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 Tobi Vail

Hello from Olympia, WA – 4: Madonna Live at the Super Bowl

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Madonna Super Bowl Halftime Show

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.

From Hegel to Madonna

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).

Sherrie Levine - 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!

Still, the debate continues. As Seattle Weekly writer Eric Grandy put it:

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.

11 Responses to Hello from Olympia, WA – 4: Madonna Live at the Super Bowl

  1. Golightly February 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    One thing I really like about MIA as a performer is that she’s less about selling her sexuality and more about selling her attitude and a more well rounded image of what normal girls are like in everyday life. She is also sexy I reckon… but that’s not the focus. MIA is cool. And most of all, I love her voice, especially on that song Paper Planes. Her new video is amazing like you said. I happen to think she’s an original. I happen to still think originality is valuable… though these days it’s about an original and inspired combination of influences and sounds rather than expecting people to invent the wheel with their art and their music. An original perspective is good enough. I think the thing with Madonna is that she’s sort of flawless without ever having been perfect, so she kind of snuck into that position of getting taken for granted for what she does… or maybe growing up with her made her more of an institution (no matter how shocking her sex thing was at the time) than others may have been considered such as Lady Gaga. Though Beyonce gets ignored for being too flawless. I am also not a fan of Debbie Harry because she just always reminded me of a pop star. I figured out that if I had been around at the time when she came out then I’d have viewed her as punk or something… but she sounded too tuneful to be a punk singer to my mind, but the pop connotation may be due to Madonna creating a new standard of pop star. I guess that after Madonna the likes of Debbie Harry is going to seem tame… so then you end up needing your rock stars to be more extreme or something to differentiate them from the mainstream norm of acceptable pop culture.

  2. astro February 13, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    With all due respect, how exactly was Debbie Harry not in control of her image? Bin liners. Straight Jackets. Alien imagery, etc. That is a truly ignorant statement. Virtually everything Madonna did early on, right down to the wedding dress she wore in the most iconic performance of her career (Madonna’s sylist was an early Harry confidant, Maripol), was something Debbie Harry had already done. (Harry would rip off the wedding dress during her performance, prompting rumors that she stripped naked on stage that followed her around the world). The thrift style, the personas they were projecting, the projection of sexuality. It was all very similar. And the difference that Madonna fetishists cannot handle, as this article demonstrates, is that Harry was original and was doing it all without a net. (I recall a 20/20 epsiode in 1980 where Harry was specifically asked about her willingness to express her sexuality as if this was a completely novel idea). And Harry met considerable resistance in the press (Lester Bangs wrote an entire book on the subject), although the same press didn’t hesitate to run photos whenever a panty slip would occur.
    Rather than seeing Madonna as some sort of radical change, she was actually just an extension of what was already occurring in music. Punk/New Wave brought an entire new image of female performers into popular music, with Harry being front and center. When you see artists like Missing Persons or especially Wendy O. Williams, who was featured on network TV multiple times throughout the very early 80s, it makes a mockery of any suggestion that Madonna did anything radical or new. (Williams was 10 times as extreme as Madonna ever was). And what about Pat Benatar or Joan Jett? Even sweet Olivia-Newton John got into the act with “Physical.” Or Cyndi Lauper with her wild thrift/punk look? All before Madonna.
    And getting back to Harry, were songs like X-Offender from 1976 (about a prostitute falling in love with her arresting officer; changed from the original title, Sex Offender), or Call Me, which again dealt very specifically with prostitution, exercises in prudery? How about Looks Good in Blue (“I could give you some head…and shoulders to lie on”)?
    The simple fact is that if Madonna can be credited with anything, she got to benefit from prior artists who broke down the door, the entire punk/new wave explosion. By the time she emerged the press/public was used to the image. And perhaps most important, she had MTV (starting in Aug, 1981), which freed artists from the restrictions of radio, which in the US at the time was very conservative. (There has been speculation that Blondie was subject to a virtual radio boycot due to radio programmers objecting to her image). What was happening in music at that time was a gradual shift. To claim that one artist effected it is willfully misinformed and insulting to other artists. Go back and watch Wendy O. Williams on Fridays or Tom Synder or Solid Gold in 1981 and tell me again how Madonna changed anything. Actually the stuff that Madonna did in the early part of her career was quite tame, bubblegum even, so much so that Like A Virgin wasn’t even written by her. Rather with songs like Call Me and Physical already achieving mass appeal, it was no longer considered that extreme to be risque.
    As to the above comment about what is punk or pop, the commenter would benefit from reading accounts of the subject and listening to some old bootlegs. Madonna was really just a commercalized version of Debbie Harry, and if she took anything further at all it was only because she had prior examples to work with and the trail they already blazed for her, plus a much more favorable media enviroment. Put Madonna in the 70s and there is a very strong chance, seeing how many of her early songs were written for her and how her style came prefabricated, that she wouldn’t have made it at all.
    Anyway, sorry to interrupt this exercise in blind hero worship. But Madonna has had a big enough career that you can credit her without slighting her forebearers in an effort to exaggerate her role. My five cents. Or ten.

  3. kristyn February 14, 2012 at 2:45 am

    awesome article! i’m glad you wrote this! i’d like to add that i’m also really sick of everyone calling her a “golem” and that she’s too old to be dancing and all this bull. Would we rather she slid down into a bathtub and die? I think its so great that she has not succummed to the drink or drugs and has maintained her career for decades. She looked so happy on that superbowl stage too. Like she was sincerely having a great time and that’s so inspiring to see. I’m 32, and i’ve also always admired Madonna. I mean, when i was like 7 i didnt like her, cos i refused to listen to anything but oldies at that time, but as i got a little older, i was so incredibly impressed by her. I thought she was an amazing business woman and basically a real badass 😉 And she did help pave the way for riot grrrl. So anyway, i am just happy to see something nice written about her and not another dude making a “golem” joke.

  4. astro February 14, 2012 at 3:45 am

    Incidentally, beyond betraying a decided ignorance about the musical trends of the late 70s-early 80s (it’s all there on Youtube), I do find something amusing in the claim that the highly calculated attempt to act erotically to sell records was some high water mark in the history of feminism. Sex sells. Always has. Always will. That said, I certainly agree that the emergence of a big MTV era star like Madonna had an impact, just not as earth shattering as has been suggested. The emergence of that type of female star was clearly an idea whose time had come and there was a lot of groundwork laid down beforehand. If not her, it would have been someone else.

  5. Erika February 14, 2012 at 3:50 am

    I will be 44 years old this year.

    I always respected Madonna for how disciplined she is and how hard she worked (and continues to work). Back in the early 80s, I liked Cyndi Lauper, Blondie and the Go Go’s better, but that’s because they seemed more punk – Madonna of course was daring in her own way – constantly “re-inventing” and thus keeping herself in the headlines.

    The “girly girl” thing is funny. When I began to identify with the punk movement (1981), hardcore where it was at and I dressed like the boys: short spiked hair, jeans, fav t-shirts, the flannel for that west coast wind, and cheap tennis shoes… a bandanna on some body part. People with more fashion money to spend had Doc Martins and spikey jewelry… it was important to look tuff. I was hated on for NOT being girly girl, and not being sexy in socially approved ways, so of course, I hated girly girls. But the other part of it is, you think that all the shame and perceived inferiority of your gender can be washed away with the right clothing, the right look. I thought that if I looked tough, not like a sex object, maybe I’d be taken seriously. But when I saw Exene perform with X in 1983 she wore a long dress and long hair and bangle bracelets, but she stills seemed tough. I was impressed and I tried that look for a week but got frustrated when the bangles got in the way of writing and guitar-playing. (High heels also suck for guitar.) I loved Cyndi Lauper’s style sense but she was portrayed as unsexy, especially next to Madonna.

    Oh man… I really came here to write something else.

    I really came here to say that, all these MTV women in the early 80s… the one thing that comes to mind when I think of them is WEIGHT.

    When I went on my first date, during the Madonna / Lucky Star era, the poor guy tried to compliment me on my looks, and I told him that I thought I was “fat.” He said, “Oh no! You being fat would be like Madonna being fat!” (Madonna actually did have a little meat on her bones back then).

    When they said Belinda from the Go Gos was “fat,” I looked at her image in 17 magazine and thought “If SHE’S fat, what does that make ME?”

    And Whitney… when I first saw her videos on MTV, I thought she was the most gorgeous woman I’d ever seen, and I was fascinated with how thin she was. I wanted to be that beautiful and happy and thin. (I stopped envying her life long ago.)

    At age 17 I went on a “diet.” I managed drop 40 pounds in less than 6 months. I went from 135 pounds to 92 pounds, and I still felt fat. I looked like an Auschwitz survivor and my body started to shut down.

    Teenagers are so impressionable and trying to find who they are, and popular music is such a huge part of that. It is not just “entertainment” or something to look at or listen to while watching TV or shopping. It is far more powerful than that, and should be respected as such.

  6. Pingback: » Link Love: Punk In Africa, New Riot Grrrl Music From Around The World & Heart Sweaters

  7. Tobi Vail February 14, 2012 at 11:30 am

    If what I’m saying is not entirely clear, I’m not surprised because the article is about not quite knowing how to explain what I know to be true based on how I experienced change in the world as it happened. I feel this change in my body and in the way I live my life.

    Yes, Debbie Harry rules, and of course the women of punk/new wave influenced Madonna (see pictures of Viv Albertine) and paved the way for her to do what she does but the cultural reception of Madonna is what was different -something changed AFTER MADONNA and not just for female artists but for girls (and boys) everywhere. Exactly how and why that happened is what I find difficult to explain, but I know it happened, I lived through it and I think it’s important to remember and acknowledge despite the (often valid) criticisms of her. More to the point, I think Madonna the artist, by using popular culture as her medium, shifted things.

    It’s also not fair of me to generalize about young people, but there is a generation gap I see between Before-Madonna and After-Madonna time periods.

    There is a section where Ann Powers talks about Madonna in Women Who Rock, a PBS documentary that recently aired that I wish I would have watched before I wrote this. She says something like “Madonna took control of her own image as embodiment of women taking control of their own sexuality” I think this is more what I’m getting at here though I don’t articulate it as well as she does.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  8. Erika February 15, 2012 at 1:04 am

    I suppose this just reflects my view from the bottom of the pond, and I realize we are talking about a difference of 10+ years, which is pretty huge in the latter half of the 20th century, but riotgrrrl/Bikini Kill changed my world and my community (for the positive) a bazillion times more than Madonna ever did, would, or could have.

    As for Madonna, the “Papa Don’t Preach” song/video comes to mind as an important moment. It seems tame to me, but at her level, it was I guess even more shocking M.I.A. at the Super Bowl.

    And I remember a moment at end of the movie “Truth Or Dare” (though it’s been many years since I’ve seen it) where someone is talking about how Madonna is alone, and aging… and she’s just going to keep getting older… yeah, it was 1991 and she was already over 30… And here she is today.

    That itself is kind of a statement, no?

  9. astro February 17, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    Thanks for the response. I guess my recollecion differs from yours somewhat. (I guarantee I wasted more hours watching MTV in the early 80s than you did; hopefully you had a life). I always saw Madonna as just reflecting things that were already well set in motion. When she emerged in 83 I never thought she was anything new; the blueprint for that type of star already existed. When you saw Harry (whose vamping, knees on the floor April, 78 Mike Douglas show performance always reminded me somewhat of Madonna’s 84 VMA performance) or Dale Bozzio or especially Wendy O. Williams among others you realized that a general cultural shift had already taken place. And people tend to forget that it really wasn’t until the late 80s that Madonna went into sexual overdrive, whether we view it in retrospect as taking control of one’s sexuality or just cynical commerce. (And she got hammered by critics when she did it.) Obviously when a star is big enough it can eclipse things that happened before, and if there is a meaningful before and after dividing line in current cultural memory it is probably before and after MTV more than any particular artist. MTV had a tremendous capacity in its salad days to bring images and styles into the mainstream. It’s just that pop stars never emerge in a vacuum, and Madonna was clearly no exception. In judging her true cultural impact, culturally critics in general very often make the mistake of assuming that she invented things as opposed to continuing them and by her popularity bring them into the mainstream, and this is due i/m/o to their not having enough appreciation for or knowledge of the less publicized stars that characterized that period. That requires more musical/pop cultural knowledge than the typical cultural critic is willing to invest the time to obtain. In my experience of the same events Madonna in the early/mid 80s was reflecting cultural changes more than causing them, and the change that you are intuiting had already happened. Anyway thanks for the article.

  10. Erika February 17, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    about 3 years ago we rented “Bus Stop” and my daughter, 13 at the time, walked in, saw the opening images of Marilyn Monroe, and asked, “Is that Madonna?”

  11. Bartosz Biniek March 2, 2012 at 8:00 am

    I don’t know that much how the way of feminism looked before Madonna, but if it’s really truth, then, of course, she changed a lot. Of course I respect her in the way of supporting and taking into mass awareness homosexuality and gayness, but I still don’t get her. Her music existence still smells like money to me. The way of maximal controversy and popularity in which she misses the point of self-naturality.

    BTW it’s great world-wide-web helps to discover a lot of things, including this article. It really helps, thanks!

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