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Madonna’s Dying Ray of Light

Madonna’s Dying Ray of Light

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I know nothing about Madonna.
Before writing this, I knew that Madonna: sang “Material Girl” and “Like A Virgin,”
played “All the Way” Mae in A League of Their Own, and tongue-kissed Britney Spears.
At first, my lack of knowledge about the Queen of Pop was discouraging and, frankly, a
little embarrassing. People try to make you feel that way about music , like your
experience as a human life-form could not possibly be complete without listening to
some Springsteen song while sitting on a tailgate drinking your first beer. I think it comes
from a genuine place, from a desire to share our lives with each other or something. And I
desired that. So I threw off the shackles of my Madonnian virginity, Wikipedia-ing her
relentlessly and creating a playlist, forcing everyone at work to listen to an unnerving 90-
minute Madonna medley. I wanted to be a part of the Madonna experience—the flirty
pop anthems, the razor-sharp club-movers, the groundbreaking sex ballads, the fame, the
fortune, the sex!

My discouragement and shame melted away as I eased into the Madonna
discography; I learned the songs, sent out a few “Dude! Have you ever jammed to
‘Vogue?’ So good!” texts, and prepped myself for the plunge into the affirming circle of
life-sharing that is being a Madonna fan. I found just one small problem: no one cares
about Madonna.

My original assignment was to investigate how and why Madonna is still relevant,
particularly to the impressionable demographic of teenage girls. And while I knew that
Madonna’s “let’s-talk-about-sex!” songs had thrown open doors for femininity in the ‘80s
and early ‘90s, I suspected that today’s teens—born after the Erotica era to mothers
nearly Madonna’s age—could not care any less.

In the week following Super Bowl XXXLVLII, while everyone got to swim
around in the tepid baby pool water of Eli Manning’s legacy, Gisele’s f-bombs, M.I.A.’s
finger, Madonna’s hyper-homosexual take on 300, and the slack-line guy, I quizzed many
people, young and old, about Madonna. Mostly, no one in my general age group had any
interesting opinions. I acknowledge that my casual research isn’t the stuff of mind-
splintering journalism, but my shallow foraging does say a lot: everyone knows about
her, but not because of any meaningful, firsthand experience.

For people born in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Madonna is the musical equivalent of,
say, Larry Bird. Now, before you start pointing out major discrepancies in this theory,
noting that Larry Legend never would have simulated masturbation in public and that
Bird’s ‘stache-and-fro look was contrary to Madonna’s edgy aesthetic, let me stop you
right there. I get it: If Bird’s hometown of French Lick, Indiana, were on the
undiscovered planet Xarzon00003, Bird and Madonna could not be further apart. But for
us, children of the Internet or whatever, we experience these two blondies—they both
have blonde hair!—the same.

The Celtics superstar, by any metric you want to use, is among the five greatest
basketball players ever. You hear guys like my dad laud Bird; they’ve got old Celtics t-
shirts and highlight tapes and their own Where were you when Larry hit the shot?
memories. Maybe they weren’t at the Boston Garden, but they were alive for the Bird
Show. And because of that, because of old fans and those greatest-of-all-time lists and
highlights that you’ve seen six hundred times, you feel like you experienced Larry Bird
(while of course you didn’t). It’s the same with Madonna.

Madonna is the greatest female pop artist we’ve ever seen. There are arguments to
be made against that, I’m sure; but there are also equally palatable arguments to be made
for Madonna being the greatest pop artist period, taking into nutrition hgh

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account the basic metric: did
the artist in question go beaver-shit crazy at some point in life? Her first album dropped
almost thirty years ago. She has more Billboard top ten hits than any musician ever. She
changed the face of fashion a handful of times, and ushered in a paradigm-shattering
view of sexuality that challenged the Church and anti-feminist world views (remember,
this was the ‘80s: this shit was crazy). Her glamorous halftime performance was the
most-watched in Super Bowl history. And yet, for many of us, Madonna is just the
surprisingly spry 53 year-old who provided background music for America’s biggest
pizza party: we saw her up there, and remembered, vaguely—“Oh yeah! That’s that one
song!”—that we were watching the woman who made pop music. We remember
Madonna, sure, from summer days when we weren’t supposed to be watching VH1, but
we didn’t experience her.

Now, despite our lack of cognitive memories, we can all agree that Larry Bird and
Madonna belong in the same conversation: the Hall of Fame, the pyramid of legends, the
very pinnacle of their respective fields. Bird has remained in the public eye as President
of the Indiana Pacers, that after coaching the team for three years, morosely hovering
around the bench and calling plays for Reggie Miller. But how did Madonna get here?
And I don’t mean how she got famous—anyone can do anything to get famous at any
moment: make a sex tape, make a YouTube video, make a sex tape and upload it to
YouTube, be an Asian-American basketball player with a surname that linds itself to puns
(Okay! I’ll stop). Although this is sort of important, her road to pop music domination
has been written about by every fledgling music writer with a laptop and a set of
headphones: her blow-the-doors-off sexuality; her blueprint-creating pop songs; her
constant reinvention; her knack for, somehow, despite the reinvention, “staying true to
herself.”

The truly interesting thing about Madonna is how she differs from Bird, how she
climbed so far into the celebrosphere that everyone benignly forgot about her. It bears
repeating: Madonna became so famous that people started blithely ignoring her. At some
point in her career, she entered the strange, no-man’s land of uber-fame. Bird took a few
subtle steps down—from player to coach to executive—but Madonna just sort of kept at
it, making radio-ready pop hits, staying off the home page of TMZ, merging over and
letting Britney, Beyonce, and Rihanna careen past her in the fast lane. Like an aging
basketball player with diminishing skills, she changed her game, started picking her spots
and deferring to her “teammates” more (Justin Timberlake and Kanye assist on 2008’s
Hard Candy, and her new single “Give Me All Your Luvin’” is a three-woman-weave
between her, M.I.A., and Nicki Minaj). She still pops up here and there with big plays
and club-bangers, reminding us that she still is, in fact, Madonna. But the shtick is over,
for the most part: the sexed-up videos, the determined button-pushing, the knack for
getting people to point and look and get their morality panties in a wad.

And so it almost seems sad that Madonna has ended up here: the provocative
Madonna gone, the new one forgotten; her tag-teams with hip-hop’s hottest meriting
nothing more than a few eye-rolls from the cooler-than-thou’s, the blasé teenagers and
Pitchfork critics. But what do we make of a 53 year-old boldly out-extravagance-ing the
Super Bowl? She didn’t sing any of her hot button songs or assert her sexual power, but
maybe “doing what she wants” simply means getting to push 114 million people’s
buttons in a garish reminder that she’s still here. So perhaps Madonna hasn’t gone
anywhere, after all. And perhaps we haven’t forgotten.

 

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