Razer on Madonna: the immaterial girl

Apparently, many people once had a passion for Madonna unmatched in force by all other feelings until the sting of its recent loss. If you’re not caught up, with this latest “shock”, here’s a crib: last week, the veteran popstar planted a kiss on a younger male popstar during a live performance.  The younger popstar appeared uncomfortable with what we must suppose was choreographed domination and there have been three chief reactions to this widely viewed exchange. First, there are those declaring “If she were a man, you’d call this sexual abuse.” Second, there are those who say “If she were a man, you’d call this awesome”. Finally and chiefly, there’s a whole lot of butt-hurt women of my approximate age who are just really disappointed for reasons they seem unable to identify.

“I loved Madonna,” writes Cristina Odone in the Telegraph. In Debrief Daily, Sarah MacDonald, writes that we loved Madonna. An idiot cabal on the Seven network said “it’s no longer the Madonna we grew up with!” before descent into a sequence of screams like those of the sex before slaughter at a poorly sound-proofed abattoir.

I loved Madonna. We loved Madonna. Madonna used to be great and then she kissed some bloke and now we’re all bleeding on the tiled floor of a world doomed to death. Perhaps some people feel this way, but they should almost certainly shut up about it. And this is not just because Madonna has failed to ignite sufficient pleasure in me to personally tolerate the mourning of her apparent passing. Rather, it’s because Madonna has been so meaningful for so long, she is no longer capable of generating any meaning at all. Madonna has become, as I believe the semiotics people call it, a floating signifier.

Many worked to demolish the power of the icon Madonna had become. Perhaps most famously, it was a 1990 New York Times essay by Camille Paglia that was the beginning of Madge’s discursive end. Here, Paglia did a reasonable job of pissing on the worst of third-wave feminism — a knack now beyond the Professor — and appointing Madonna its saviour. There was a book called Deconstructing Madonna and another called The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory and each of these books described the star as either the embodiment or the end of queer theory, post-colonial thought and/or of Judith Butler’s “gender trouble”.

I did my small bit by submitting 5,000 words of nothing to my lecturer on the topic of Madonna. I think I called it Performativity and its Discontents: How Madonna Keeps On Pushin’ My Sex Over the Borderline. You are not only welcome but actually obliged to hate me and my kind for giving postmodernism a bad name.

It didn’t stop, of course, with young wankers like me eager to intellectually justify their love for, if not Madonna, then the new relativism that asked us to read the popular as much as we read the classics. Just as deconstruction demanded elite scholarship pretend to embrace mass culture, mass culture pretended to embrace elite ideas. So, just as I was writing an (embarrassing) essay on how Madonna transgressed gender norms, writers of popular journalism were doing, more-or-less, the same.

When Madonna’s Material Girl was released, it inspired a textual unpacking so thorough, it would have given Derrida the shits. Journalists and talk-show hosts asked “what does this mean?” when the young star so obviously mocked the function of woman both as product and labourer in her own production. To be fair, Madonna deserves some credit as the inspiration for this “what does it mean to be a woman in the ’80s?” conversation as the Material Girl video was confusing and rich —  for mine, this was vision more provocative than any of her silly Night Porter rip-offs where she is trussed up in some kind of sex-matador outfit poised to give a wristy to Vanilla Ice.

The conversation about the meaning of Madonna went on for years. There was little, if anything, outside the text of Madonna and this academic and popular study impacted the language. The word “reinvention” is now stuck to her like Hollywood tape and no pop conversation about “icons” or “images” can be had without reference to her over-production of images of herself.

I am not, as others are, so formerly enamoured of Madonna that I could find myself “confused and conflicted” or “hurt” by anything she does on stage or elsewhere. This disinterest in Madonna and what she does to provoke sales through mild revulsion notwithstanding, it would be foolish to dismiss her as formerly meaningless. Like all effective pop, hers offered a critique of the conditions of its production and that she kept this going for nearly a decade — roughly between the flammable vagina of Burning Up and the cool photo-play of Vogue — is a historic achievement. I can’t think of any pop performer so dedicated for so long to a project of critiquing pop.

At her peak, Madonna, who never made especially good records, was in the business not of making meaning but of showing how meaning was made. This made her irresistible to deconstructionists and a great comfort to many young women annoyed with the discomfort of their own defined lot.

The women who were once her most ardent fans now writing that she is a “disappointment” or not sufficiently “edgy” or “feminist” or what-have-you do not correctly recall why they loved her in the first place. It was her refusal to be any identifiable thing or hold any static meaning beyond “icon”– which itself means nothing but meaning itself — that made her so fascinating in her era.

While it is probably true that Madonna’s late “shocking” and “sexy” tactics are every bit as tedious as the journalism that recounts them, it has not always been true. There was a time that she was particularly adept at saying “all of this culture stuff is endless, beautiful rubbish and this is how it is made”. She was, at her best, the opposite of a role model. She was a powerful reminder of emptiness. To try to fill her now with meaning when she courted our affection by telling us that meaning was on a fast-track to oblivion is the work of forgetful fools.

If you want to talk about shock or gender or age “in the media”– as if media is now or has ever been a site worthy of social investigation — there are more appropriately boring subjects than Madonna to fulfil your need. Try that closed-circuit nothing Katy Perry or tolerant debutante Taylor Swift. Let Madonna be remembered for the long and glorious moment of emptiness that she was. Don’t drain her of her most meaningful contribution to the culture which was a fine performance of nothing.

37 responses to “Razer on Madonna: the immaterial girl

  1. Coming late to this.
    Having viewed the video soon after it was released, I was appalled not by Madonna but Drake. Even given the tiniest possibility that the kiss was spontaneous or unrehearsed, Drake’s disgusted reaction completely undercut any satisfaction the viewer may have had. This guy has so little stagecraft that he didn’t know a positive reaction would have drawn laughs and cheers instead of jeers and screams of “Madonna is a vampire!”
    If I was Madonna I would be furious with the fool – he missed an opportunity to make them both look great.

  2. We are all warren Beatty in that doco on maadonna years ago. An examining mind like beattie’s must struggle as a man must, as he did in that movie. I guess what she says is not so much ” I am undeniable” but ” you will not deny me.” Determination is power. When it comes asking what is that we shall not deny, like Mick jagger, M somehow forgets to answer the question.

  3. Thanks Helen. I read your article, re-read it, and while I agree on some of your points on ‘Madge’ (forget how she came to get that nickname) I would offer comment on a few things:

    “Rather, it’s because Madonna has been so meaningful for so long, she is no longer capable of generating any meaning at all.”
    What is this about? Are you suggesting that pop ‘icons’, or even regular musos of the non-icon kind, are here to make meaning? Their job is to entertain, first and foremost, and connect with the listener on an emotional level, not make bold statements on the human condition. Madonna of all people never really ‘made meaning’ and I’m sure she never set out to do that. She sung pop songs, made provocative videos, that’s all. In many ways we got suckered in to her remarkable ability to transform her ‘brand’. Hats off to her for what she achieved, however, coming from nowhere and making it huge without an accompanying huge voice or even, dare I say it, an ability to write songs (and act, and direct).

    “At her peak, Madonna, who never made especially good records, was in the business not of making meaning but of showing how meaning was made.”
    Refer to my comments above.

    “Let Madonna be remembered for the long and glorious moment of emptiness that she was. Don’t drain her of her most meaningful contribution to the culture which was a fine performance of nothing.”
    What are you expecting from a pop star? It’s pop. It’s supposed to be empty! You’re young, you listen to it, you dance, you smile. I do not think you’re supposed to impute meaning. But Madonna is, and was – in all her guises – a performer. Do you think anyone can get up and do what she does on stage? Could you? I think it’s wrong to suggest firstly that she should make a meaningful contribution to the culture. Why should she? I don’t think her performance was “nothing”, however.

    …While I was never a Madonna fan, I recognise her achievements and applaud what she’s been able to do. She knows her limitations. Australians, of course, are always first to critique, first to cut down the successful ones, and this is why in many ways we shall remain a country happy with mediocrity.

    1. Gotta agree with the tall poppy syndrome. It’s sad that any Australian who wants to have a go has to contend with the knockers at home. Good comment.

    2. Maybe re-read again. It’s not a negative criticism.
      Madonna is largely seen, both by academics and some popular writers, as a great example of deconstruction or of postmodern practice.
      That’s the sort of thing that shows us how it was made. Like postmodern architecture, such as the Beaubourg in Paris, shows us its insides and the meaning of a building, Madonna shows us the meaning of a popstar.
      Especially with Material Girl and Vogue. Like a building that has all its normally hidden parts, like plumbing and air-conditioning, on the outside, Madonna showed us how she was made.
      This is a really common view of Madonna. Or was in particular readings of her at the height of her fame.
      So, if you understand what is meant by “deconstruction” (it is often misused to mean something like psycho-analyse or take apart, it doesn’t mean that exactly) in arts, then you will understand what I mean. And see that it’s not an attack or in any way a naive urge to see popstars do something marvellous.
      You might think this is wanky. But, whatevs. This is an arts site.

    3. Further, “meaning” does not have to be worthy to be meaning.
      If you wanna know what I am getting at, and I am gratified that some folks in the comments are totally on board with my ’90s assessment of Madonna, then you need to understand Derridean deconstruction. Which is an important enough concept to be able to speak about publicly.
      I’m not being condescending here. I know when one brings this sort of thing up, even within the context of an arts review publication, people get all “why do you have to make it so elite?”.
      But, be assured, it’s a fairly key concept for understanding the ’90s in particular and it was one that Madonna was absolutely conversant with to some degree. And I like deconstruction sometimes as a way of explaining things and I think it’s good to maybe still write about this stuff even and especially n an era that demands absolute simplicity.
      Again, this is an arts publication and I don’t want to do that whole “it’s sexist!” or “she’s too old!” analysis because there’s so much of that around. And I don’t think it’s useful in arts criticism to simply interpret the social and never the means of creating the art. So, again, if you wanna know what I am on about, it’s Derrida for you.

      1. I was just general commenting about tall poppy syndrome in the last few words of James submission but it’s Derida for me & will see if I can plough through it.

  4. Any woman in the public domain is taking great risks. That of failure or rejection. That of the the wankers that get their rocks off by intimidating one way or another. For Madonna to get where she has would not have been no easy road to stardom. So I take my hat off to her for inventing herself in a commercial way. That also goes for Lady GaGa who I believe at times emulates parts of Madonnas routine. In fact anyone who wishes to grab a bite of the commercial pie needs to establish some type of gimmick that says this me & remember it. Be it singers, actors, writers or any one want success. I take my hat off to any person, male or female who can weather the slings & arrows of stardom for commercial success. Another good piece Helen

  5. It looks more like mouth to mouth resuscitation than a kiss, except in reverse, a few minutes of that would probably kill. Imagine being touched for the very first time by Madonna – scary.

  6. I grew up with Madonna and although I was never an actual fan, I love how she is still making music, performing, working out, and being in the public eye. As a female who is starting to get glimpses of enforced invisibility, I find it wonderful that she is at an older age and still kicking arse. I don’t care what anyone says! No unpacking or Paglia-style analysis here. I just think she’s a life force which sets an example to us all.

    And the Drake kiss video didn’t show him reacting unfavourably. It would have been unprofessional for him to do so. Madonna threw his arms aside and at the end he shed a theatrical tear which was part of the act.

  7. The irony is that she is still talked about across the globe every single day. People have not stopped talking about her for over 30 years. Everyone still cares! She’s the best click bait in the business, ask the Daily Mail who manage to write a whole page every time she leaves the house or post a picture on Instagram.
    And to say she never made especially good albums is wrong. Perhaps it’s time for HR to revisit Like a Prayer or Ray of Light. Rebel Heart is a great album.

  8. Madonna may have ‘shown us how meaning is made’ but she was only the front person, a vain dancer who got a whole lotta people to make her pop and vid’s for her. A vacuity vessel.

  9. It’s interesting to note that an article of the same title ‘IMMATERIAL GIRL’ appeared sometime in 1993 duinrg Madonna’s post-SEX/Erotica and during her Girlie Show Tour.

    Then, as it is now, it was a premature declaration…

    1. You are ageist. In the old days, one was born into sin. You could escape it by getting with God. Now you are born perfect and you acquire sin as you age. Sin now is age and no one escapes ugliness which is the great evil. You pay for your death in unspeakable embarrassment. That’s why people are so silly about age. It’s the new original sin and it’s far less fair than the Christian kind. Augustine and aquinas were infuriating but they were dialectical and beautifully structured. The new sin is stupid, directed by prejudice and the media ( which guides us in all) . My grandfather was part of the world and in the experience of people of all ages until he was in his nineties. We all stick to our age groups as if we were still in age-defined classes as in grammar school. It’s dumb. I hate it.

  10. I have always and will always continue to love Her Madginess in the most inappropriate ways possible. The haters are all just jealous. (And I MUST read “Performativity and its Discontents: How Madonna Keeps On Pushin’ My Sex Over the Borderline” ASAP).

  11. As the great Lester Bangs said in his obit to Elvis “We all agreed on Elvis. But after Elvis, you liked the Carpenters and I like the kinks. So I will not say goodbye to Elvis, I will say goodbye to you.” Or something like that.

    Maddy never got me no joy. Debbie Harry was my baby. She sang about where she was. She lived in Jersey. She hung out at the pier. She was not a symbol as far as anything was a symbol of anything in new wave. The veneer was thin and underneath she was working class. Like really. And far from idolising that, as I was prone to do, she also had weird friends and was occasionally seen at significant parties and not so. And she sang like a fire alarm.. And for year everyone listened to her. And then Madonna arrived and in New York it was a little confusing because she dressed so last year. And she sounded like a little girl. She moved provocatively but didn’t everyone in New York? My step Dad the corporate lawyer admired her business savy.
    No one else I knew particularly liked her except … my girl friend who was a feminist scholar. Am I a snob? Oh yes I am. Debbi was and is yet, her own deal. I don’t know who Maddy is but hat next year, Madonna was everything.

    1. I have heard this from several people who lived in or around the LES in the ’80s: Madonna’s clothes were borrowed from the wardrobes of cool girls from previous seasons!
      I can’t agree with your view of DH, though. I mean, of course I love her but to suggest that she did not think of herself as some kind of pop art piece is outrageous! Her great beauty and exquisite voice aside, her Blondie creation was absolutely playing with meaning.

      1. You are right of course. But DH also was a person. For one thing, she actually could sing. And she sang about experience. Mad sang about these abstract sexual aspirations. We were post hippy, pre alphabet generations. We had no name. No body called us a letter.. Reagan was president. Sid viscous was dead. Nihilism was dead! DH sang like an air raid siren at the end of the world. Then madonna pipes up with songs about getting money, men with money and all the chocolate she felt she deserved. The irony and fun of new wave was swept away by the serious business of business and all the affirmation money would bring. The irony returned later with the 2nd gen punks and grunge and gen X ( how come WE didn’t get a letter?), but the fun never did. Or maybe I am wingeing and you can never go back to the New York that ravished your 20s.

  12. While I’m inclined to agree with you – that your piece above says truly nothing about absolutely nothing, I still feel compelled to point out the most obvious flaw in your argument.
    Anyone that reads your, um… ‘post’ (‘musings?’ ‘article’ seems generous), is at least interested in Madonna. Some, like myseld, are genuinely emotionally invested in her after over 3 decades of life during which she has been literally the most enduring voice of anyone, save my own parents. And I’ve never even met the woman. But I love her. And I appreciate the work it has taken to maintain her presence in my life. She projects a voice that over the years I have often drawn strength from, and more so these days it just provides me to with comfort and joy.

    So fine, you get ‘nothing’ from Madonna. But I do.

    1. You have not read the piece perhaps as thoroughly as you could. I do not say that Madonna is nothing but that she was, at the peak of very creativity, involved in a project of showing the manufacture of pop meaning and revealing that there is nothing at the core.
      I am hardly the first person to say this admiringly. The books I have referenced in the piece do the same.
      Madonna showed that she was a “creation” and dared to suggest, being her own creator explicitly in many instances (this is why I referenced the Material Girl video) that there was nothing but the act of creation itself at her core.
      To make a fairly basic point about the knowingly post-modern culture of the ’80s and ’90s and applaud Madonna for being one of its most artful participants is not the same as saying she is crap.
      I am sure you can find an article that allows you to argue with it more directly. You’re not, in this case, arguing with anything I said.

  13. There is something basically obscene about the current Madonna beyond any vile act or practice I could use to successfully explicate this quality via way of analogy.

    There is something about her powdered sugar skin, the way it sits over her sinews…

    Perhaps she numbers in a roundtable that meets in a cave somewhere. What do they do in the cave? Perhaps they. hang from stalactites draped in occult robes talking in some long archaic language before flapping out into the dark fields of a night to drink from the haunches of goats and cattle.

    1. I don’t know what the logical fallacy that describes your “I don’t like the look of her face” argument is called.

      1. Why are people disgusted with Madonna and less so with Bill Wyman or any one of his peers? OK for a man to have sex with a 14-year-old and but oh-so-shocking for a mature woman to kiss a grown man?

  14. Ooh, the vitriol of the “I don’t care”. Are you sure you haven’t mixed her up with Courtney Love, HR?

  15. “You are not only welcome but actually obliged to hate me and my kind for giving postmodernism a bad name.”

    Consider it done HR, but only because I like you so much.

    Can you really be an icon if you symbolise nothing at all. I disagree with the notion that she meant something, can you have meaning by having no meaning?

    I just looked at her as a blank slate that allowed frustrated, mostly women, impose whatever symbols they damned well liked on her, and she didn’t say much as that would have ruined the mystique if she had have stood for something.

    And standing for feminism sort of fulfills that role for women these days. It’s great to be a feminist because the word can mean whatever you want it to mean, and any set of values can be pinned to it.

    1. Maybe read the piece again? I have said that it is Madonna’s ability to show us how meaning, in this case of a glamorous female celebrity, is made that makes her good. The Material Girl video is the first time she does this very well. Vogue is another great example. She is absolutely saying “I am not real but manufactured” and she is manufacturing herself.
      As for the “meaning” of “icon”. That’s like saying “symbol” or “sign” has a “meaning”. The meaning is meaning itself.

  16. So much yes. If I may be additionally intertextual…the material girl – ‘her voice sounded like money’ which is yet another empty signifier.


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