The Death and Life of Blond Ambition: Madonna’s Entrancing Contradictions




IN 1987, over 10,000 people gathered in Times Square to catch a glimpse of the pop singer Madonna, fresh off the plane from California. She wore a strapless silver gown and fire engine lipstick, her hair cropped and platinum blonde. “Now here’s the irony of the situation,” she told the crowd, grinning. “Ten summers ago, I made my first trip to New York City, my first plane ride, my first cab ride. And I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know a soul, and I asked the taxicab driver to drop me off in the middle of everything. So he dropped me off at Times Square.”

The tricky thing about mythology is the way it coils around reality, like a serpent. I could explain why Madonna’s story is bullshit. I could point to Sarah Schulman, Samuel Delany, José Esteban Muñoz, the decades of queer scholarship on Manhattan’s gentrification and commercialization. The PR speech justifies the city’s erasure of cross-class urban space, I might say. Three years later, the Times Square of Madonna’s youth no longer existed.

But I watch the speech again, and the mythology tightens its grip. Suddenly I want to board my first plane, too. I want a taxicab to drop me off on an unfamiliar street corner, swarmed by crowds of people. “I was completely awestruck,” said Madonna, “and ten years later I’m standing in the middle of Times Square, looking at all you people.”

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This year marks the 30th anniversary of Madonna’s Blond Ambition World Tour. According to Rolling Stone, the tour established Madonna as one of the world’s most successful musicians and is largely credited with “reinventing the megatour itself [as it] extended [the] provocation and upped the spectacle.”

The tour has indeed become a blueprint for music industry success. In the 21st century, the pop star’s album promotion cycle culminates in a live stadium tour, in which she combines theatricality, sexuality, controversy, and autobiography. The music serves not as the main attraction, but as a complement to the pop star’s dancing, fashion, and videos. What happens onstage represents just one component of the tour; the performance extends to the press and the internet, so that the audience includes every witness of the tour’s media spectacle. Yet the pop star must keep this a secret — otherwise her fans wouldn’t spend $200 on tickets.

The urge to mythologize Blond Ambition, and Madonna’s career more broadly, is understandable. That’s how it goes, right? Our idols age, their albums sell fewer copies. Their personal lives might fall apart, but their nasty divorces and mid-life crises do less to inform their public personas than the memories of their younger selves. Should they wish to remain commercially relevant, they embark on live stadium tours, but the shows rarely resemble Blond Ambition. Male idols strum guitars and don leather jackets; female idols wear sequined cocktail dresses and lean against grand pianos.

In the 2010s, however, Madonna resisted the nostalgia narrative, even as her music became increasingly self-referential. The conventional trajectory of legacy acts, she claimed, was sexist and ageist. “To age is a sin,” she said in a 2016 speech at the Billboard Women in Music Awards. “You will be criticized, you will be vilified, and you will definitely not be played on the radio.”

Last year Madonna released Madame X, her 14th studio album. Eccentric and high energy, the album drew influences from global dance trends such as Brazilian fado, Cape Verdean djembe, and German techno. Amid the Twitter fury over certain lyrical missteps (“I’ll be Israel, if they’re incarcerated”), I hesitated to admit that I was fairly impressed. Breakup ballads “Crave” and “Crazy” struck me as sensitive and emotionally intelligent, and I danced and jogged to “Faz Gostoso” and “Bitch I’m Loca” straight through the summer. Even if some of Madonna’s riskier moments fell short, it’s remarkable to compare the album to simultaneous offerings from her presumed successors — in retrospect, Madame X was one of the least generic pop releases of 2019. 

To promote Madame X, Madonna sat for a New York Times feature interview with rock critic Vanessa Grigoriadis. In the feature, Grigoriadis expressed reservations about Madonna’s efforts to sexualize the aging female body. “Fans love aging musicians not only because they are time-travel machines […] [They] hold a mirror up to our own aging and offer clues to where we are going,” wrote Grigoriadis. “[But] I wasn’t Madonna […] I was an old mom in the playground with Go-Gurt on her shirt.”

Madonna deploys irony, she violates taboos, she plunders aesthetics — but has she ever offered clues? She traffics in bold, inflammatory gestures, and we the audience are typically provoked into sharp, profane reactions. The ambiguities of her work, which could be mistaken for clues, generally stem from the variety of meanings we attribute to her. To Camille Paglia, Madonna is the future of feminism; to Tom Ward, she is a vile, heartless capitalist slut; to bell hooks, she is a proponent of sexism and white supremacy. Each reading registers as true, even as we find ourselves in vehement disagreement. We argue, but we can’t deny that once again, Madonna struck a nerve.

This dynamic is at play in the Times feature. Grigoriadis praised Madonna’s past career triumphs, but castigated her for having become “preachy,” and for comparing her Rebel Heart album leak to “rape”: “It didn’t feel right to explain that women these days were trying not to use that word metaphorically.”

As grateful as I am for Grigoriadis’s rigor and thoughtfulness, I question the efficacy of treating Madonna as a “time-travel machine.” Sure, she acknowledges Madonna’s unwillingness to pass into legend status, but something about Grigoriadis’s angle continues to enforce the legacy narrative. The Times feature suggests that a consensus has been reached — that the discourses surrounding her legacy have been fully resolved. Can rape be used as metaphor? Should aging women be afforded a greater degree of sexual agency? From the feature, you’d think we’ve all drawn the same conclusions.

Unsurprisingly, Madonna bristled at Grigoriadis’s portrayal. “It makes me feel raped,” she wrote on Instagram. “Women have a really hard time being the champions of other women, even if they are posing as intellectual feminists.”

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Blond Ambition was a studied choice of phrase, generally consistent with Madonna’s PR messaging at the time of the tour. In the late ’80s, she asserted herself as a commercial force, her third album True Blue becoming the best-selling record of 1986. She proved to be a reliable source of media fodder, too, particularly in her marriage to and divorce from actor Sean Penn. In promotion for her fourth album Like a Prayer, however, Madonna sought to be recognized as a serious, accomplished artist. “People have certain notions about me, and it is time for a change,” she told Interview. “My first couple of albums I would say came from the little girl in me […] And this new one is the adult side of me, which is concerned with being brutally honest.”

In the mythology of her early career, we understand that Madonna failed to achieve immediate critical acclaim due to the music press’s gender bias. The praise was instead lavished upon Prince and Michael Jackson. In the Billboard speech, Madonna contrasted the press’s treatment of her versus Prince, recalling that she was “called a whore and a witch […] Wait a minute, isn’t Prince running around in fishnets and high heels and lipstick with his butt hanging out? Yes he was, but he was a man.”

Had she been a man, goes the myth, the critics would have raved. How much of this is true, and how much of it is shaped by PR? Given the Billboard speech, it’s strange to remember that at the height of Blond Ambition, Madonna kept a healthy distance from feminist discourse. In Interview, she disparaged the women’s movement for “[feeling] they had to dress like men and behave like men […] to have power. I think that’s bullshit.” In Cosmopolitan, she complained that feminists “didn’t get the joke. The whole point is that I’m not anybody’s toy. […] I think the public is tired of trying to figure out whether I’m a feminist or not.”

In the Times feature, Grigoriadis drew attention to this slippage: “For someone who gave liftoff to third-wave feminism […] Madonna hasn’t always toed the feminist party line.” Of course, it’s easy to accuse Madonna of hypocrisy, of taking advantage of the stereotype of feminists as shrill and humorless. But still, the charge feels reductive.

In fact, many of Madonna’s early looks, from the Boy Toy buckle to the Material Girl diamonds, can be read as exercises of power from within the constraints of heteropatriarchy. Her invocations of Catholicism, from the rosary beads to the “Italians Do It Better” T-shirt, helped ground the theoretical question of gender roles in a tangible reality, easily recognizable to a mainstream audience. Like Bruce Springsteen, and later Lady Gaga, Madonna embodied the struggles of a middle-class American generation to live in accordance with church doctrine; they believed in sacrifice and adored their fathers, but their choices and desires were increasingly opposed to what they learned at Mass. A Madonna fan might not read Shulamith Firestone, but her entire childhood she’d heard that wearing the rosary as a bracelet was sacrilege, the jewelry of a whore. Madonna brought forth the intimate, shame-ridden details of this widespread taboo.

The good-girl-gone-bad motif recurred in Blond Ambition, most prominently when she embodied a cabaret chanteuse in the Dick Tracy sequence. But it’s the opening number, “Express Yourself,” in which Madonna truly indulged her fascination in the masculine. She emerged atop a staircase, in an industrial set inspired by Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, wearing a black pinstripe suit and a slicked-back ponytail. At the foot of the staircase a cast of shirtless male dancers performed push-ups, gazed upstage, trudged forward as if shackled by chains. Right away, it’s clear who was in charge.

Then off came the jacket, and there it was: the cone bra corset. Fashion scholars recognize the corset, designed by French couturier Jean Paul Gaultier, as “an emblematic symbol in the early ’90s”; it has since been sold at auction for over $20,000. Recalling the collaboration in an interview with the Times, Gaultier remarked that “[Madonna] knew what she wanted […] [She] likes my clothes because they combine the masculine and the feminine. It was, that no, that yes, no, yes, no.”

Of all Madonna’s reinventions, this is where we must look if we want to fully understand the relationship between her music and her visuals. In the lyrics, she issued a directive: “You know you’ve got to / Make him express how he feels,” she sang, “and maybe then you’ll know your love is real / express yourself.” The cone bra put the directive into practice. Under heteropatriarchy, the female body is coded as nourishing, as the source of human life — but why, Madonna challenged, is it presumed to be submissive?

As much as I enjoy Blond Ambition’s conventionally feminine segments, I find them far less compelling than the moments in which Madonna went lightspeed postmodern. The cone bra visualized a conflict both time-specific and relevant to today; the choreography’s crotch grabs and bicep flexes gave it kinetic expression. Thirty years later, celebrities seem always to be donning corsets, nostalgic for the power the garment once wielded. Never have they come close to the cone bra’s strength.

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If Madonna had been a man, would the critics have treated her as Prince’s peer? Here, mythology strangles reality. Questions about her legacy are poised so that they prompt just one close-ended answer. What kind of misogynist would deny that Madonna’s career has been plagued by sexism, ageism, whorephobia? Am I a reactionary simply because I want to complicate the narrative? It becomes near impossible to explain that our current framework is limited by its reliance on conjecture — there’s no way of knowing what could have happened — and by its failure to account for factors beyond gender, such as race and class.

The latter grievance formed the basis of scholar bell hooks’s 1995 essay “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?” hooks examined her ambivalence toward Madonna’s use of black and gay culture in Blond Ambition. Her subversion of male power, hooks argued, depended on the subjugation of black people, particularly black women: “The image Madonna most exploits is that of the quintessential ‘white girl.’ […] [S]he must always position herself as an outsider in relation to black culture.” hooks continues, “It is that position of outsider that enables her to colonize and appropriate black experience […] even as she attempts to mask her acts of racist aggression as affirmation.”

The critique, of course, is not unique to Blond Ambition. Before there was Madonna, there were Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin — the mythology of American rock ’n’ roll arguably rests upon a belittlement of the cultural debt white rock stars owe black blues musicians. Prince’s disastrous 1981 supporting stint for the Rolling Stones, and the racism and homophobia he experienced from the Stones’ white fans, brought this debt into sharp, painful clarity. Maybe the headlines never declared Prince a witch, maybe the tabloids never published his nude photos — but whatever male privilege he brandished didn’t keep the audience from pelting grapefruits and chickens at his band.

Indeed, as hooks remarked, to overlook black culture’s influence on Blond Ambition is to “engage in forms of denial.” The “Vogue” sequence, in which Madonna incorporated Harlem ballroom dance into her choreography, has served as the most frequent lightning rod for discussions of race and appropriation. Is the exchange equitable, goes the question, or does Madonna insist too heavily on her own centrality?

As in “Express Yourself,” the “Vogue” segment achieves its impact through the relationship between its music and visuals. In the spoken word verse, Madonna invoked ballroom’s repurposing of Hollywood glamour: “Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers, dance on air,” she intoned, “They had style, they had grace / Rita Hayworth gave good face.” If anything, the homage suggested a degree of fluency in the elements of ballroom’s craft, which is sorely lacking in its recent iterations. Still, given the craft’s emphasis on community and collaboration, perhaps it’s dubious that Madonna foregrounded herself so prominently in the choreography. Her male background dancers, most of whom were black and Latino, spent much of the number upstage, their figures in near silhouette.

Of course, the reading could just as quickly be dismissed. That’s the trope of women as self-absorbed, goes the counterargument, nobody attacks Mick Jagger for his stage direction. True as it might be, I worry that such a deflection merely proves hooks’s point. The “quintessential white girl” must be protected, after all, especially when it comes to her relationship to race. 

Inevitably, Madonna has conveyed an aversion to this critique: “[T]hey can kiss my ass,” she said in a 2015 Huffington Post interview. “I’m not appropriating anything. […] They said Elvis Presley stole African-American culture. That’s our job as artists, to turn the world upside down and make everyone feel bewildered and have to rethink everything.”

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Perhaps hooks’s framework is the most felicitous lens through which to revisit Blond Ambition. After all, the age of Trump promised a grand reckoning with our national mythologies — let’s call it an eschatology. What are the brutal inequities, we ask, that undergird our freedoms? And sure, maybe artists make us rethink everything, but what is to be said of the massive corporate apparatus to which our pop stars are beholden? At a time when we can make direct links between cultural production, corporate interests, and state-sanctioned violence, what does it really mean for art to bewilder us?

From the eschatology of our moment, a counter-mythology emerges. The system might be broken, the climate might collapse, but at least artists no longer turn our world upside down. Instead they elevate us. They uplift marginalized people, they clap back at injustice. The gestures toward progressive values don’t always register as cynical, per se, but the stars seem to affirm them only in the context of album promotions and product endorsements.

So much of it is bullshit. It’s exactly what hooks cautioned us against — she even charged Madonna with the same accusation. “Yes, it’s possible to hire gay people, support AIDS projects, and still be biased in the direction of phallic patriarchal heterosexuality,” she wrote. “All that is transgressive and potentially empowering to feminist women and men about Madonna’s work may be undermined by all that it contains that is reactionary.”

If Blond Ambition serves as an industry blueprint, then the critique is certainly warranted. Yet I can’t help but feel that a distinction must be drawn between Madonna and her successors. Take the show’s “Cherish” sequence. In the number, Madonna donned a pink-trimmed dress and strummed a gold harp, surrounded by three of the male dancers. The dancers wore nothing but blue prosthetic fishtails — she fashioned them as mermen.

In “Express Yourself,” Madonna mimicked the phallus; here, she removed it completely, deriving male power from an unfamiliar source. She coded the mermen as gay, yet the dancers hoisted themselves in the air, raising their fishtails in erect, angular poses. To call this portrayal “reactionary” dismisses the male dancers’ energy and elegance. At a time when AIDS stigma stereotyped the queer male body as weak and atrophied, it was rare for a star of Madonna’s stature to envision queer masculinity out of the context of disease.

Once again, the genius of the “Cherish” segment is in its relationship between the music and the visuals. “Cherish your strength / You got the power to make me feel good,” she sang. “Baby I perish the thought / Of ever leaving, I never would.” At the time of Blond Ambition, it was far from a guarantee that gay men would be here forever. From the deaths of her childhood dance teacher Christopher Flynn and close friend Keith Haring, Madonna experienced the consequences of AIDS personally. Thirty years later, we ask so little of pop stars who deploy queer iconography. Maybe it’s more convenient to take Madonna’s efforts for granted, to displace the cynicism and empty gestures of our current moment onto her.

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Thirty years after the Blond Ambition World Tour, it’s clear that Madonna no longer occupies her former perch in pop culture. The Madame X Tour faced delays and cancellations, many of them due to Madonna’s persistent knee injury, and several guests expressed grievances over the show’s no-phone policy. Characteristically, she reminded her audience, “A queen is never late,” to which one fan responded with a lawsuit.

For what it’s worth, Madonna’s motivations for rejecting mythology appear to go beyond ageism and sexism. She seems genuinely restless, anxious for her next reinvention. In the Times feature, she admitted feeling weary of her musical catalog: “I just go, ‘Ugh,’ […] because I’ve had to hear it five billion times already, and I want to escape that.”

To engage with Madonna in 2020 is to be confronted with the contradictions of our current moment, the profound gap between our projected ideals and our lived realities. It’s hard to tell how much of the disorientation Madonna deliberately leverages for the benefit of PR; many of her latest antics, such as her Instagram portraits of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., strike me as tone-deaf rather than artfully provocative. Indeed, we ought to apply a greater critique to Madonna — her relationship to race, to greed, to beauty, to culture.

Still, I must ask: If we dismantle the mythology of Madonna, then what will we replace it with? Frankly, I’m not convinced our current framework can sustain such a fraught, weighted discussion. Catholics, for instance, have never reached a consensus on Madonna — she has only managed to crystallize the painful fractures in the Catholic church. Similarly, there are many gay men who find her repulsive, just as there are plenty of black women who find her invigorating. It’s natural to assume that we agree on issues based on our shared identities, but I worry that this is actually counterproductive — in truth, it denies us our unique subjectivities as political and aesthetic witnesses.

Affording each other our distinctive viewpoints, with all their internal contradictions and concessions, is certainly the trickier task. But perhaps it’s the more effective one. I, for one, would rather be bewildered than complacent; I’d rather be provoked into rethinking the presumptions that undergird my values and beliefs. And if there’s an artist who really knows how to provoke these conversations, it’s Madonna.

Soon enough, though, Madonna will concede to the constraints and diminishments of age. She may not die as Prince and Michael Jackson did, decrepit and diseased and addicted to painkillers, but her body will break down. Then, maybe then, she’ll have no choice but to rely on the legacy of Blond Ambition. That’s what haunts me most about the future: as hard as we resist, our fate might be determined by mythology.

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Quinn Roberts is a writer from New England. He is at work on his first novel.

 

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