Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Material Girl Turns 49 Today!


In honour of Madonna's 49th birthday today, I will write my view of her career pre-Evita, from the "boy toy" who inspired a mall full of wannabes up to the moment when she insisted that only she could play Eva Peron in the film version of the Broadway musical "Evita." Continue reading below...as I share a couple personal experiences that "connect" me to the Material girl (in a "Six Degrees of Nicholas Carroll" kind of way).

My first memory of Madonna is of her song "Borderline". We were on our way to church camp in Guthrie Grove, Iowa when that song played on the radio. I liked that song, but one guy (who happened to be my main tormentor in the Scout troop) made fun of that song. He was into heavy metal, I was into pop. But because I didn't have MTV, I never knew what Madonna looked like.

In the 7th grade, on the first day of German class, a friend of mine said that the German teacher looked like Madonna. I was so excited that I could finally see what this singer looked like (it was the spring of 1985). In walked this gorgeous young teacher and I was impressed. I said to him, "so that's what Madonna looks like?" My friend's jaw was dropped and he was speechless. It turned out that it was a joke. He was kidding to me that the teacher looked like Madonna, and we later found out that the teacher was only a substitute. We met the real teacher a day or so later, but I'll never forget that day.

In the 7th grade, Madonna was huge. In fact, to this day, whenever I hear "Like a Virgin", "Material Girl", "Angel", and "Into the Groove", I'm transported to back to that great year, my last in Nebraska. I even had a crush on the most popular girl in the class (Kristin Rikkers) who dressed like a Madonna wannabe (as these early photos of Madonna showed the style some girls imitated in the mid-1980s). When Madonna first came out, she was the fantasy girl of a lot of guys. Strange how she became a gay icon, as you won't find many guys admitting to liking her these days. The most interesting thing about her is how she's evolved. When she first came out, critics predicted that Cyndi Lauper would be more successful and have a longer-lasting career. What they didn't expect was that Madonna was smart (she supposedly has a genius IQ). While the other 80s icon Michael Jackson seems stuck in the same style (his "Bad"-era clothing and hairstyle has never gone away), Madonna has morphed into different styles...from the hair, clothing, and music. That makes her always an interesting person that I'm always eager to see what she's doing next. Because she's been around a long time (I was in the sixth grade when I first heard her song on the radio), I feel like I've grown up with her. Her music has been the soundtrack to my life.

In the 7th grade, I actually didn't know what the word "virgin" meant. It proved embarrassing because some classmates asked me if I was a virgin. All I could think of was that Madonna song, "Like a Virgin." That song didn't describe me at all, so I said, "no." My classmates eyes got very wide and they were shocked. Almost disappointed. Man, it seems funny in retrospect, but then they realized that I didn't know the word and tried to explain it to me, and this was in Biology class. The boy even panted to get his point across, but I still hadn't a clue until they said, "the Virgin Mary." Then I got it. After that, I said, yes I'm a virgin and they seemed satisfied. Man, were those days innocent or what?

But back to Madonna...as I said, her songs really bring back memories of my 7th grade year, especially "Angel" and "Into the Groove." I remember the fuss in 1985 when nude pictures of her would appear in either Playboy or Penthouse magazine and I wanted to get a copy of that, just to see it (never did). Because I only went to the movies when my parents took me, I didn't get to see "Desperately Seeking Susan" until it was aired on TV years later. But "Into the Groove" was one of my favourite songs of 1985. I still don't get tired of hearing it.

When "Live to Tell" came out in 1986, I was so struck by that song that I couldn't wait to buy her new album when it came out. I was one of the first people to have it, when I lived in Germany and I remember on the Protestant Youth Group outings, the girls in the group wanted the youth leader to play it on a bus trip. He didn't like Madonna because of her sex-obsessed image, but the girls vouched that her "True Blue" album was good and safe to listen to. So, he obliged them and played my tape. He later admitted to liking "La Isla Bonita"...and this was well before that was ever released as a single. To this day, "True Blue" remains as my favourite Madonna album (and I have all of them on CD) even though she showed much artistic growth on her "Like a Prayer" album. However, "True Blue" was one of the rare albums in which every song could have been released as a single. There was not a single "filler" song on the album. In fact, I thought she was going to release "Love Makes the World Go Round" next when I discovered that she had released a new song I never heard of, called "Who's that Girl?", which is another favourite.

Her "Like a Prayer" album didn't start out on a good note with the controversy over her music video featuring burning crosses and implied sex between a black saint and Madonna. The outrage even caused Pepsi to stop playing the ad featuring the song, after spending a lot of money to get her endorsement. It was a lot of hoopla over nothing. I didn't get the album right away but when I finally did, I was impressed by the depth of her songs, particularly "Til Death Do Us Part." It seemed autobiographical, relating her abusive relationship with Sean Penn. It's amazing that they seemed to bring out the worst in each other (the opposite of what marriage is supposed to do), as they were a tabloid favourite in the late 1980s, for spitting on paparazzi to making bad movies together. It was all fodder for the press. The Poison Penns they were nicknamed. Madonna showed the strength to move on after Sean had supposedly tied her to a chair and threatened to kill her. Wow...I found that hard to believe, because Madonna seemed so smart, yet why was she in an abusive relationship with a bad boy? That's the one thing I'll never understand about some intelligent women who are in abusive relationships. The drama is not worth it. My respect for Madonna increased when she finally left him and put her experiences down in song. "Like a Prayer" is my second favourite Madonna CD.

Then came "Vogue", which sounded very cool when it first came out and amazingly enough, I still haven't grown tired of the song despite how many times I've heard it. It's timeless, still as breathtaking today as it was 17 years ago. However, the album "I'm Breathless" doesn't hold up quite so well. My cousin Brandy loved to listen to that album when she came with our grandparents to attend my high school graduation. She and my sister put on a dance for my parents and grandparents, brother and I, using songs from that album ("Cry Baby" and "I'm Going Bananas"). I did like the album at the time, because it was so different, but when I listen to it now, it's kind of embarrassing. I wonder if Madonna feels the same way. Of course, it was done to reflect the music styles of the 1930s to promote her major star turn in "Dick Tracy", in an enhanced supporting role. She's a terrible actress but does okay in supporting roles, so she wasn't bad in "Dick Tracy" (she had all the best lines). But it's her Blonde Ambition Tour that year which showed what a concert tour could (and should) do. It's the one concert I wish I could have attended, though I did have the HBO special on video tape for a couple years until it got lost. I was impressed with the theatrics. None of her later shows come close to the brilliance of that show. My favourite segment was when she went from thrashing on the bed during her "Like a Virgin" performance (featuring male dancers in Jean-Paul Gaultier designed cone bras) into her religious segment, featuring candles and a cathedral-like atmosphere. It was sheer brilliance.

She ended the year on a controversial note, by having her first video banned from MTV. I remember her indignation on "Nightline", but some think she purposefully pushed the limits to see how far she could get away with. After all, MTV and Madonna seemed a perfect synergy. They both came out around the same time (1981 for MTV, 1983 for Madonna) and her videos helped propel her to the top. In fact, the four biggest artists of the 1980s all used music videos to good effect: Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and to a lesser extent, Whitney Houston. But, the video "Justify My Love" was just plain bad. She was trying to top her outrageous segments of the Blonde Ambition Tour by featuring a music video that had sado-masochism sexuality in it. The song's beat already has a nasty funk to it. The music perfectly mimics the sex act in its rhythms. In retrospect, the song seems rather innocent compared to her disasterous "Erotica" CD, which pushed the envelope even more. That came out in the year 1992.

I was in Paris, France in October 1992, staying with a French family. I had a French female penpal, whose 14 year old brother loved Madonna. Anyhow, he was excited because Madonna was going to be interviewed on TV one evening. While Christelle and I wandered around Paris, we were on the Champs Elysee when a short woman in big sunglasses with two big men following her walked in front of us. I saw her and thought it was an interesting sight, but didn't think twice about it until I saw some French teenagers chase after her screaming. Christelle and I thought it was odd, and I remember thinking that the lady looked familiar, but because of her sunglasses, I didn't think anything of it until we watched the interview on TV that night. Christelle and I looked at each other and said, "That was Madonna!" So, that's the closest I've ever come to meeting Madonna. She literally "crossed my path" in Paris...the Champs Elysee of all places!

1992 turned out to be a bad year for her, as she seemed to try to push the sexual envelope even further by releasing not just a provocative song, but an album full of provocative songs; a movie ("Body of Evidence") that was a bad rip-off of a better sexual thriller, "Basic Instinct"; and a book full of sexual photos, called "Sex". When that came out, I remember wondering what she was thinking because she'd probably have children some day and that would be a very difficult thing for a child to accept in a parent. I still wonder sometimes how Lourdes and Rocco are going to react when they learn about that book. The book was overpriced, poorly designed (the metal covers had a tendency to fall off), and most of the photos were just embarrassingly bad. It was sold in mylar covers so people couldn't look at it without buying it, though some places actually had a room where people could rent a time to view the book without having to buy it. I only got to see it when a shipmate had bought it and lent it to some people before being sent to Naples, Italy for whatever reason. He didn't know if he was coming back to the ship and wanted me to get the book back for him when I had to go to Naples for an eye appointment in 1993. So, I got the book (the covers had fallen off) and looked through it. I even photocopied one photo I thought was hilarious: Madonna completely naked hanging from a hang glider. Outrageous! But, I thought the book was ripoff. The shipmate was pleased to get his $50 investment back. If it wasn't for me, he wouldn't have gotten it back, so I felt that I was spiritually selected to do that for him.

I loved her song "This Used to Be My Playground" and her small role in "A League of Their Own" as "All the Way" Mae. Her antics with Rosie O'Donnell provided much of the humour in the film, especially when she threatens to kill the bratty kid with a baseball bat. In 1994, she returned to musical form with "Bedtime Stories", answering her critics of the sex overkill in the cheeky song "Human Nature." The music video is hilarious and it showed that Madonna could have a good sense of humour about things, even though the critics were right about her sexual obsession. In 1994, to promote the release of the album, she seemed to hint that she had a secret to reveal, which people speculated that she was pregnant. But it proved a tease. That held over until the biggest project of her life...playing Eva Peron in the film version of Broadway's "Evita", which had been speculated for years that actresses like Meryl Streep and Patti Lupone were interested in the role. But for some reason, Madonna felt such a strong bond with Eva Peron and their lives almost seem to parallel. I wouldn't be surprised if we learned in the spiritual realm that Madonna was Eva Peron in her previous life. Eva's life was cut short due to cancer, and Eva wanted to be a famous singer and actress but found greater success in politics. Perhaps God allowed her to try once again to find success as a singer or actress, in the person of Madonna. Who knows? It'd be interesting to find out.

But, this post has gone on long enough. I find it hard to believe that Madonna is now 49. Where do the years go? Next year, I will again write about her, focusing on her career since "Evita." That film project is the perfect dividing line in her life, because "pre-Evita" her music style was a lot different than it has been "post-Evita". Plus, she found a new spirituality instead of her love-hate relatioship with Catholicism and she matured a lot since becoming a mother. So, Happy Birthday, Madonna! Thank you for the years of great music, controversies, and being one of the most interesting entertainers out there. Someone needed to push our conservative buttons, and she's the perfect provocateur for our collective prudishness. Here's to another couple decades of continuing musical and personal evolution!

4 comments:

Mandalynn said...

I can't believe Madonna's 49. My mom's 49!! When I mentioned this fact to my mother, she replied, "Yes, but I'm much better looking."

D/B/c/m said...

nicholas--i love the seventh grade virgin story. i laughed out loud and had to read that part to dave. so funny.

mandalynn--that's a rad response from you mom.

Sansego said...

Mandy -- I can't believe your mom is the same age as Madonna! That's a surprise. I hope she didn't do a "sex book" when she was younger!

Brooklyn -- I'm glad you found humour in it. I was really "dumb" as a teenager. I didn't really have an "intellectual renaissance" until my senior year when inspired by my favourite teacher to think for myself. People have always thought I was much smarter than I really am. The not knowing what the word "virgin" meant in the 7th grade was just one example of many. And Madonna made it sound like such a dirty word, so of course I didn't associate myself with that word. But I knew why Mary, mother of Jesus was always referred to "The Virgin Mary", I just didn't make the connection until my classmates helped me! :)

D/B/c/m said...

i think no less of you. i think i was probably worse. i didn't know anything about anything until after high school.