Gross National Madonna

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Posts.

Gross National
At one time,
if you said people who care about Madonna don’t care about music, you’d
be a snob. But her new single "Music" proves it’s now true. The
word "music" becomes Madonna’s euphemism for record industry
capitalism. When she bleats the homiletic chorus, "Music makes the people
come together," it’s such a banal sentiment the only emotion you feel
in it is her calculation that the platitude might still guarantee a hit. That
reduction is the one thing in the song that’s new. And sure enough,
the media has fallen in line. VH1 and MTV hosted simultaneous broadcast premieres
the afternoon of Aug. 2. (Spokesmodel-cheerleader Roshumba pumped up hollow
effervescence, joined by in-house rock hacks Alan Light, Joe Levy, Danyel Smith–madhouse
delegates announcing Spin, Rolling Stone and Time’s
Madonna support.)

"It’s a quarter
of an idea," Benj DeMott said of the lyric. Maybe that’s all you need
to keep music hacks going. That would include VH1’s specially invited audience
of geeked-up Madonna fans. Way past the innocence and honesty of American
teen enthusiasts, they like to think they think.

Just how half-baked Madonna’s
notion is is exposed by remembering the O’Jays’ 1975 "I Love
Music." That proto-disco paean described a music trend that really did
bring people together–not the fragmented, diminished markets represented
by teen-pop and electronica, or even Madonna’s strenuous attempt at looting-and-hybridizing
it all. (She uses French composer/producer Mirwais Ahmadzai to guide the track’s
derivative use of 70s disco and early 80s hiphop stylings.) When proclaiming,
"I love music, any kind of music, just as long as it’s groovy,"
the O’Jays covered the field. They enriched their euphemism by making it
genuinely romantic: "[Music m]akes me laugh, makes me smile, all the while,
when I’m with you, girl. While we dance, make romance, I’m enchanted
by the things that you do."

The O’Jays correctly
understood music as an adjunct to feeling–an adult realization. And they
sang it out: "Nothing can be better than a sweet love song. So sweet, so
sweet, so mellow yellow." You could hear that as a reference to Donovan
or just perfect slang jouissance. That’s why when they assert, "Music
is the healing force of the world, it’s understood by every man, woman,
boy and girl," it’s not just blather. The O’Jays’ knowledge
of how joy feels just makes sense. None of that specious music-of-a-generation
crap. They connected music to personal experience. Proving you could get to
the universal through the specific, lead singer Eddie Levert underscored group
verses with personal, detailed asides:

O’JAYS: Music makes
the atmosphere so fine

EDDIE: Lights down low
just me and you, baby you know

O’JAYS: Especially
when you’ve got a cold glass of wine

EDDIE: Mellow wine and

For the O’Jays music
epitomized a style of living, a way of loving (configured in echoey harmonic
repetitions of "ILOVEILOVEILOVEILOVE"–their voices etched feeling
against the rhythm section’s mad pulse). Certainly, "music" was
metaphor, but it was never simply product. The O’Jays (and their composer/producers
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) wouldn’t have reduced their life-calling to
venality. Too much opportunity and emotion–theirs and their disco-infatuated
audience’s–was invested in it.

With "Music,"
Madonna proclaims her role not as person or artist but as scenemaker and market-tester–and
that’s her doom. A Madonna product can’t express musical definitiveness
anymore. (The record’s jerky pulsing is as modern and limited as the O’Jays’
swirling groove is timeless.) If there’s an honest motive in Madonna, it
long ago became synthetic. Instead of a genuine semiotic provocation like Scritti
Politti’s song about "A hammer and a pop sickle," "Music"
simply mimes semiotics. And in the year 2000 postmodernism is tired–particularly
if it doesn’t express love. She doesn’t make "music" signify
the way the O’Jays could. In a world where everything from news to education
is entertainment, just singing about "music" is a scam. Her "bourgeois/rebel"
chorus isn’t a political statement, it’s a politician’s commercial
pose. That’s why you can’t trust it.

Reaching the limits of subversion,
Madonna falls back on reckless cultural and sexual flirtation. Jonas Akerlund’s
video Music strains for naughty excitement–but most of all for meaning–that
the record itself doesn’t articulate. In a jumble of faux-black postures
and iconography (gold limousine, white Versace cowboy hat, white fur coat, gold
bracelets, rings and chains) Madonna and two gals visit strip clubs. They’re
chauffeured around town by British comedian Ali G, who wears a "Ghetto
Pimp" jersey (and hums the video’s theme "Ridin’ the punany").
Girls’ night out shows Madonna as cultural ambassador for the clueless
(you know, those who thought "Vogue" was actually a dance). Music
steals the pop signifiers that have proven more potent than Madonna’s own
recent gambits. The orgiastic carousing repeats Deeper and Deeper (1992’s
superior, and apt, Warhol homage), yet none of it explains an actual scene.
So she borrows a little "soul"–a convenient, horrendous parody.

"It’s like a role
reversal thing," Madonna described the video’s concept to VH1. "Usually
you see, you know, like in a lot of videos–traditionally, like, r&b,
rap videos–guys getting together with their friends going out on a night
on the town and just having a wild and crazy time and that’s what we’re
doing. It’s really just a spoof in a way."

Yeah, but of what? Girls
assuming men’s prerogative? Her typical white appropriation of black manners?
A spoof of license or privilege? Once again Madonna pulls a cultural measuring
rod out of her kit-and-caboodle and holds it up for everyone to smell the stench.
Just as hiphop videos have reached a nadir of booty-begging (sex as life rather
than an aspect of life), Madonna drags out her oldest act–doing blackface
with a straight (white) face. As usual, the sexual innuendo distracts (and pleases)
her apologists. Ali G’s limo bears a license plate titled Muff Daddy to
underline Madonna’s muff-diving, strip club tease and her Puff Daddy ripoff.
For "a role reversal thing," the halves don’t click.

Asked the leading question,
"Are you concerned about the video being censored?" Material Girl
defensively argued, "If you look at a lot of those videos that’s where
they end up–in a strip club. So if I’m gonna do a role reversal take
on it then I’m gonna do it all the way. And if Snoop Doggy Dogg can have
strippers and strip clubs in his video, why can’t I?" As if she ever
went unsponsored by video broadcasters! (MTV frequently passes on any number
of hiphop videos they deem out-of-bounds–like the one good Snoop video
Doggy Dogg World, where he and a host of 70s blaxploitation stars hung
out at a strip club.) Madonna’s plea for parity is laughable.

Music copies innovations
by artists who lack her media access. She struts, imitating Eve’s Ruff
Ryder hauteur. There’s a cartoon superhero interlude modeled on the anime
in Mariah Carey’s Heartbreaker and the girl gang spree is lifted
from Jennifer Lopez’s Feelin’ So Good. Lopez’s video (featuring
Fat Joe and Big Pun) had special charm, detailing uptown recreation and Latino
fellowship as a release from workaday drudgery (think the O’Jays’
"Living for the Weekend"). Longing came across in Lopez’s planning
and talking with friends; spirit showed in her on-the-street greetings; and
the reality of modern pleasure was depicted when she spontaneously purchased
a frock. In Music, Madonna debases the quotidian, revealing money exchange
only when putting dollar bills in strippers’ crotches.

That the strippers are female
(and the club bouncer a beefy black guy to whom Ali G protests, "me no
batty boy") is not minority-group (gay, Caribbean) support, it’s pandering.
Madonna flaunts her sexual audacity as if championing everyone’s free will.
But you could say the same about Motley Crüe’s stripper video Girls,
Girls, Girls
. In both cases the norm–Crüe’s heterosexuality,
Madonna’s white privilege–makes subversion impossible. Like all commercials,
Music exalts the status quo. The anime segment briefly caricatures Madonna
as a Kali figure whose many arms spin records at a disco. That, too, is a pandering
distraction from the video’s central offensive myth. For Madonna: pimpin’
ain’t only easy, it’s cool.

It’s an imperial misinterpretation
of black pop’s life study (what Benj DeMott’s Jay-Z essay in First
of the Month
called "get[ting] the flow of feeling right"). Music
falsifies the complex sensuality and greed of Jay-Z’s "Big Pimpin’,"
where acquisitiveness is so bold and insistent and funny it suggests life–a
motivating force that is also a genuine political reflection. Even Hype Williams’
Big Pimpin’ video follows through. It’s the work of a lust
master–and pop culture fiend. Hype mixes solid mounds of flesh with slanted
Titanic ship angles. Jay-Z and his crew float through the Caribbean,
kings of their own world–a dream Williams erects through tumescent fantasies
of luxe. In any other medium Williams’ erotic talent would be disreputable,
but joined to pop music’s rhythmic mythology of success and liberation,
it celebrates black male ambition. The widescreen compositions are framed by
white bands ("milkbox" as opposed to "letterbox"). This
joy can easily be mistaken for rebellion (life literally turned into carnival).
Yet, in Williams’ suggestive imagery–capitulating to greed and hedonism–there
is an unironic consequence you can’t deny: that contemporary hiphop falls
even as it rises.

No such truth is apparent
in Music; it’s morally unconscious. In the despicable Secret
video (made before the concept of "ghetto fabulousness"), Madonna
skulked around Spanish Harlem, asserting prerogative that only perverts pop
culture’s illusion of camaraderie. When a figure of her power, wealth and
prestige goes slumming, it’s not noblesse oblige, it’s just Taki.

With Madonna you have to
weigh insult against her past gifts to the culture (the truly challenging Like
a Prayer
video, the superb Take a Bow and Deeper and Deeper
and "Into the Groove"–a global anthem the O’Jays might approve
of). Anybody who makes a beat or melody has done a good thing. It’s the
new song and video’s philosophizing that stinks. Pretending to be "ghetto
fabulous," a phrase coined by record exec Andre Harrell, allows Madonna
to show off imperialist indifference as fun. Don’t laugh. It’s a record
industry shibboleth.