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MAN BITES TOWN

AN IMMATERIAL GIRL : What Our Lady of Perpetual Hype Lacks in Substance She Makes Up for in Media Savvy

June 16, 1991|Harry Shearer

No one has been cheated more thoroughly by the passage from the '60s to the '90s than the people who make their living writing pop-music criticism. They discovered in their youths that they could get paid for elaborating on the meaning that leaped out at them from Beatles and Dylan songs; now they're paying off their mortgages trying to find something to say about Madonna.

That sobering task has sent them to the galleries and museums in search of artistic theories vague and arcane enough that they can make, with all respect, the world's most boring human seem interesting. So we keep seeing words like postmodern and deconstructivism pouring out of typewriters first purchased to explain what people in the '60s liked to call The Revolution.

Illusion is what the pop world is all about. Ask Rock Hudson. But it's still puzzling, eight or nine years into the Age of Madonna, that a person can generate so much seemingly thoughtful ink when her mystique is built on nothing more than "Will she be blond this week?"

She is, as her admirers insist, media-savvy, at the very least. She transfixes a certain number of women writers with her interest in maintaining control over her act. That fascination says basically that Miss Ciccone has been incredibly successful in making the illusion of control part of her act. After all, a lot of women in show business maintain at least as much autonomy over what they do: Lily Tomlin, Bette Midler, Kiri Te Kanawa and Julia Phillips, on her good days. But they're too busy doing what they do to call attention to their decision to do it. Madonna is like the ham actor admired by certain less discerning patrons because his work looks so much like acting.

She does get the media to be incredibly complicit in whatever her stunt of the month is; she is as effective as a Pentagon pool in bringing editors and producers to heel. "Nightline," which has stood up to Presidents and premiers, turned all wobbly in the knees when Madonna presented a list of severe demands as her price for giving the show its highest rating of the year. This is testimony primarily to the fact that news organizations, this magazine excepted, are still dominated by middle-aged men who always like a good tease.

That, in fact, is the act that Madonna does so darned autonomously: a striptease. A very postmodern and deconstructivist, high-tech, fully staged stripper act, where you get the bonus of the star actually lip-syncing much of the music that accompanies the grind. Madonna's contribution to the art has been to dispense with whatever strippers used to take off before they got down to their underwear. Her crucial empowering stroke was to cut to the chase and start out half-naked.

Paying too much attention to the performance, though, misses the point of a certain kind of pop experience. What's going on is the drama of religious redemption set in a wax museum. The drama goes like this: Take a female star whose lifelong suffering crescendos to an untimely death. Let a cult arise around her and her foreshortened oeuvre. Then enact the spectacle of her spirit, reborn, triumphant after all. The suffering Judy becomes the tough Liza; the doomed Marilyn lives again (and you just know that Madonna wouldn't take any crap from Arthur Miller).

But there is something new here, hard-working pop critics reply. This woman is ironically self-aware about all this. There's a big important Wink buried under all the funny bras and the wigs straight out of a Spring Street storefront. Ironic self-awareness has replaced sincerity as the emotion show folk display in order to get away with the same old act one more time.

Now, the fashion pages inform us, since Madonna has been so successful at decorating her own void, she's giving similar advice to Michael Jackson. Lose the buckles, he's being told, and can the glove. Designers from here to the Champs Elysees have been solicited to submit ideas for Michael Jackson's new look. (My spies say keep an eye out for Jean-Paul Gaultier's bronze briefs with a conical pouch.)

This public self-awareness and self-obsession, however postmodern the critics think they have to proclaim it, is just an attempt to retain our attention without giving us what we really want from our celebrities--scandal. Madonna, smart woman that she is, must know this. She's probably working right now on having an affair with a married Kennedy.

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