By: Ms Tobi Vail
Hanging out with Morgan And The Organ Donors after the show on Saturday night, conversation inevitably turned to Super Bowl Sunday, which led to a civil debate about the merits of Madonna. I’m used to people not liking Madonna but I’m a huge fan. I like her voice, I like her songs and I’m fascinated by how she presents herself. But most of all I like her because I know she changed the world.
Madonna had an undeniable transformative impact on pop culture. Debbie Harry happened before Madonna and so did The Go Go’s. I remember very clearly how both were received. Debbie Harry was called a hooker, not just in the press, but by everyone who saw her on TV. I was a kid but I clearly remember adults talking about how she looked ‘trashy’ because she didn’t hide her roots and wore too much make up. Who cares, why was this such a big deal? I couldn’t figure it out, I thought she looked cool and I loved her voice. The Go Go’s were ‘wimpy’ and ‘sucked’ – even though they wrote and played their own songs they ‘couldn’t play their instruments’ and Belinda was ‘fat’, i.e. unattractive to men. It wasn’t just that they were women, they were girly girls and therefore could not be taken seriously. They were embarrassments. Humiliations. A total joke.
In short, the great female pop stars of the early 80s were not in control of their image at all. It doesn’t matter how many records they sold or how many hits they had, they were punished for being too femme. As girls with cultural power, they were a threat to the phallic order. If you were a guy who liked The Go Go’s you were probably a ‘fag’ and that was NOT cool at all. Then Madonna happened and everything changed. Exactly how and why this manifested itself at that particular point in time is hard to say. Cultural shifts are multifaceted. What I realized on Saturday night is that for young people (35 and under), this recent history is largely unknown and Madonna’s impact on gender roles and sexual politics is taken for granted.
While there is legitimate criticism of Madonna based on her participation in cultural appropriation, this doesn’t dismiss that things were different before she came around. Talking about this with friends I got frustrated. It was a friendly debate, but I was sure I was right. For some reason it is difficult to talk about history that you have lived through, especially to people who are too young to understand what you learned from experience. On a personal level, I know riot grrl would not have happened without Madonna and, as someone pointed out Saturday night, without riot grrl we would not have Pussy Riot!
Somewhere I have a cassette of a bunch of riot grrls singing over Madonna’s ‘Burning Up’ on my radio show in the early 90s. (By the way if you have not heard Kathleen Hanna sing this song, then you have not heard this song. She totally owns it.)
My older friends and I were in agreement about this, but my younger friends mostly didn’t get it. To them Madonna is a business woman who steals other people’s ideas and profits from cultures that are not her own to take from; in other words, she is Elvis. To me she is an artist who shows the world that gender is a performance and demonstrates that sex is intrinsically about power relations. This turned into a discussion about pop art, Andy Warhol, capitalism, the New York art underground – was Madonna ever punk or she just another poser? Etc. This led to a frustrating discussion about whether or not originality and authenticity should be valued at all.
The cultural appropriation conversation in particular is a difficult one because culture is not static it is fluid, yet, because the world is capitalist, patriarchal, racist and oppressive to LGBT and disabled people, mainstream culture reinforces marginalization of oppressed groups and privileges dominant groups. What does this mean for artists who use popular culture as a way to challenge the status quo, change society or make a political statement? Does the marketplace necessarily kill radicalism or is it ever possible to be subversive in the mainstream? Is it better to direct our work underground or is there a way to change things ‘from the inside’ or whatever?
I went home and dreamt I made a bunch of money selling Marcel Duchamp T Shirts. There was another part of the dream that is gross so I won’t go into detail, but it involved human waste morphing into The Thing. When I work up I googled “Madonna and Marcel Duchamp” and came up with this book – From Hegel To Madonna: Toward a General Economy of Commodity Fetishism by Robert Miklitsch.
Not surprisingly, the second thing that came up was a link to an article about appropriation artist Sherrie Levine, whose work interrogates originality and celebrates the fake. In 1991 she made a copy of Duchamp’s urinal readymade called Fountain (Madonna).
Hilarious. But what does it all mean? You tell me. I give up!
Sunday afternoon I had to go to Seattle but managed to catch Madonna’s performance at the Super Bowl halftime in a weird futuristic yuppy sports bar in downtown Kirkland. By now you’ve surely seen it. I thought it was pretty spectacular. I like the new song (it’s been stuck in my head all week), she looked great, the choreography was amazing and it was pretty funny/genius that she brought voguing to the middle of the football field — who else has the power to put gay culture right smack in the middle of organized sports, one of the most herteonormative, patriarchal institutions ever? Plus Nicki Manaj and M.I.A. were awesome!
Is vogueing at the Super Bowl a most righteous queering of macho sports or just part of a rich history of cultural appropriation that runs from Madonna’s snap queens on down to, well, M.I.A?
In case you missed it (like me), here is riot grrl scholar Sara Marcus’ pre-Superbowl pro-Madonna article in Salon: How Madonna Liberated America: As the pop icon prepares to play the Super Bowl, a celebration of the way she changed sexual mores forever. In Marcus’ words:
Her visionary assault on American prudery, her revelatory spreading of sexual liberation to Middle America, changed this country for the better. And that’s not old news; we’re still living it.
In 2041 we will probably be discussing how and why MIA challenged U.S. hegemony back in 2012.
By the way, have you seen the new M.I.A. video yet? It totally rules.