Review by Alle C. Hall
May 21, 2012
Women of the MTV generation will likely remember where we were when Madonna died. I will learn about her death when The New York Times app embedded in my old lady reading glasses pings gently. I will fade out the holograms sent by my grandchildren on Mars, showing me what they learned in pre-school about gender: “What parts you have, what you like to wear, and what you like to play with.” A retrospective will stream: the writhing on the bridal veil, the cone bras, the masturbation that continues as she ages – to a point. Around the time of Obama’s sweeping re-election, she begins aging backward, spiraling closer and closer to her Virgin self, then past it, into a pretty, brown-haired six-year-old with incredible muscles and a fabulously virile 23-year-old boyfriend.
Even those of us who don’t care much for Madonna understand her cultural impact. In 2012 alone, she introduced a new album, another tour, her first perfume, and is now the inspiration behind the tribute anthology, Madonna & Me: Women Writers On The Queen of Pop, in which first-time editor Laura Barcella orchestrates thirty-nine responses to what we know collectively as Madonna. The admirable numbers of opinions, however, do not capture the faceted emotions about Madonna elicited by the Queen of Pop herself.
Barcella groups the anthology into sections of themed essays called “tracks.” For instance, the Like A Prayer track covers religion; Burning Up focuses on sex. While categorization is a logical way to address the density of Madonna, these sections are one of two editorial disservices that prevent a conversation between authors. The result is a lack of collaborative dissonance that is, arguably, one reason why readers choose anthologies over single-author books.
In the same vein, Barcella is overwhelmingly reverent of her subject, a flaw that limits her ability to push-pull with the perspectives of nearly all her contributing writers. In “My Pocket Madonna”, Barcella writes, “My obsession faded a little as I grew up and my musical tastes changed, but I continued to follow her […] I turned to her for hits of strength and inspiration when I needed them. She always delivered. When I felt scared or anxious, I’d think, What would Madonna do?” Apparently, “What would Madonna do?” is an actual phenomenon, along the lines of a Jesus fish bumper sticker. Of course, a certain amount of zealotry is in order. Youth are prone to love everything Madonna stands for, but this anthology is not written by or for teens. There is an abundance of gushy nostalgia by grown women who, let’s be honest, have something more to offer than euphoric recall. Half of the book is comprised of nearly identical “first time I heard Madonna” episodes, followed by “Madonna inspired me to”: try the sexy stuff, come out, and see past religious and parental misogyny. By the sixth or seventh assertion, I began to feel like I was watching the AT&T commercial with women squealing like teenagers from the front row of a Rick Springfield concert.
Several writers own their What-Would-Madonna-Do-Jesus-Fish Syndrome without succumbing to it. One of my personal favorites is Erin Bradley’s “A Borderline History of My Relationship with Madonna.” Bradley writes, “Madonna is dating Vanilla Ice. I’m dating a redneck that speaks Ebonics and shaves lines into his eyebrows. Signs of the times, or are Madge and I on the same cosmic course?” In “Mad Mensch,” Wendy Shanker hysterically decides, “Madonna needs a mensche. A good man, a stand-up guy with means and influence.” Shanker then proceeds to sign Madonna up on the Jewish online dating site, J-Date. In “Madonna, Myself,” Mary K. Fons writes, “Apparently, you can’t make an icon without breaking a few relationships—it’s the price we pay for all those beautiful photographs, all those incredible nights on the dance floor.”
It would be fascinating to see more essays embrace the honesty of Fons and Bradley, adopting their incessant dedication to adolescent fervor. Why, for example, does Ada Scott in “Madonna in My Corner” credit Madonna for the training and determination she—Scott—put into becoming a boxer? In her essay, “In Costume,” Dana Rossi credits the spirit of Madonna as represented by Rossi’s coat and cowboy hat for her own ability to fend off a physical attack. True, Divas and heroes exist on spiritual and emotional as well as physical planes. Rossi was feeling Madonna with her. Madonna, however, was not. She could have been working out. Or on Letterman with Sandra Bernhard. Rossi was with Rossi.
I’ll tell you what Madonna would never do. Let someone else take credit for something Madonna does, even if she merely also does it.Unexamined worship undercuts everything Madonna stands for—the irony of which might tickle or irritate The Material Girl if she did not already have their money.
For more than a decade, psychologists, parents, and child advocacy organizations such as Common Sense Media have expressed alarm over the hyper-sexualization of young women in the media for the explicit purpose of making money. Writers such as Lyn Mikel Brown (Packaging Girlhood) and Diane E. Levin (Too Sexy Too Soon) have made it part of conventional parenting wisdom that advertisers target children. In her 2001 book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein was the first to connect the dots between a little girl’s devotion to all things princess-like and the emotional jeopardy of a sexual attitude developed too soon. A 2007 report by the American Psychological Association went on to demonstrate the jeopardy posed to girls’ happiness, self-esteem, sexual health, and academic performance when they learn to project a studied, hardened sexuality before experiencing any sexual feelings of their own.
You’ll never guess the rock star to which Orenstein traces the trend.
Barcella considers herself to be a proud, Madonna-in-her-living-room fan since age six. It comes as no surprise that many of her contributors also write about imitating Madonna’s sexual acting out as six-year-olds. While no one can specify what is too soon to be sexy, I don’t need an APA report to know that six years old is too soon. What shocks me is how Madonna & Me does not address the obvious question posed by Madonna’s popularity and power: is Madonna good for girls?
In the “Lucky Star” track, five writers engage us with sharply reasoned, often exceptional writing that takes well-worn Madonna critiques to new depths: “Our Lady of Perpetual Motion” by Cintra Wilson; “Madonna is Boring and Lazy” by Colleen Kane; “Count Madonnicula” by Lisa Crystal Carver; and “‘Vogue:’ Madonna’s Create Zenith” by Amanda Marcotte. In “Desperately Seeking Stardom”, Sarah Stoloda recounts a photograph of Madonna taken by Amy Arbus at a chance run-in “back when she still had a last name”:
A men’s coat happens to dominate this black-and-white photograph. Stained and grubby-beige, it very nearly engulfs Madonna as she poses in front of the old tenement buildings of St. Mark’s Place. She carries a bowling bag as a purse … and kind of looks like a bitch. Probably a month or so after the image is captured, she will be famous.
In Stoloda graceful care, the What Would Madonna Do meme that swamps the first 149 pages blossoms into an account of Madonna’s appropriation of the early 1980’s East Village attitude. If you’re at all unfamiliar with New York City, you will learn how a woman who neither lived nor found success downtown branded the “downtown aesthetic.” A woman who turned wild, arty, and poor into, as Stoloda writes, “a springboard to the very things it supposedly repudiated: fame and wealth.” In a few, far from acerbic pages, Stoloda uses the inherent complexity of the “Madonna-Wanna” to reveal more about herself—and so, magically, about us—than all the gushing that comes before it.
In reading this collection, Madonna fans will feel the captivating promise made by Courtney E. Martin in Before Beyonce, Tween Thongs, and Baby Tiaras to “understand the complexity of Madonna’s plea to ‘Express Yourself’ as only a grown woman could.” But there is a difference between growing up and just getting older, and readers who want more than a reminiscence of high school fun might not feel that this promise is fulfilled. In placing Martin’s essay first, Barcella, too, makes this promise, and I believe that she does her level best to make good on it.
Read more about this publication here.
Alle C. Hall won the 2008 Richard Hugo House New Works Competition. Claim to fame: interviewed Leonard Nimoy. Some day, her kids will think she is cool. Also in:Creative Nonfiction, BUST, Literary Mama, Swivel, The Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly,and The Stranger (Contributing Writer). Most recent pub: “Good Girls Don’t Get Stoned.”