Letters from Rosie 10 | I am perhaps the last Madonna fan on earth. That’s as may be.
I’ve come to talk about Madonna.
I am perhaps the last Madonna fan on earth. That’s as may be.
“Meeting him was like running into a tree” – Marilyn on Arthur Miller
Lately, since last Christmas to be precise, I have been consuming and thoroughly enjoying Chris Ott’s series of Shallow Rewards vlogs on Vimeo. With the most sincere, steady, paternal tone he addresses the viewer directly in close-cropped frame and he tells the kind of stories that just rock my fucking world. He is the best voice out there. Fantano and all these hyper brand aware critical mafia types need to take a lesson because if you want to truly affect change with your words – reach a person and move them into checking out a record that you like – do like Dolly Parton and Chris do. Learn how to tell a good fucking story.
Now – I don’t agree with everything he says, like, he dismisses Azealia Banks (‘212’ is a song that really set this generation on fire and I have this sinking feeling that if her record hits, Rihanna will start screaming and fast-rapping over aggressive beats and pop ballads will be put to sleep for the next five years = game change), but suffice to say I have been learning A LOT and have been mostly nodding in agreement and laffing and getting it and really thinking music is awesome and there is HOPE. Hope for music. So everyone go now and watch them and then Tweet him and let’s get him to make more.
One of the reasons why Chris is making these pieces is because he is concerned that the particular niche of music history that he considers his home turf (the obscure) is in danger of disappearing because not enough of those who remember it are sharing the knowledge.
“Much of what once was is lost. For none now live who remember it” – Galadriel, LOTR
He is quite right, this is how cultures die.
The music that he’s talking about, some of this stuff was huge. Four or five of his best vlogs are about Boy George, Duran Duran and Prince Nico Mbarga(!), but a lot of it is pretty unknown stuff. AR Kane to Alien Sex Fiend. Then there are big records that we all know about and are by now totally bored of, yet the industry of canonisation continues to try to re-sell these records to us over and over again. You know what they are: Loveless, Nevermind, Unknown Pleasures. The top two percent of indie music history is remembered and the median is just disregarded. He laments a world in which kids are educated to remember The Pop Group and Gang Of Four OVER the likes of Killing Joke. Just because post-punk was earmarked credible material come the Paul Morley, Simon Reynolds pop/crit trickle-down, but goth never has been, cos it never had any champions. (Actually I disagree with this cos recently I am always reading Venus X tweeting about Christian Death and since appearing in V mag I am pretty sure Venus X defines the term ‘turbo hipster’. This girl is fighting the good fight, though. She’s a feminist and out.)
“The lover of myths is the one who enjoys the mythologies whilst simultaneously seeking to destroy them” – Roland Barthes
But this is what got me thinking.
We all spend a lot of time on Tumblr where images are shared without context. Meaning is detached and we just experience and react to surface. If you like the image, you reblog it. You’re nothing more than a curator of a bunch of free moving signs. You can pin your own meanings onto them or you can just set them loose, and over to the next person.
Is this cultural decadence? I am being a total drama kween when I think, “As a generation, I feel we are hurtling towards the disintegration of meaning and the end of history”.
Honey, come down a little, it’s only Tumblr.
However, when meaning and history are allowed to slide as part of your casual daily training, and when there is SO MUCH to remember at this point in time, how can teenagers be expected to navigate it all and cram in the supposed good stuff? It’s not just The Television Personalities, Mummy You’re Not Watching Me that they are missing. This generation is skipping Achilles-sized cultural heroes, like Madonna.
Who is Marilyn Monroe? She’s the greatest Hollywood Star of all time is she not? You know her beautiful face.
But tell me guys, honestly. Have you seen her best movie – Bus Stop? Guys, have you seen her in this fucking movie? Don’t watch The Hangover, watch Bus Stop. If you can even FIND it online.
Madonna’s image will most certainly endure. She’s made sure of that yet again – even as recently as this week at the Met Ball. (Jesus. Hologram. Christ.)
My concern is that the music is not enduring as steadily.
It’s not just the obscure stuff that is floating away from us like bits of wreckage on the ocean of history. It’s huge, readily-assumed culturally important stuff too. Not just because we don’t have good shepherds, but because we are raising a generation without the commitment nor the rationale to absorb and use context.
We have to change this. There should never be a moment when Madonna isn’t relevant. Even if she’s not cool right now. It’s not enough that Natalia Kills might tweet about Greg Araki movies in the name of everything on-trend and 90s. Context is everything. It is one’s most potent opportunity for a display of applied intelligence. It is the answer to the most interesting question in the world: WHY? What is art but the ability to extract meaning from experience?
Meaning. I need it. I really do.
“Did you get your precious photos?” – Roy Batty, Bladerunner
I feel a twinge when I re-blog an image and I don’t know where it came from. I mean, do I have a responsibility? Apart from the feminist stuff, my Tumblr is pretty light. ‘What fashion show is this image from??’ Sometimes I guess, and I’m right cos it’s some shit that I liked anyway (duh, Rick Owens). But other times it’s stuff that is clearly from outside of my cultural remit. If I can’t relate to it in a way that is beyond surface, I don’t reblog it. That’s just my own set of Tumblr values. And I don’t reblog guns or violent things. I’ve seen enough actual dead bodies, y’know what I’m saying? I am all about beauty. The true children of darkness are always trying to create light.
I am a pop fan. I love pop music. I save a good thought for Britney. I read The Prophet Blog religiously (it’s down right now. Yes, I’m struggling through regardless). My first record was Kylie Minogue, Enjoy Yourself. My second was Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. My third was Nevermind (this information is everything, is it not?). Tell me honestly guys – how many of you have listened to Like A Prayer? Even once in your lives, all the way through? Any 19-year-olds out there who have listened to the album Like A Prayer by the artist Madonna? I have cause to suspect think that very, very few of you have ever checked it out. And this makes me really sad.
Here is a video of Katy Perry making the kind of blood-curdling non-statement that feathers the bed of my despair. Go to the 39 second point.
Like A Prayer, when it was first manufactured, smelled of Patchouli. It smelled like Catholic Church. So fully formed, so perfectly drawn on concept was that mighty record. The fact that Katy Perry doesn’t know about this is really poor. It’s not some obscure detail, or some obscure artist. This isn’t Avril Lavigne not knowing who Sid Vicious is. This is clearly Katy’s turf, her business.
Does Katy Perry know who Madonna is? Does Katy Perry owe certain aspects of her career to the template forged by Madonna? Jesus, guys, if Katy Perry – massive mainstream female pop star with one eye on the Queen’s Throne – doesn’t even care to make herself familiar the Queen’s biggest album, then who the fuck is gonna be bothered to remember Katy Perry when her turn comes to be 54?
Can we just agree here and now that Like A Prayer is awesome and important and a monument to the biggest, most important themes anyone ever has ever tried to weave into song, namely Sex, God and Death?
And I recommend that you all, for the love of bejesus, give it a wee listen?
Madonna’s latter-day sins. Dismiss them right now. Please. What are they worth? A few ageist laffs, a few misogynistic jokes that make any woman over 25 feel uncomfortable. You know when you go into your room and your granny has tidied it for you and everything is perfectly folded and the drapes are somehow majestically, beautifully arranged? This represents 0.0001 percent of your granny’s actual potential. Women over the age of 60 are like Matrix Oracles. Older women possess the most culturally undervalued intelligence in the whole world. I’m telling you they can read minds. They know when you are sleeping with someone and why the sex is not working. They know when you are faking a friendship, when you are worried about that meeting at work and how you should handle it. They love you in a way you cannot understand because your consciousness is low and un-evolved. True, some of them use their powers for evil (you really want a legendary read? Don’t ask Crystal LaBeja how you look, go ask your mother). They’ve got nothing to learn. Believe. There are millions of these wondrous sages walking among us and we’ve got them folding our fucking pants. One of them manages to become a self-made billionaire and y’all start puking discord. You wanna go after Madonna for sticking around? FUCK. YOU. Go chase Flo Rida. Execute David Guetta on the way and bring back milk.
“As close to Art as Pop Music Gets” – Rolling Stone on Like A Prayer
Like A Prayer. This record is utterly and completely WITHOUT FLAW.
Here’s the context. Madonna has just divorced Sean Penn. She loved him. She lost him. He hit her. More than once. She’s turning 30. She’s feeling it. After running from the trauma of her mother’s horrific death, she finally decides to face her grief, to deal with it. She is also dealing with perhaps the most monumental Catholic damage since St Peter denied Christ. The Pope has openly renounced her.
And then there’s her father. When the song ‘Dear Jessie’, with all its sugar-plum childhood fantasy dreamland imaginings recedes and transitions into ‘Oh Father’, a tale of a woman who is reflecting on an abusive childhood, the playful mellotron and string samples become real strings, the key switches to minor in a progression both sombre, resigned and yet somehow stoic – an arrangement so skilled that it makes me think of George Martin’s work with The Beatles, it’s that good –
What follows is this opening line:
“It’s funny that way, You can get used to the tears and the pain What a child will believe …You never loved me”
Then, we get the wisdom. A reminder that there’s an adult writing this and it’s not just adolescent moaning or whining.
“Maybe some day When I look back I’ll be able to say you didn’t mean to be cruel Somebody hurt you too.”
No big artists do absolutely everything themselves. Having a good team, a well-chosen team, is one of an artist’s most important assets, and a smart artist will get the big chair out and find the best team they can. You need a personal manager who is in love with you, someone you can really talk to. You need a choreographer who is writing routines that are best suited to your body’s natural moves. You need a stylist who has vision and understands trends and can anticipate them in a way that is relevant to who you are and what you want to represent. And you need songwriters. Even if you are writing and producing yourself, if you wanna be pop, you still need songwriters. Because we are looking for at least four top ten hits on each album and I don’t know anyone apart from Prince who can do that on their own long term. Sorry.
During the Like A Prayer/Blonde Ambition era, Madonna had the best team in the history of pop music. These were people she headhunted, charmed and hired, drawing them to herself with sheer chthonian Will of Mame. Only females possess such a skill. She’s got Freddie DeMann, the biggest manager in the business whom she poached off Michael Jackson. She’s got Vincent Paterson, choreographer of the crotch-grab with whom she makes five million dollars on her scandalous Pepsi commercial that never gets aired more than once. She’s keeping it real with original crew, Stephen Bray, her earliest New York collaborator helping produce the album and her brother Chris designing her show. She’s got Gaultier designing her wardrobe and what will become her most memorable and iconic look. David Fincher, yeah, that David Fincher, will make the video for Express Yourself. Herb Ritts, one of the greatest photographers of all-freaking-time is on board to direct ‘Cherish’. Oh yes, I almost forgot. She’s got Prince as well! “Je suis prêt…”
And she’s got Pat Leonard co-writing and co-producing.
I tell you this, not as a fan, but as a human with her ears and her reason. Pat Leonard on his own is nowhere near as good as Pat and Madonna. Whatever chemistry these two have had over the years, it can’t be said that he wrote all the songs and she just cashed the cheques. They formed these pieces of music together and her creativity was crucial. We’re so fond of this idea of the Great White Genius, the myth of the male artist all alone doing something nice and formal like writing – sometimes we forget what creativity really can be. The ability to choose collaborators and keep momentum going in a giant project is part of the female artist’s magic. I totally agree with the likes of Malcolm Gladwell who views genius as a collective attribute. Pollock plus Krasner was genius. The times, the circumstances, the opportunities have all to conspire in your favour. It’s not a meritocracy. On his own, the smartest guy in the world is not the most successful. Many are helping him. He should give his girlfriend some credit for a start.
The melodies speak for themselves. They are pure and immediate.
Here are some of my favourite lyrics:
“Let the choir sing” “When you smile it cuts me just like a knife/I’m not your friend, I’m just your little wife” “Long stem roses are the way to your heart but he needs to start with your head/Satin sheets are very romantic, what happens when you’re not in bed?” “Second best is never enough/You’ll do much better baby on your own” “Don’t let memories play games with your mind/Does she hear my voice in the night when I cry?” “Romeo and Juliet/They never felt this way I bet” “Close your eyes and you’ll be there/where the mermaids sing as they comb their hair” “I light this candle…”
When ‘Born This Way’ came out, The Prophet Blog was one of the first pop blogs to notice that Madonna’s official YouTube channel had made ‘Express Yourself’ top of her auto play. As if Team Madonna were somehow drawing attention to the resemblance between the two songs. We all know what happened. Gaga was accused of outright plagiarism and ever since, Madonna has been riding this meme harder than she rode Tony Ward. She’s been dissing Gaga in the way that I think is part of the collective female suicide. I agree with Taylor Swift, if you’re a woman who attacks other women, there’s a special place in hell for you. But even sadder than this, is that no one really talked about the fact that ‘Express Yourself’ is the vastly superior song. Madonna called Gaga’s effort “reductive”, and this comment was shrewdly on-point. Of course, Madonna performed the remark with a touch of media-baiting pantomime bitchery so people really missed the truth in it. Listen to the melody line of the chorus of ‘Express Yourself’. Note, that despite the four-chord dance progression, the meter of the melody line is arranged in counterpoint to the chords, and yet the syllabic balance denotes a whole and concise statement:
“Don’t go for second best Baby, put yourself to the test You know You Know you’ve got to Make him Express How he feels And then you know your love is real Express Yourself”
That’s clever songwriting. ‘Born This Way’, on the other hand, is as straight-forward and un-inventive as Western song gets. She’s singing directly on the beat. Rhyme, Rhyme, Not Rhyme, Rhyme. And she even rhymes “way” twice… It’s pretty generic. I don’t think Gaga wrote this in five minutes either, I think she’s just still evolving as a writer, and she isn’t very good… yet. (She’s deffo gonna do something amazing, though – making Art Pop an app is genius.)
“I’m beautiful in my way Cos God makes no mistakes I’m on the right track baby I was born this way.”
“You guys were really…neat” – Kurt Cobain quoting from In Bed With Madonna
If you’ve never seen In Bed With Madonna, then you should see it. She’s so bratty in it. Like all touring artists are bratty. But if you are a Gaga fan, then really you should see it, to understand the context and why Gaga will never shake the Madonna comparison. Madonna was once made entirely of white heat. A giant magnesium strip with eight pounds of make-up on. Youth is a power you cannot keep. If you are a Madonna fan, watch it on YouTube for the gratification of reading top comments like this:”‘Wow. Gaga Ripped her off so bad”.
The first time I saw In Bed With Madonna I was really young. It came on Sky one night when I was round at my friend Ciara’s house. I remember being alone in front of the TV, transfixed. In the last few years, the lexicon of the gay New York underground has taken over the mainstream. Paris Is Burning is once again a generational touchstone. Suddenly everyone is vogue-ing, reading, asking who is realer, dragging, throwing shade, “I just can’t with…” this and that, etc. But never let it be forgotten that Madonna fans were running around estates in Northern Ireland at eight-years-old shrieking “I’m gagging, Miss Thing!” That’s how powerful her influence was. I didn’t see Paris Is Burning until 2005 when I was in NYC and someone bought it on DVD for my friend Jeff Nesmith’s birthday. I went out the next day and bought my own copy.
“She’s not an artist, She’s a Giant Celebrity Dancer” – Courtney Love
Just want to deal with the accusation that sex-positive feminists like me and Camille Paglia are hideous Madonna groupies. Sure. We are! I love Courtney as well. Expose me in ‘Harridan’s Weekly’ if you please. Don’t even get me started on the Erotica era: world’s most famous and powerful woman enters her mid-30s sexual peak. What did you think was gonna happen?
“I have a Reservation…” (http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/a-very-real-tragedy-behind-a-human-rights-case-230194.html)
‘Act Of Contrition’ scared the fucking shit out of me when I was a child. I knew even then this was not a game. When you are raised religious and you break the rules, you are punished so harshly, the lesson is designed never to leave you. So you gotta carry it around. You are punished by this thing called the patriarchy, the male authority figures who have made the rules that run your life and have set the board utterly against you. Against the physical realities of your body, against the impulses of your imagination, against your nature, your instincts and against common sense. Even as a little girl, something within you knows this is not right. Madonna was the first woman to actually stand up and say it in a pop record. This is before riot grrrl, before Courtney. This is way more explicit than any other pop female who pre-dated Madonna, like the amazing Deborah Harry. It’s also straight up mainstream, with far broader reach than Siouxsie or The Raincoats or any of my loves. There’s a song on this record about AIDS and the original pressing was packaged with a leaflet detailing safe sex procedures. ‘Act Of Contrition’ is a crazed Madonna facing down the very real fear in the mind of the lapsed believer that your pretty face is going directly to hell for what you’ve done.
… and it smells like Pachouli!
Hooray For You Where are we headed? I find myself in this weird conflict. I’m staring down almost 100 years of popular culture. And I want to know about things, I feel a yearning to know the stories. But why is it my responsibility to carry the weight of all that history around with me and drag it through every creative act of my own? Are we subconsciously deciding that we’re just gonna cut ourselves loose? Being constantly accused of not ever doing anything new, and being labelled a total idiot for not already knowing everything is just so effing boring. It’s such a joykill. Like, can’t these old people see? It’s new when I’ve never done it before (see EDM in America).
But then when my turn is done, the next youngster with a fresh canvas of youth takes my place and thinks that they are the one who invented scented album sleeves.
Suddenly, everything is very small and very repetitive. What happens after that?
I think there’s a boy pop star coming. He will come from the East and need will drive him. He will have better tunes than G-Dragon. He will be wonderfully, beautifully gay and out. He will speak nine languages and dance in a way we have never seen before. Transcending nationality, uniting people. Shiny and New. And he will sing. Sing!