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Friday, March 26, 2004

Arts & Letters

Madonna: An American Life


“…but your memory is here and I’d like it to stay/
warm light on a winter day…”
—The Shins, “Pink Bullets”

On the November following September 11, 2001, Bob Dylan performed in San Francisco. Dylan was back — another reincarnation — ready to surpass all the young rockers, even his son Jacob. And he did. Skinny rock ‘n’ roll legs, Dylan knew all the moves, especially how to stay perfectly still. The big question, as far as I was concerned, was whether Dylan would join with his fellow musicians to lament the World Trade Center tragedy in song. He did one better: he sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and everything hit home, right then and there, and does even now in the midst of the Iraq war. Dylan did not need to write a new song: his old songs, like him, still said more.

Since September 11 and the Bush administration’s subsequent wars, musicians have reentered the political stage, after having exited it in the early Nineties. Protest music, supposedly long dead, has come alive, redisguised. (Whether recent musical interventions count as political is a question still to be answered. Whether rock ‘n’ roll and pop music by their very nature are and always remain political, despite everyone’s best intentions, is another open-ended question.) In “Let’s Roll,” a title based on United Airlines Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer’s last words, Neil Young created an imaginary interior dialogue for one of the dead hijacked, merging the personal and the political. Michael Stipe of REM “rais[ed] my head to broadcast…my objection” on “Final Straw.” On April 1, Eddie Vedder spiked Bush’s head on a rod, booed and cheered by fans. The Beastie Boys, Lennie Kravitz, George Michaels, even Yusuf Islam ( Cat Stevens) sang out against the war. Sample some of the rhyming protests and objections: “…Now I don’t believe and I never did/That two wrongs make a right./If the world were filled with the likes of you/Then I’m putting up a fight” (REM); “But you build more bombs as you get more bold/As your mid-life crisis unfolds….” (Beastie Boys). And, finally, (yes, he’s still alive, albeit not the same) Islam/Stevens, echoing the immortal John Lennon: “…I’ve been smiling lately,/Dreaming about the world as one/And I believe it could be,/Some day it’s going to come.” The Dixie Chicks made the most noise with a simple phrase announced to Tony Blair’s fellow Londoners: “…we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” The Chicks were banned until Natalie Maines — long live the rhetoric of freedom of expression — apologized for her offensive, if not treasonous, lapsus.

And then there was — and always is — Madonna. The magician of musical metamorphosis could not resist entering popular culture’s political debates. Prior to the release of her new album, American Life, and to the “real” start of the Iraq war, Madonna, now an expat in London, decided once again to disrupt the contemporary discourse by mixing sex, politics, and fashion. (And to do so, as most reviewers have added, despite being an aging mother of two. We should all be so lucky, at 45, however, not only to kiss but also actually desire kissing the young Madonna simulacrum, Britney Spears.) Controversy may be second nature to Madonna, but “the show never ends” is her first principle. This time around, her critical object was American culture — or “American life” — recently drained of blood by Bush and his vampire administration. At the same time, there is no early-twenty-first- or late-twentieth-century pop culture without Madonna, which means that she had an additional critical object: herself (naturally), once Material Girl (MG) par excellence and perfect embodiment of the U-S-of-A ethos.

Refusing to self-destruct, which might be considered too continental an act (cf. Emma Bovary), Madonna, now ex-MG, repents and self-reflects on American Life; she opts for a new form of self-degradation; she confesses and converts. She also continues, as she has her whole career, to revisit the pain of her mother’s death and her father’s absence and lack of love, and to plumb the depths (or measure the surfaces) of religious comfort and contortions. Collaborating anew with the brilliant producer Mirwais Ahmadzai, Madonna attempts to mingle techno with rap, pop, and perhaps even rock ‘n’ roll. Most fearlessly, she plays solo acoustic guitar at moments during the album, an instrumental capacity she has developed during the last couple of years with a certain amount of unexpected humility: Madonna unplugged. (Some of the recording’s freshest moments are Madonna “stripped,” playing guitar and singing without fanfare surrounding and silencing her). One can only admire her relentless efforts to transform and re-style, to become — in the famous words of Plato and Nietzsche — what she is.

But let me return to the scandal — for scandal is what Madonna truly is. The original, “pre-censored” (or “dream”) version of Madonna’s video for the single, “American Life,” included, among other things: models in couture army fatigues strutting to the images of warplanes; fleshy, even obese, dancers in army garb riding with Madonna, who crashes the show and sprays water from a camera at the crowd; and a finale in which Madonna throws a fake hand grenade at a Bush doppelgänger. Catching it, “Bush” proceeds to coolly light his cigar. Of course, “fuck” is used multiple times during the entire sequence. This is the video one might expect from Madonna of old, from any time during the first three prominent stages of her musical career: The Rebellious Yuppie Girl as Reckless Boy Toy (1983-85); The Coming-to-Be of the Socially and Sexually Responsible Woman (1986-89); The Poses of a Sex in Question (1990-91).

After the publication of her book, Sex, in 1992, it’s perhaps best to forget everything Madonna did and did not do. She continued to dishevel her audience and herself, creating upheavals as she further exposed her sadomasochistic postures and attendant paraphernalia (more showbiz than sexual). Madonna floundered under the painful pleasure, and her sales dropped to an all-time low. She subsequently cooled down, presumably with the help of motherhood, ashtanga yoga, a husband, private tutorials in the Kabbalah, and only god knows what else. (“American Life” gives us insight, in rap, into what kept her going, for both good and bad: “I drive my Mini Cooper…/I do yoga and pilates…/I got a lawyer and a manager/An agent and a chef/Three nannies, an assistant/And a driver and a jet/A trainer and a butler/And a bodyguard or five/A gardener and a stylist/Do you think I’m satisfied?…”) Then, starting in 1998, she created the spiritual trilogy of Ray of Light (1998), Music (2000), and, finally, American Life (2003). Madonna was best forgotten and only remembered as the star performer/transformer she was. (Let it be noted, however: “Don’t Tell Me” from Music has to be one of Madonna’s greatest love songs, the fruit of a perfectly contemporary pop ethos. It is, in the words of Dave Eggers, one of those songs you have to listen to over and again in order to figure it out. Let it also be noted, however: Madonna did not pen the song herself.)

But to return to the American Life video, Madonna did and did not give her fans what they wanted. On the one hand, she decided to self-censor. (Because the war in Iraq began? Because of the Dixie Chicks’ reprimand? Bad sales forecasts? Her new movie’s release? Fear of American ignorance? The list goes on and on.) The original version disappeared, having lived only briefly on international airwaves. A tamer video took its place. Worried that the video would be construed as “anti-American,” at times claiming that its 10-minute running time was just too long, and that it was made before the war began (which apparently changed everything), Madonna edited whole sequences to create a second-hand, watered-down copy. Or put another way: Madonna edited the video like a…censor. The final scene suffered a variety of symbolic and semantic deaths. In its place, in Madonna’s words: “I throw this hand grenade…. But it gets caught. And the one who catches it takes something that could be violent and destructive and takes the destruction out of it by turning it into something else. [!] That’s my hope for an alternative, not only to this war, but all wars” (these and following quotes are from “Madonna Edits Controversial ‘American Life’ Video,” Jon Wiederhorn with John Norris, March 28, 2003, mtv.com). Out of the ashes of arbitrary violence comes…hope — or, more precisely, a marketing ploy (and a mea culpa?) of astounding banality.

In her edited/self-censored version, Madonna “takes the destruction out,” “turns it into something else,” and sanitizes the clip. In her own words: “…the soldiers that have gone over there [to Iraq] are flesh and blood. They’re real people and my heart goes out to them.” Vanished is the Madonna of “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” where, with a granny as accomplice, she goes on a shooting spree, killing boys and men. Anger in that video transformed her (as the star) into a suicide victim. American Life’s anger goes straight in the opposite direction. As has Madonna. She is “kinder, gentler,” trying to remake herself into an Americanized Virgin Mary. Perhaps, in her defense, she is up to her old tricks again: self-censorship creating the scandal this time, as opposed to license. Scandal or not, censorship or not, controversy is nowhere in the message. No one can even claim that Madonna wants to “épater le bourgeois”; American pop culture should be so lucky as to have the MG of old doing her thing after all these years. (And yet Madonna had the perfect opportunity to confuse her audience and subvert the legal constraints surrounding music file-swapping. Instead of yelling ordinary obscenities at users trying to download tracks [which turned out to be fake] — “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” — she might have enabled them to trade music illegally, with a certain amount of sexual pleasure emerging from the act of disheveling corporate executives and property rules. Clearly, as always, money rules Madonna. But where has all the fun gone?)

Stepping away from the sanitized video to the album itself, Madonna explicitly announces her spiritualized intentions to her unenlightened audience. Here, more than ever, she lacks the ironic play that some once loved her for: “[I]t’s a statement about our obsession with the world of illusion”; “I fought for so many things. I tried so hard to be number one, stay on top, look good — to be the best. And now I realize that a lot of the things that last and…matter are none of those things.” One would hope that this literal announcement of authorial intentions would be belied by the music itself. Alas, this is not (even once) the case: “I tried to be the best/I guess I did it wrong,/That’s why I wrote this song/This type of modern life — Is it for me? This type of modern life — Is it for free?” Mind you, Madonna, in her own words, is “express[ing] [her] extreme point of view/I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Jew/I’m just living out the American dream/And I just realized that nothing is what it seems.” The second cut of American Life, aptly entitled “Hollywood,” continues the age-old Platonic themes of opposing illusion to reality, surface to depth, appearance to essence. Bolstered by her recent exit (thanks to the Kabbalah?) from the dark cave of shadowy and deceptive illusions, Madonna rejects the values and postures of Hollywood and its empty claims to fame. She turns her back (not without a certain amount of catchy rhythm) on the topos that crystallizes all the false hopes of Americans’ dreams and laments the time wasted fashioning herself according to the desires and images of others (including, as she visualizes in the song’s video, the call to Botox, which chemically, painfully, preserves the appearance of eternal youth). All I can say is that Madonna should have spared herself all this pain by listening, say, to some of the Talking Heads’ early songs.

The rest of the album repeatedly documents Madonna’s discontent with American “civilization” and her emancipation from the chains of ideological blindness. Her newfound enlightenment creates the possibility for unconditional love, marital and maternal bliss, and forgiveness and tolerance — as well as material for a series of new children’s books. Rejection of her prior, lower form of life comes as a disappointment to those of us who childishly expected her to pave the way for a more adventurous — and musical — middle-age crisis. But does it really matter? Why take Madonna so seriously? Is this part of the problem: to take music as a trustworthy guide for discovering new types of lifestyles?

The solemn censors of music are the first to point out the folly of such belief and the problem with listening (or not) to popular music. The censors’ claims are always the same: music is not serious, although it is a serious force with which to contend, especially when shaping immature and plastic minds. The emotional force of the medium, coupled with rhythms that suppress any form of critical thinking, lulls audiences into mindless identifications and idealizations, and incites confusions between music and message, singer and song, artist and hero. An interesting example of this phenomenon was a story published in the Dayton Daily News entitled, “Twenty Years of Madonna.” A woman from Dayton, on the one hand, when interviewed about her love for Madonna, seemed to have taken Madonna too seriously as a person(a) to emulate (“the inspiration I got from Madonna has in many ways made me the person I am today”), and thus willfully ignored the silencing censors’ advice. On the other hand, others — in this case an enraged male and a former parochial-school teacher — took music and Madonna too seriously and heeded the censors’ advice, thus confirming both their puritanical prejudices and limited worldviews. The enraged male denounced: “Now that [Madonna] has attained her goals, she is playing the role of the caring mother and wife who is lily pure….In my opinion, she is a sleaze and nothing but trailer trash. She humiliated her father.” The parochial-school teacher, meanwhile, forewarned: “Years ago, when I was a teacher at a parochial school, the school had a special assembly for a talent show. We were all shocked when a young girl stood in front of the students and visiting parents and lip-synched ‘Like A Virgin.’ Needless to say, new policies where quickly written for all future shows!”

However childish it may be to expect anything from any popular form of music, and especially from Madonna, I still lament the loss of her knack for generating unexpected alliances: between feminists and the Christian moral majority; between confused, adolescent girls and intellectual, female cultural critics; between the image of the suffering Christ and that of beautiful, powerful, black, gay dancers — and this does not even take into account her larger capacity for genre- and gender-bending music that she so often produced in the past. (At least American Life’s cover reclaims a little of this transgressive territory: Madonna as Ché as Patty Hearst….)

Equally important, there was a time (especially 1990-1991) when Madonna provoked public debate about the ways and means of censorship, about the importance and effect of her music and, by extension, the influence of music on social mores. Gone is that time; Madonna now dances to a different drummer. “Papa Don’t Preach” (about a single teenage mother who decides to remain pregnant even without her father’s blessing) was interpreted by both pro-life and pro-choice advocates as for and against abortion, teenage pregnancy, and sex education, and as a song that influenced a teenager’s decision to have or not have a baby, with or without responsibility. The California chapter of Feminists for Life in America said that young pregnant girls going through tough times and, up against parents and boyfriends, were gratified that someone like Madonna was in their corner. Pro-choicers were engaged and dismayed. New York Planned Parenthood said that the song glamorized sex, pregnancy, and child-bearing, and provided teens with a fantasy image of life ahead. The Parents Music Resource Center in Washington took a third view: that Madonna spoke to a serious subject with urgency and sensitivity, that her song implicitly pleaded for more support and communication in families — and that the Center applauded such a stand.

Another example: the video and song, “Like a Prayer.” The video, a lyrical demonstration of Madonna’s Catholic association of man with God — and of religious devotion with sexual passion — included images of her rescuing a black man wrongly accused of crime, kissing a black saint, receiving stigmata from love, and dancing provocatively in front of burning crosses resembling those of the Ku Klux Klan. The video alarmed the American Family Association, a major Christian fundamentalist organization, to such an extent that it threatened to boycott Pepsi if the company continued Madonna’s endorsement of its product. Along with other fundamentalist groups, it found the video “very offensive,” even “blasphemous,” in the strict sense of the word: an abuse of the divine. More liberal Christians found in Madonna a forum to discuss how Christians could be sexually liberated from their guilt-dominated childhoods and from the shame attached to pleasures of the flesh or even to the “passionate” expression of religious devotion. “Like a Prayer” was a confessional feast, according to some, dense with references to religious joy and faith, and to the temptations of sin and power. Reverend Andrew Greeley applauded the video/song as a morality play and echoed Madonna’s own description of it as a testament to a passionate young girl so in love with God that He is, for all intents and purposes, the male figure in her life. Outside this strictly religious debate, the questions were about whether Madonna was making a statement about race relations in America, endorsing interracial marriage, and/or condemning the actions of such racist groups as the Klan.

Granted, these debates were limited, many times even ridiculous, and said more about the sloppy art of the rhapsodist (as interpreter of music) than about the singer. However, Madonna at least had enough in her at the time (for people with AIDS and others) to climb out on a limb and stay there. She now appears to have climbed down. Her new album makes her seem a whirlwind of witting mistakes, even if I am misreading her identity, which she has so often in the past duped me into doing. Her first mistake was one of timing. This is precisely the moment when musicians, including Madonna, should be taking the political and cultural power of music seriously, especially given their visibility and real (as well as symbolic) capital. Some have already risen to the occasion: Natalie Maines donating a good chunk of money to Rock the Vote; Fat Mike of NoFX creating the Rock Against Bush Tour; Moby organizing an anti-Bush ad campaign and fundraising for John Kerry. Music can also elicit individual or collective Dionysian delight that might indeed be apolitical or non-political, but is definitely transportive and clear in its desire and will to tear off veils (to use an ancient example that is again modern) and break down the bounds of the individual ego (as Schopenhauer once told his readers). In the end, music — like all speech — is action, if not one of the ultimate acts that has, as a French proverb goes, a “civilizing” effect, that is, some human and humanizing force that refuses to accept established rhythms and patterns, and that longs to hear a song that allows for forgetfulness and the articulation of sorrows, woes, and loss (like ancient Greek poetry). A civilizing song also (sometimes simultaneously, if one is very lucky) implicitly criticizes any contemporary regime that suppresses the possibility of openly singing a momentary experience of “truth,” either alone or with others (as with ancient Greek tragedy).

The other mistake Madonna made in this album is — to quote her own words — to be “so stupid” as to expect anything “serious” from commercial music, to expect any song, expect the one least listened to, to possess the power to move people out of their slothful sleep. I don’t demand that all music be intelligent and (ultimately) ideological (although a certain amount of artistic and lyrical skill never hurt anyone). But a song should at least be moving, even — especially — when it is about nothing, about all the stupid and stubborn nothings that compose a life (or, at least, my life). A song can render the musical mundane (listen to the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow or most recent releases of Green Day). It can bring metaphor to a basic, even savage, instinct and emotion (hear the Rolling Stones sing, “I see a red door and I want to paint it black”). It can reorganize clichés around love, sex, eros, and marriage (the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures). It can put into verse and melody the loss of desire, the emptiness of a gesture, the death of beloved geographies, emotions, and people (Nirvana, Patti Smith, Hole, Blur, even sometimes, in the early days, U2). Finally, a song can simply call one to sing, dance, move, shout out sounds that are atypical, even unexpected, both for an individual and, even more so, for a repressive regime that aims to bring all music, except its own, to an end. Madonna must have known better than to have committed the fatal flaw of not singing a full song. Somehow, some way, somewhere, she must have known that it is better to remain silent than not to have sung at all.

For E. Z.

Ramona Naddaff is an assistant professor in the rhetoric department at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also co-director of Zone Books in New York and author of Exiling the Poets: The Production of Censorship in Plato’s Republic.
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