Madonna has become one of the most successful and notorious female singers the world has ever seen.
The Times spoke in these terms in 1991:
Madonna has just clinched a deal making her the highest-paid performer in the history of the Pop industry only confirms what we already knew, which is that she is now the biggest star on the planet.
Even the rather staid Sunday Telegraph recognized her as the ‘female Icon of the age…’
She will do anything, say anything, wear anything, mock anything, degrade anything to draw attention to herself and make a buck. She is the quintessential symbol of the age; self indulgent, sacrilegious, shameless, hollow.
The aspect of Madonna that strikes one most is her use of image.
She is the self-sufficient postmodern phenomenon … A masterpiece of controlled illusion.
Madonna lives out the cliché that the medium is the message. Because of her success and because of her hard work, she has total control over her shows. She writes the songs, produces the music, choreographing and dancing herself, designs the stage sets and even does her own make up and costume design. She is obsessively controlling of all aspects of her show. And not just her shows, but all the things she does. Her films, her public appearances, even her private life – all reflect a calculated image.
There is another important aspect to Madonna’s use of image and that is the constant change. She is always changing her image, whether it is from the good girl gone bad to the virgin in white; from Marilyn Monroe to the 1920s gangster moll, from androgynous, cold robot to naked sex symbol; from glamour queen to cosmic spirit and finally to doting mother. Her ability to change images every couple of years has fascinated the world, and has been vital to her success.
She is always evolving. She never stands still. Every two years she comes up with a new look, a new way of presenting herself, a new attitude, a new act, and a new design. And every time it is successful. There is this constant genesis.
And of course this again reflects our culture. We are always looking for the new, always moving from one image to the next, swapping one artificial world for another, changing to meet the pragmatic needs of the moment or discarding the old when it becomes boring, demanding or problematic.
Madonna’s use of image is complicated in a further way, because whilst she lives in her images, she refuses to fully identify with them. She says:
I do everything with a wink.
This playfulness comes through in all that she does – the self-parody in her films and the double entendres in her lyrics, the different levels of meaning and ironies that she uses again and again.
Whenever people accuse her of something she responds:
Well you don’t understand, it’s all ironic … don’t take it too seriously.
Defending her stage performance she once said:
I do not endorse a way of life, but describe one.
On the other hand, however, she wants us to believe that the image is real – she says “What you see is what you get, I’m not hiding anything”. So she makes the video ‘In Bed With Madonna’, a reveal-all documentary. The attitude is: ‘Let the camera roll, I don’t have anything to hide.’
The loss of her mother is significant in her world. She has said:
When my mother died, all of a sudden I was going to become the best student, get the best grades; I was going to become the best singer, the best dancer, the most famous singer in the world. Everybody was going to love me.
I’m a very tormented person. I have a lot of demons I am wrestling with, but I want to be happy.
It’s very moving when you look at this woman in all her decadence, in all her success and find beneath it all such a lost, sad and lonely person. That really reflects our culture. We see people lost in the images. Stridently, aggressively, demandingly using and abusing, pushing and shoving yet underneath … they are lost.
Madonna is the most visible example of what is called Post-Modernism.