After more than three decades on top, Madonna has never been more relevant, more powerful or more interesting than she is at this very moment. How in the world does she do it?
I’m writing about Madonna. Again.
In one of those full circle moments Oprah tends to get very excited about, my first professional journalism assignment came in the form of writing a review of True Blue, the Detroit native’s album released in 1986. As an ambitious writer/editor of 21, I took the job very seriously. Just a day after turning in my earnest critique (a rave), I arrived in Manhattan to start my dream job at Esquire—magazine home to some of my writing heroes—Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and John Gregory Dunne. It had been a very good week.
The first time I heard Madonna was back in 1982 during my first semester at Tulane University. As I hurried to get dressed to meet friends for a long night of New Orleans’ particular brand of debauchery (how I do miss those days), I heard a voice I couldn’t place coming from my roommate’s radio—female, African-American, sounding a bit like a grittier Jody Watley. The song was “Everybody,” Madonna’s first released track, and something about the song, her voice and her one-word moniker struck a winning chord with me. Her second hit, “Holiday,” an irresistible happy dance confection, solidified that this Madonna was the next hot R&B female vocalist and I wanted to hear more. You can imagine my shock when I first laid eyes on Madonna on MTV burning up my screen in her video for “Borderline”—her first Billboard Top 10 smash—and discovered that Madonna was, in fact, white and blonde! Who was this Madonna? I was hooked.
It’s surreal recounting the early days we were first introduced to the ambitious life force tornado bursting with in-your-face bravura that became the all-encompassing, omnipresent, intergalactic superstar with a Biblical name.
From the moment we laid eyes on Madonna—with crazy fishnet stockings, dirty jeans and fingerless lace gloves—she had us under her spell. As the singer once famously said to a reporter, “Love me or hate me, but you have to deal with me.” And dealing with her is something the world has been doing with wide-eyed fascination for more than three decades. There’s no stopping this woman.
Madonna’s tireless, unapologetic, get-out-of-my-way armor she wears heavily reminds me—oddly—of the late great Joan Rivers. Think about it: Both women, against impossible odds, not only survived to reach their respective fields’ mountaintop, but remained relevant competing against upstarts decades their junior. I’m not sure if anyone had connected Madonna with Rivers before, but their shared take-no-prisoners, relentless modus operandi is undeniable and quite admirable.
At the height of Madonna’s white-hot fame, there wasn’t a more recognizable woman on the planet, save Princess Diana. I took personal pride as year in, year out Madonna accumulated more ammunition—fame, money, power—and her numerous critics of all stripes sharpened their knives claiming that the public’s interest in Madonna had run its course. With the release of every album, every film, every failed romance, every trumped-up moral controversy, the cry was the same: How could a marginally talented singer hold the world in the palm of her hand for this long? How indeed?
Over the course of her remarkable career, Madonna has been called many things—Material Girl, Queen of Reinvention, Madge, diva, maverick, whore—which, for vastly different reasons, all are partly right, but mostly wrong. What Madonna ultimately achieved is nothing less than reigning as the universe’s Queen of Pop, as in music, culture, life. Madonna has impacted the planet’s pop cultural zeitgeist more significantly than anyone in my lifetime. By a mile. Her detractors be damned: The world we inhabit is a better, less predictable place with Madonna in it—it’s also more colorful, more artistic, more tolerant, more exciting. It’s just more, a hell of a lot more.
And then there’s her music and those songs happily stuck in our heads forever: “Like A Prayer,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Into The Groove,” “Like A Virgin,” “Take A Bow,” “Material Girl,” “Ray Of Light,” “Cherish,” “Open Your Heart,” “Vogue,” “Music,” “Deeper And Deeper,” “Don’t Tell Me,” “Frozen,” “Hung Up,” “Rain,” “Erotica,” “Lucky Star,” “Secret,” “La Isla Bonita” and on and on and on—a head-boppin’ jukebox for the ages.
Here’s what those songs have done for Madonna. Bluntly—and indisputably—Madonna is the best-selling female recording artist of all time and is certified as such by Guinness World Records. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Madonna is also the best-selling female artist of the 20th century with an astonishing 64 million albums. Only The Beatles rank ahead of Madonna on Billboard’s 100 All-Time Top Artists, making her the most successful solo artist in the history of the American singles chart. Billboard also anointed Madonna the top-touring female artist ever. Ever—as in all of recorded history. To top things off, Madonna—that “moderately talented singer” who most critics agreed had vastly outstayed her welcome—was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in her very first year of eligibility. Nobody’s bigger, folks. And nobody’s done more with less than Madonna. Nobody. Ever.
Of course, it’s not like Madonna came out of nowhere without any influences to guide her. In her earliest incarnations, you can see a bit of Cher in her shtick, a touch of Bette Midler’s sass, a dose of Marilyn Monroe’s ingénue mystique, but, incredibly, Madonna never came off as derivative. She borrowed, sure, but she always Madonnaized it. When she appropriated dance moves from the club underground, she made it palatable and relatable to the general public by demystifying its very subversiveness. Call it merely her mastery of reinvention if you want, but what Madonna’s thousands of rapid-fire changing looks, clothes, hairstyles and passions have resulted in is an intoxicatingly graphic, multi-dimensional scrapbook for contemporary sociologists to marvel. Is it any wonder why several universities offer advanced courses analyzing the many facets of Madonna’s amazing career?
But while Madonna was inspired by Cher, Bette and Marilyn, it’s eye opening (to say the least) how, um, directly, Madonna’s younger musical contemporaries have liberally taken from her. Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Kylie Minogue and Miley Cyrus all owe Madonna a huge debt of creative gratitude for sure, but most audaciously, gifted vocalist and provocateur, Lady Gaga, seems to have dissected Madonna in an unsubtle Single White Female copycat-stalker manner. I mean, c’mon. But no problem, I’m from the school that believes imitation is the highest form of flattery and the more talented women the merrier. If anyone can pivot away from the current crop of pop stars and go in a new, unexpected direction is Madonna. Trust me, people.
With the buzz for Madonna’s new album with powerhouse collaborations generating a deafening “this is the best in her career” frenzy, the 56-year-old gorgeous single mother is exactly where she wants to be. But old attitudes are hard to shake. After telling a close (though pretentious) friend that I was planning to write a big Madonna story about her unprecedented perseverance at the top of the music world competing with the likes of Beyoncé and Pink, great singers decades her junior, my friend’s reaction was immediate: “Madonna? Really?” He punctuated his sarcastic query with an epic eye roll to leave no room for misinterpretation. I asked him where his eye roll was for Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, both of whom are still touring nonstop well into their great-grandfatherly years. His silence was both deafening and telling. It’s a friggin’ woman thing. Again.
That’s the thing about powerful, no B.S. women like Madonna, like Joan Rivers, like Barbra Streisand—they get labeled as “difficult” or “aggressive” or “whore”—anything to knock them off their perch a bit for upsetting the natural (male) order of things. Well, Madonna’s having none of it. When she was photographed by Steven Meisel completely naked hitchhiking in broad daylight on a busy public street in Miami Beach (looking gorgeous, incidentally) in her wildly controversial book, Sex, a reporter asked her if she was “sorry” for causing such a fuss. Madonna burst out laughing and on her next album, released a single called “Human Nature” containing the repeating refrain “I’m Not Sorry.” Perfect.
Is there any wonder why Madonna has always had a lock on the gay community’s heart? From her true friendships with artist Keith Haring and photographer Herb Ritts—both of whom died of AIDS—to her current ferocious defense of rock band Pussy Riot’s right to perform freely and for gays to exist without fear in Vladimir Putin’s increasingly draconian Russia, Madonna isn’t only fighting for what’s fair and just in her own life, but in yours.
One of the first times Madonna ever appeared on TV was her debut on Dick Clark’s iconic American Bandstand. After performing, Clark asked the young singer a prescient question: “What are your dreams?” Madonna, with the chutzpah of a cat who ate the canary, looked at the television legend, smiled and said sweetly, “To rule the world.” Against all the odds, she’s done it.
Madonna is the reigning Queen of Pop. And, yes, of course, her haters will continue to hate, but she’s already won the game. Boy, did she ever.