'Little Nonni' from Michigan has come a long way since she worked in Dunkin' Donuts. Three decades at the forefront of pop, and richer than her wildest dreams, Madonna is showing no signs of slowing down or 'acting her age', writes TONY-CLAYTON-LEA
SINCE HER ARRIVAL in our lives in 1983, Madonna has made a virtue out of promising more than she delivers. While academics such as Camille Paglia loved Like A Virgin for its “coruscating polarities of evil and innocence” the rest of us sang along to the song at discos and watched a cheap video that promoted the classic nice-girl-next-door/dirty-Doris stereotypes. Good for Madonna, though – even back then she instinctively understood that her business model of fabricating pleasure and triggering desire was the way to go.
In subsequent years, of course, she became the pin-up for broadsheet post-modern theorising on the sexualisation of consumerist-driven pop culture, written about more as a marketing phenomenon than a skillful woman whose acumen for filtering/filching/adapting underground trends before they went mainstream made it look deceptively easy.
Some say her real gift is akin to that of David Bowie in his 1970s heyday: the ability to consolidate her research and reconnaissance in a style that is utterly hers.
Certainly, female pop stars of today (yesterday and the day before, too) owe her a lot. Madonna was the first female pop star to fully engage with the visual elements of her art by drawing into her inner circle designers (Jean-Paul Gaultier), video-makers (Mary Lambert) and high-end fashion photographers (Herb Ritts, Steven Meisel).
And now? Well, over the years she has been viewed as part female sell-out (in 1991 she formed a joint company, Maverick, with Time-Warner, receiving a $60 million advance, and renegotiated her recording contract for a $5 million advance for each of her next seven albums – plus a 20 per cent royalty; in 2007, she signed a $120 million contract with Live Nation) and part feminist icon (“She drags feminism along casually in her slinking stride like a cave woman who has just killed her dinner,” Julie Burchill once noted).
This year sees a pop star – 54 this August – still very much aware that peak physique equals ultimate appeal (the second of her gym franchise, Hard Candy Fitness, opened in Moscow last December). That she has been effectively usurped by the very women she has so obviously influenced doesn’t hide the fact that she remains fully on-point, even if her sense of regimented control is increasingly viewed by her detractors in a cold light. Ultimately, though, what’s not to admire about her? Over 30 years ago, she started out as a tough little scrapper in a male-dominated industry determined to succeed. Now here she is – rich beyond her dreams. Autonomous.
Not to be written off just yet.
Hey Mr DJ the music
She started off girlish and naïve, had a career mid-life crisis by "sexpressing" herself perhaps a bit too openly, and has now ended up almost back where she started: the purveyor of pop music that is equal parts Madonna and whoever it is she's collaborating with. There's no doubt that she's in control, of course, but like many a creative chameleon before and after her, Madonna has liberally helped herself to the ideas of others in pursuit of her own success.
That's not to say she hasn't delivered some of the best female-centric pop music of the past 30 years. The first five years of her 1980s career featured classy pop music that focused on romance, love, boy-meets-girl, dancing, partying and generally having a good time.
Later on, her music got more personal, graver – particularly on what many believe is her highest artistic achievement, Ray of Light (1998), her seventh studio album. In collaboration with William Orbit and his techno/trip-hop/ ambient background, she deftly addresses issues relating to her renewed spiritual faith, motherhood, love and fame. A textured dance album with surprisingly honest lyrics is something no one expected from Madonna, and such an artistic about-face is something she has continued to pursue. She hasn't always been successful, but if you're of a certain age and disposition – and particularly if you're female – there will always be a place in your heart for Madonna. In the first 10 years of her career she broke so many rules it beggars belief.
Whether her new album, MDNA, will contain enough quality pop to carry her along for a few more years remains to be seen.
If it doesn't, there's always the just-released box set, The Complete Studio Albums (1983-2008), which features the 11 studio albums she recorded for her former record label, Warner. Listen to the tunes all the way through if you want to know what all the fuss used to be about.
MDNA is released today
Little Nonni to lucky star
EXPRESS YOURSELF Madonna: icon or has-been? Have your say at irishtimes.com
1958: Born in Bay City, Michigan, Madonna Louise Ciccone. Known to family members as "Little Nonni".
1978: Drops out of the University of Michigan and relocates to New York City. Works as a waitress in Dunkin' Donuts.
1983: Releases debut self-titled album. Hit singles from the album include Holiday, Borderline and Lucky Star.
1984: Releases second album, Like a Virgin. Sales worldwide top 20 million.
1985: Appears in two movies – Vision Quest and Desperately Seeking Susan – and marries Sean Penn.
1986: Releases third album, True Blue. Inspired by and dedicated to Penn, the album spawns hit singles Live to Tell, Open your Heart, Papa Don't Preach and True Blue.
1987: Divorces Penn, citing "irreconcilable differences."
1989: The Vatican condemns the video for Like a Prayer. MTV names Madonna as Artist of the Decade.
1990: Commences Blonde Ambition world tour. Its goal, reveals Madonna, is to "break useless taboos". Madonna's first greatest hits album, The Immaculate Collection, becomes the best-selling compilation ever by a solo artist, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide.
1992:Founds the Maverick label, publishes the explicit book Sex and releases fifth studio album, Erotica.
1993:Embarks on the Girlie Show world tour. Appears as a guest on the David Letterman Show, where she hands the host her underwear and asks him to smell them.
1996:Appears in Evita ("the role I was born to play"); earns a Guinness World Record for the most costume changes in a film – 370.
1998: Releases Ray of Light, which wins four Grammy Awards.
2000: Marries Guy Ritchie.
2003:Releases ninth studio album, American Life. Selling more than four million copies worldwide, it is the lowest-selling in her career to date. At MTV Video Music Awards, Madonna kisses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Publishes children's book, The English Roses, which becomes the fastest-selling children's picture book of all time.
2006: Embarks on the Confessions tour, which grosses more than $194 million, becoming the highest grossing tour at that time for a female artist.
2008: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Divorces Ritchie, citing "irreconcilable differences."
2010: Opens Hard Candy Fitness gym in Mexico. (Moscow gym opens in 2011; others to follow)
2012: Releases 12th studio album, MDNA.
World tour to include show in Dublin's Aviva Stadium on July 24
Too sexy? What other artists think
I have a problem with overt sexuality in music if it's distasteful to me. Any problem I might have with Madonna's sexuality is not to do with the number of birthdays she's had, but rather that her brand of sexuality can sometimes be brash, tacky and – worst of all in my book – it can diminish the music rather than enhance it. This is, of course, a subjective opinion, so I guess it depends on how it's done and who's doing it.
Bryan Ferry and Leonard Cohen are good examples of men of a similar age who exude sexuality, but the key word here is "exude". It's hard to imagine Leonard Cohen with his shirt off, legs spread with his hand on his crotch. Cohen's and Ferry's sexuality is subtle: it seeps through the music and one enhances the other. There's a huge amount of seductiveness in what they do, which creates a wonderful erotic tension in the music.
I'm for letting Madonna do her thing. I'll be listening to the music, though, and giving her videos a miss, because what I find most appealing and desirable of all is when passion and sensuality comes from the music itself.
I believe artists are entitled to project themselves whatever way they please at whatever age they please. My sisters were obsessed with Madonna when I was young, so I was used to seeing her in "compromising positions". I also think that women well into their 50s and over can exude sexuality – artists like Mary Margaret O'Hara and Laurie Anderson. I agree it's in a more demure way, but who are we, or who am I, to judge how such a prolific and influential artist as Madonna should behave or dress herself this far into her career?
MARIA DOYLE KENNEDY
I wasn't a fan of her early music (Ray of Light was the first album to call me), so I tried for quite a while to ignore Madonna. She didn't speak for me or of anything in my life, but, as disconnected from popular culture as I may be most of the time, you would have to be living under several soundproof stones not to be aware of the songs and images of the biggest female pop star ever.
I initially resented her achievement because I saw her as another example of someone getting her kit off to sell music. It took me a long time to recognise the formidable intelligence behind her success and to see how completely in control of everything related to her career she has been.
That, really, is her legacy, I believe – to have power over what you do, yourself. Now that she's over 50, I deeply resent the questioning of whether her behaviour is "age appropriate". It's just not a question that arises for men, and is connected to the archaic notion that women are valued for how they look and men for what they achieve.
LYDIA DES DOLLES (Sweet Jane)
Madonna's never done normal. And she's never done sophisticated, really, has she? She's always been one step ahead when it comes to self-promotion . She can't just release a record wearing your typical 50-something attire. If she wants to continue as the queen of pop she has to something with shock factor. This time the shock factor is her gyrating alongside pop princesses half her age in underwear, at most. But she's got an enviable body and when you watch her latest videos, you can't help but look at what she's wearing or doing, even if it takes the focus off the music.
I think women can exude a sense of sexuality well into their maturity. The media zones in on those who maybe don't get it as right as others. But then the media in general have a lot to answer for when it comes to analysing women in not only music but also the entertainment world in general. No matter how much we try and deny it, women – especially women in music – are viewed as inferior to men.