Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sex Sells...But Who's Buying?

[As I promised last week, here's my anti-Madonna rant (it originally ran in the April 1991 issue of Stereo Review) from which Michael Medved pulled a quote in his piece of crap anti-Liberal screed Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War Against Traditional Values.]


By now, apparently everybody in the world has seen Madonna's
Justify My Love video and formed some passionate opinion about it.

That this has happened is, to be sure, no small testament to the business smarts of the former Madonna Louise Ciccone. In fact, given that the clip is verboten on MTV, it's ubiquity bespeaks a media and marketing savvy demanding serious respect from mere mortals like you and me. And frankly, all the attendant brouhaha (Censorship! The Decline of the West! Bad Haircuts!) really is sort of neat: It means that what passes for art these days can still stir up controversy.

Of course, the irony here is that the artifact in question is hardly worth all the fuss, especially by the standards of Madonna's earlier work. Face it, kids: The song itself is just a functional piece of disco erotica, and the now-notorious video simply sells it efficiently, nothing more, nothing less. Granted, Justify's evocation of polymorphous perversity might be hot stuff if you've never seen a Visconti movie or Duran Duran's Girls on Film. But otherwise it's notable solely as an indication of Ms. Ciccone's alternately pretentious and pedestrian sexual preferences (translation: she has a thing, as they used to say, for Eurosleaze). In short, no big deal.

And yet, and yet...I've been thinking a lot about Madonna of late, a chore occasioned by the release of "The Immaculate Collection," her nearly complete (that is, without Justify) video retrospective on Warner/Reprise. And the conclusion I keep reaching has kind of brought me up short, especially since it seems to be a minority view, barring Tipper Gore and a religious nut or two. The conclusion, of course, is that Madonna's most hysterical detractors actually have it right, that this woman and the messages she sends are mostly indefensible on a (gasp!) moral level.

I am, I realize, verging on Cranky Old Man territory here. Obviously, there's no law saying pop music should be spiritually uplifting. Equally obviously, much of it -- including stuff I like a lot -- isn't. That's part of pop's appeal. If singles and videos were nothing but humanist pieties with a good beat, nobody in his or her right mind would ever bother with them.

All that allowed, however, "The Immaculate Collection" still makes me want to take a shower when it's over, and I think I know why -- it's so nakedly, so honestly scummy. Yes, clip after clip vibrates with subtexts ranging from the distasteful to the nearly evil: porn-palace peepshows as harmless rites of passage (Open Your Heart), the Sixties civil-rights struggle as just another pop image to be plundered (Like a Prayer), heartfelt odes to unwanted pregnancy (Papa Don't Preach), narcissism posing as liberation (Vogue), untrammeled greed (Material Girl) and on an on. And yes, individually they can be (and have been) justified with the sort of arguments (Postmodern Irony! Subversive Ambiguity! She's Only Kidding!) you'd expect to hear in This is Spinal Tap. Unfortunately, when you watch the clips back to back their cumulative impact is anything but ambiguous or ironic. You realize that this stuff is an accurate representation of one woman's sensibility (her soul, if you will), like some ghastly disco version of Advertisements for Myself.

None of this is to knock the music. It's true that if Madonna had been run over by a truck in 1985 the subsequent direction of pop would not have been altered one whit, and it's hard to imagine a young musician somewhere listening to her albums and thinking "Wow, what a cool riff. I oughtta steal it." Still, the best of her singles are, unquestionably, well crafted and damnably catchy, which is why a lot of folks -- particularly feminists and gays desperate for something politically correct to dance to -- seem so ready to overlook or reinterpret what's actually being peddled.

Well, I can sympathize with that. Lord knows there are enough records in my collection that are (at best) guilty pleasures, and I'm hardly advocating some sort of ethical litmus test for pop music. But we shouldn't pretend that this stuff is value-neutral, either. What I guess I'm really saying is, okay, sure, go home and dance all you want to "The Immaculate Collection": some nights I might even do the same thing. But when we do, let's at least have the grace to hate ourselves for it in the morning.

[So -- what do you think? Does the above come across as a rightwing critique? It doesn't seem so to me, but I must admit that at the time I wrote it I had a feeling it might be misunderstood. As for Medved's appropriation of it, I doubt he read the whole thing -- I'm sure he had some research assistant pulling quotes off of Lexis/Nexis -- but I still think he's a disingenuous dickhead.]


Anonymous said...

No, sounds to me like you're just saying "it's passable music designed to shock and/or tittilate - feel free to ignore the obvious marketing overtures."

I'm guessing it was the "barring Tipper Gore and a religious nut or two..." and "But we shouldn't pretend that this stuff is value-neutral, either." paragraphs that led him to believe you were Casting Out the Demons In the Name of ...

I don't think Medved understands the concept of reviewing music/video, frankly. To say "there's an empty soul pushing trashy music/video that, frankly, sucks" is not a sweeping moral condemnation of The Scene or a Clarion call to Jesus-Up the industry.

Regardless... Point to simels!

Thers said...

Who's "Madonna"?

danny1959 said...

Who were you arguing with? Is there another side that argued that Madonna's music WAS value neutral? More importantly, though, what was that idiot Medved's point in bringing up a review written 16 years ago to make a point about contemporary culture?

TMink said...

Well, I may need to duck here, but I think both you and Medved are co-travelers here, but certainly not traveling companions.

You both think that the stuff is morally scummy, but you have differing moral systems by which you judge it. So you are not traveling together, but you visit the same destinations at the same time in this case.

It would have been more accurate, well, it would have been accurate at all for Medved to use your piece as a way of making the point that not even liberals are happy with Madonna's work on moral grounds.

At least that is my take on things.


Anonymous said...

What tmink said.

Your comment a few days ago that you thought teenage girls liked her because she scared teenage boys was dead on, btw. Pretty perverse way to feel powerful, though.

steve simels said...

it would have been accurate at all for Medved to use your piece as a way of making the point that not even liberals are happy with Madonna's work on moral grounds.

I guess that's what I'm really bitching about.

Oh well, it's a fifteen year old book, so it's not exactly a burning issue.

On the other hand, I'm willing to bet there's gonna be similar, shall we say, distortions of things liberals have written in Jonah Goldberg's forthcoming tome...

TMink said...

To my way of thinking, it is worth bitching about.


Anonymous said...

Being quoted out of context in a large, widely-read publication by a well-known person who clearly didn't read the original piece has got to be one of the finer torments in Writer Hell. But it speaks to your fame.
Sadly, the point you made about Madonna so long ago was spot-on: She was a guilty pleasure--she was the super-size, the transfat, the artificial butter-flavor of her era, with all the corresponding cultural health benefits thereunto appertaining.