Madonna led the way; is she still material?
By Renee Graham, Globe Staff, 8/26/2003
During a recent battle on MTV's ``Video Clash,'' in which viewers, via the Internet or telephone, select the next video to be shown on the show, Madonna's ``Hollywood'' whupped Jennifer Lopez's ``Baby I Love You'' in a ``Diva Duel,'' 92 percent to 8 percent. Somewhere across the big blue ocean, a middle-age mother of two was chortling in a fake British accent.
That, of course, would be Madonna, who these days will take career triumphs wherever she can get them. It's been a pretty strange year for the performer, hardly the way she probably envisioned her 20th anniversary as an international recording star. Released in April, her latest album, ``American Life,'' has barely sold 500,000 copies; she used to sell that many in a week. And while she pretty much rewrote the book on transforming controversy into commerce, she couldn't parlay a brouhaha about the title song's video, which some deemed not only antiwar but anti-President Bush, into anything resembling public interest.
Even MTV, as much created by Madonna as it helped create her in the early 1980s, hasn't given her recent videos enough rotation time to gain traction. So beating J.Lo, even in something as meaningless as an MTV video smackdown, has to make Mrs. Guy Ritchie feel pretty good. If only for a moment in the capricious minds of MTV's core viewers, who were barely born when she was a tarty boy toy, Madonna was again the pop diva immaculata.
And remaining culturally relevant has always been Madonna's obsession. That's why she's appearing in those Gap ads with hot rapper-producer Missy Elliott, and why it's rumored that Madonna will be performing at Thursday's MTV Video Music Awards alongside Britney Spears and J.Lo. Madonna shot to fame, even infamy, in 1984 while singing ``Like a Virgin'' as she rolled around the stage in a wedding gown. Britney and J.Lo are expected to join Madonna to perform that song.
As laughably tuneless as this could be - Can Madonna sing in Jennifer's key? Does Jennifer have a key? - it makes perfect sense. For 20 years a gaudy triumph of spectacle over talent, Madonna's success has metastasized into any number of careers more devoted to flashes of flesh than flashes of artistic brilliance.
Still, if Madonna's achievements have been the blueprint, perhaps now they should also serve as a cautionary tale. True, anyone who first heard ``Burning Up'' in 1983 couldn't have imagined Madonna as anything more than an answer to a trivia question in the 21st century. But it's never been a career designed to glide into something less transitory than selling youth, sex, and vigor. Madonna's kind of success has made the world smaller, its attention span even more dodgy in its pursuit of something shiny and new.
Already, Britney is hoping her next album, due in the fall, will revive what seems to be her fading stardom. Only 21 and just three albums into her career, Britney is struggling to be something more than her limiting sexpot image, but that's what happens when you build a career on the belief that image is everything.
Just ask Madonna. At 45, she's older than the combined ages of Britney and Beyonce, and if even Beyonce looks a little silly gyrating and carrying on, Madonna would look downright sad. She calls herself an artist, but where's the art? The fickle music industry has foiled far more talented singers, yet with Madonna, there's never been much behind the curtain other than her blonde - and occasionally brunette - ambition.
So Madonna's latest way of looking to the future is resurrecting her past, whether in a jeans commercial or on the stage at Radio City Music Hall. She'll get a standing ovation if she performs with Britney and J.Lo at the VMAs, much as Michael Jackson did a few years ago when he made a surprise appearance with 'N Sync. And she'll vamp and spin, not only to show the young'uns how to do it, but to prove she still can do it.
And much as we have for the last 20 years, we'll watch, although this may well be the first chapter in Madonna's last act as a pop icon.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
It's true... I remember in '99 or '00 watching the VMAs where Madonna sat in the audience and looked bored and smirky. I found it funny that she appeared to be acting like a jerk towards the very outlet that helped make her into who she is. I also remember friends of mine going to a Madonna concert in the late 90's and coming back sorely disappointed that Madonna refused to do any of her 80's hits. Madonna had said soon around that time, "Those songs don't reflect who I am anymore. I will not be performing them publicly again."
Now we have her trotting down a city sidewalk in denim capris telling the American public to "Get into the groove." And I found it funny in the end how she watches Missy Elliott do a split and she goes, "Hey, I can do that..." She may as well have said, "Hey!! I can still do cool things too! Look at me!! See? I'm not old!!! I'm hip! I do GAP ads! Come on!!"
Psht. I'm still a Madonna fan, of course. (With the exception of her latest album. Ick. I'm still scarred for life by her rapping.) But she should have tried to go more "Tina Turner" than "Cher." Madonna's not accomplished enough to be cool forever.