and redrew the pop blueprint with the same vision and conviction that had made Like A Virgin a watershed. 

With tech-pop joy and tender remorse for her shallow former life, she wiped the slate clean. Under liquid atmospheres she buried the smutty show-off and was reborn a spiritual earth mother; a woman of depth, character and integrity. In one deft move her legacy was secured. 

As befits a member of pop’s aristocracy- Ray Of Light’s cyber follow-up, Music, confirmed her peerage- the 46 year-old mother of two and second husband, mockney film director Guy Ritchie, now reside in an 18th century, English country pile, which is said to offer the finest pheasant shooting in the land. 

However, while she’s often to be found wearing a flat cap and telling ramblers to get off her land, she’s hardly living the quiet life Messrs Spears and Aguilera would probably like. As well as now being, of all things, a successful children’s author, this year she spectacularly countered disappointing sales of last album American Life with Re-Invention, 2004’s highest grossing tour. 

“That’s the thing about Madonna,” says Ray Of Light producer William Orbit. “I’ve never met anybody who has more ability to make things happen. She makes things happen just by the sheer force of her will.”

 

Three essential tracks: Drowned World / Substitute For Love (from Ray Of Light 1998), Like A Prayer (from Like A Prayer, 1989), Holiday (from Madonna, 1983)

Three best albums: Ray Of Light (Maverick / Warner Bros, 1998), Like A Prayer (Sire / Warner Bros, 1989), Like A Virgin (Sire / Warner Bros, 1984)

Further reading: J Randy Taraborrelli, Madonna: An Intimate Biography (Sidgwick & Jackson, 2001).

Website: http://www.madonna.com


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Dan Gennoe

Dan Gennoe is a London based freelance journalist & author. He's written features, interviews and reviews for the likes of Esquire, GQ, Arena, FHM, Q Magazine, Mojo, Red, Time Out, The Independent and The Mail On Sunday. Dan also writes books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has ghost written the odd celebrity biography.

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