Yesterday Madonna turned 50 years old. Hard to believe. In honor of this momentous occasion I feel it incumbent upon me to commemorate Ms. Madge with an original and provocative take on the career of she who leers at you with heavily lidded eyes on the Pop Feminist banner.

Alas, this ambition may be beyond my reach. To write something original about a woman who has lived the very apex of feminist contestation since 1982, is to turn water into wine. Witness the impoverished attempts of Camille Paglia and Germaine Greer, whose once sensational views on Madonna reads here as little more than belabored nostalgia.

Over 20 years ago, Madonna took the low-lit stage beckoning “everybody” to c’mon dance with her, and the party’s still pumping albeit regressed into a full-blown orgy of collective projections. Way back in 1989, Steven Anderson writes,

“The tidal wave of Madonna’s renown has swept over adulators and detractors. Once a flesh-and-blood superstar, she’s now a metaphysic unto herself. Not that she doesn’t have feelings, desires or stomach gas, but she’s achieved such ineffable “being-ness” that old controversies—is she Pop incarnate? Glamorized Fuckdoll?—are largely irrelevant. The only aspect left to consider is Madonna’s resonance in the minds of the public, for whom—like it or not—she’s become a repository for all our ideas about fame, money, sex feminism, pop culture, even death.”

The reason I position Madonna as the mascot for my feminism is precisely because hers is not self-evident. Like all great pop figures, the readings she makes available to us are virtually infinite. Camille Paglia built a career on campaigning for a pro-feminist reading of the Material Girl, whereas Julie Brown’s has been shaped by an oppositional view. Brown’s brilliant satire of Madonna’s suspect “politics”, Medusa: Dare to be Truthful features the hit “Vague” in which she sings, “I’m not thinking nothing/ C’mon get vague/ Let your body move without thinking/ C’mon get vague/ Let your IQ drop while you bop”

Even within the generally approving queer community, Madonna is not without her detractors. David Tetzlaff writes, “the discourses engaged by Chameleon Madonna have no claim on her. How could she be free for her ultimate self-actualization if she were bound to the historically rooted struggles of the subaltern groups who populate her videos?…she has won for herself an unlimited ticket for subcultural tourism—she can visit any locale she likes, but she doesn’t have to live there.”

And Douglas Crimp and Michael Warner point out, “[Madonna] can be as queer as she wants to, but only because we know she’s not.”

Outside of intellectual circles, the most common critique of Madonna is that she typifies “style triumphing over substance”. The idea being her music is obviously sub-par but she’s so well marketed, that we the consumers are actually stupid enough to really think we like her. Presumably, it’s only thanks to the shrewd observations of the person who points out her questionable artistic merits that we have hope of ever realizing that we are merely slack-jawed victims of trickery.

Despite her many scandals and provocations, the most controversial thing a person can say about Madonna is that she’s a great artist. Naturally, this is my position. Most will at least permit that Madonna is distinctly postmodern. Her ability to refract herself across many mediums is a genius that has yet to be matched. But it’s a mistake to regard her art as merely personae music fuels her engine.

Madonna’s songs have staying power. They are jubilant, sensual, feminine, aggressive and downright danceable. Most women (and many men) I know light up when “Poppa Don’t Preach” or “Deeper and Deeper” comes on the radio—a chord within being struck at the first unmistakable note. In her music, “Madonna” fades into the background and we are reminded of ourselves the last time we were dancing.

Madonna’s recent “Confessions on the Dance Floor” continues this great tradition, but “Hard Candy”, I fear, falls short. That’s not to say she hasn’t had a few missteps here and there (always to bounce back bigger and badder than ever) but on the occasion of her 50th, I’m stunned by my own lack of interest in her many retrospectives. Even the recent “controversies” surrounding the Malawi adoption scandal, her plastic surgery and her supposed affair with A-Rod are offered up by gossip rags with the approximate enthusiasm of perusing the salad bar at Shoney’s. We’re so used to finding everything about her salacious it’s hard to know if our interest has become empty ritual.

Which brings us back to nostalgia: the culprit of my waining interest. As the hosts of The Today Show reminisce on Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” performance at the MTV Awards, the Pepsi controversy surrounding “Like a Prayer”, her too-hot-for TV “Justify My Love” premier, the battle of wills on David Letterman, and the many other treasured moments in pop history she’s offered us, a sharp contrast is being drawn between her glorious past and dull faux-British present.

To be fair, if Madonna has taught us anything, it’s not to count her out. After all, her many reincarnations never fail to shock and astound. True to form, her latest transformation is perhaps the most unforeseen of all: Madonna has become boring.

I sincerely hope she has more surprises in store for us.

Either way, thanks for the memories Madonna. Happy Birthday.

Quotes via Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna, Pamela Robertson

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