Sunday, April 5, 2015
Love her, or loath her, Madonna has definitely been a game changer. Since the release of her first recording, “Madonna” in 1983, she has survived in a music industry that does not often offer career longevity. As she has remained afloat in the pop cultural world for several decades, she is now facing the murkiest waters of her ever buoyant career.
Prior to Madonna, most main stream high profile popular musicians never made known their ambitions, or made visible their fiscal success. Like Victorian Ladies careful of their reputations, they feared that if their open ambitions and lavish lifestyles became public knowledge, we the public may not respect them. Madonna, right from the gate, made it known she was out to conquer the musical world.
It did not take long for the street shrewd Madonna to go from the colorful garb of the rough and tumble music world to Chanel. Lavish music videos and images of herself resurrecting the image of high Hollywood glamour by mimicking Marylyn Monroe gave her not only an identity, it differentiated her from the pack. Long gone were jeans and t shirts and boisterous music. They were replaced with slick production and cinema refined imagery.
Like a successfully arranged marriage, Madonna rolled into a music world that was embracing the music video. Every artist of any significance was compelled to make one. For many artists, the music video was more an annoyance than a creative tool. In Madonna’s hands, the visuals became her most faithful companion.
On a music level, Madonna was not particularly innovative. But, she knew how to secure catchy irresistible pop melodies. Dance numbers with fast paces became her stock and trade. She was a dance club music act with enough visuals to make touring successful.
Her concerts became visual spectacles. There was dancing, scantily clad boys and girls and Madonna front and center showing off her svelte worked out body. Her image and accompanying visuals were intertwined.
At a time when successful acts looked at Vegas as the career kiss of death, Madonna was brining that type of glitz and glamor to the rock and roll pop arena. What she also brought was sexuality.
She also brought a bit of controversy.
Madonna knew the exact amount of sophisticated edginess to bring to the stage without totally alienating her audience. She had the type of edge of punk, but diluted with enough Vegas show styled numbers to make it all work. She had a successful formula.
Sadly, what works for one is not always good for all. It did not take long for women in music to follow her lead. Suddenly, it was expected that a female pop singer be overtly sexy, proactively dressed bringing a dance troupe with her. The day of the singer songwriter had given way to the singer as sultry pop goddess.
The highly visual over sexed chanteuse was the new role model. It was not enough to sing and write songs, now the singer had to be a dancer and provocateur. Style had become substance.
What Madonna also did was that she had one eye aimed at the club world. Her connection to Queer youth culture, Black youth culture and Latino youth culture were valuable weapons. She borrowed from all three to create her sound. She also cultivated a gay following.
Not often said in public, but well understood by singers and actresses who want long running careers, your best defense against irrelevance is a loyal gay following.
Look at any major motion picture star or singer. Some will actively pursue a gay audience actively, some in more subtle terms, but you are hard pressed to find a major female film star or musician that is vocally anti gay. Even major male motion picture stars realize the value of a gay following. The gay audience tends to be loyal, and are astute followers of what is in vogue and what is not.
From the framework Madonna created, a bevy of anxious women marched on the public air waves. Most looked like pale imitations of Madonna. A few managed to rise above the morass and succeed.
The Achilles Heel of Madonna’s identity is that it does not take into account the one thing all artists must contend with eventually if they are around for a considerable length of time, age. “Time waits for no one,” Mick Jager sang. It is a reality that cannot be ignored.
Depending on your art form, growing older may not have an immediate negative effect on your creativity. Writers, provided their minds are active, can expect many years of creativity. Artists with working hands can do the same. Songwriters can also continue. Singers can last a long time. Dancers have a limited time range. As for Madonna, it depends.
At 56, Madonna is holding up well. It is obvious she has taken care of herself over the years. However, there will come a time when revealing clothing may not work as effectively as they have previously. There comes a time when something has to change. In her recent attire, Madonna has been showing considerably less skin than she has in the past. She is now showing body parts in strategic ways.
There is more here than looks, or body parts. Madonna, who was a master of visual images, seems to be locked in a time capsule. Even the music doesn’t seem all that different. For someone who jumped on trends and rode them to hit recordings, Madonna at 56 looks as if she is struggling very hard to remain just relevant.
The art of Madonna is aging, and not gracefully.
In sharp contrast to singers who made their careers on their voices and/or the songs they wrote, Madonna looks as though she can’t must up the skills to pull it all together. Her visuals look more suited for Rhianna or Beyoncé. Where is the evolution? Where is the continued growth?
One problem that faces Madonna is that her early fans were not too far in age from her. The audience she had in the 80’s are all in their early to mid-fifties now. The group that followed her from the “Like A Virgin Tour,” may have little connection to her music now. They maybe looking elsewhere for entertainment.
To add insult to injury, a radio station in the U.K. stop playing her music. She was deemed irrelevant. In a twist of irony, the woman who created the format for pop success was made an exile from the realm she so dominated. As it turns out, that is not the only audience she is losing.
Pop pundits have said some rather harsh things about “Madge,” as she is known in the LGTQI community. Some have pointed out that Madonna has been quick to take from Queer culture, but not so quick to put back. They have cited such things as her lack of contributions to Queer causes and lack of participating in pride events as key examples. It has been said that Madonna is quick to make a buck off of gays, but reluctant to do anything for them. The words exchanged on the streets have been harsh.
Every artist at some point has to confront the issue of age. How does one work creatively growing older? Age can be a great asset and a great challenge. For Madonna, as it looks now, age is a problem with no easy answer.
Artists do evolve. Creativity is not a static proposition. The hurdle for Madonna is how to do so when so much of her image is imbedded in youth culture. When your entire program is built on youth, how does one move forward?
Even if you do the same thing at 56 you did in your 20’s, no matter who you are, the result is that you look like a text book case of arrested development. To grow older in your art without change is the direct nonstop flight to not only irrevance, particularly in a pop culture with an insatiable appetite for the new. Stay too long in the past and you end up becoming a caricature of yourself.
Madonna, at her best, can master the pop song. Her string of hits makes that clear she knows how to catch the ear. Writing successful pop songs is no easy task. While the snobs of music may turn up their noses as something as frothy as a pop single, it requires an incredible amount of ability to compose one that lingers. It is an art form. For every “ Be My Baby,” there are a sea of “Disco Ducks.”
With sales of her latest Rebel Heart not hitting expectations, it will be interesting to see how that response may impact future releases.
Kurt von Behrmann is an artist and writer in Phoenix, Arizona. He is currently working on fundraising for his solo exhibition, “Between Two Poles,” A Bipolar Exhibition.