Guest Blogger

Sex and the Sublime: The Real Power of Madonna

Filed By Guest Blogger | April 28, 2010 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: Blonde Ambition, Glee, Like a Prayer, Madonna, pop culture

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Reid Uratani is a graduate student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His work centers on a variety of topics, mainly focused on the ways in which queer subcultures mobilize in relation to larger Bio.jpgcommunities.

  1. I am not a "true" Madonna fan (Whitney Houston defender present). But I know the catalog well.
  2. I was interpellated or absorbed into gay male culture at a specific point - what I intuit as the last group with a pre-NoH8 frame of mind.
  3. Madonna (for me the 1982 "Physical Attraction"/"Lucky Star" and the 1990 Blonde Ambition manifestations) forcibly acquires a measure of centrality in achieving legible gay maleness (or male gayness).
  4. I'm not a culture studies person. I think intensive focus tends toward political vapidness.
  5. Madonna studies still intrigues me. Especially work focusing on the Blonde Ambition avatars.
  6. After the jump is the version of the Blonde Ambition rendition of "Like a Prayer" everyone should watch (I'm biased toward the curliness of her hair in this one).

Logical conclusion follows.

My conclusion is this: Glee's tribute episode underwhelmed because of something the gay boy himself said: "I don't think we can have an honest conversation about Miss Ciccone without acknowledging that her images are as indelible as her songs." Madonna's aura, her "power," comes from visual presentation - in sync with some sort of palpable, cogent social theme.

In particular, Glee's version of "Like a Prayer" kind of sucked because it doesn't carry her particular gravitas (Catholic Italian immigrant father v. Thoroughly Modern Madge). The tour edit shows the real "power of Madonna" - in its combination of Catholic imagery, her complexly gendered sensuality (7:30-8:07), and the perplexing role of the Black Woman's commanding omnipresence in Madonna's "mystical," rapturous experience.

This, of course, can lead to questions of cultural capital, race/gender ontologies, and the like.

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petmeimgood | April 28, 2010 4:18 PM

excellent! most posts from mr. uratani, please!

Michael @ | April 28, 2010 4:21 PM

Kind, understanding Older Gay Gentleman offers unsolicited advice to Young Gay Gentleman suffocating from a lack of pre-Madonna generation cultural awareness and choking on polysyllabic jargon undigestible outside of ivy-covered walls.

1. Behind the failure of much of GLEE's gratuitous homage to Madonna was the fact that so much of even her most famous material is so thin one could read one's iPad through it.

2. "her complexly gendered sensuality" as manifested in many of her "indelible" "images" is so much a direct, conscious steal from those created by Marlene Dietrich over five decades before anyone had ever heard of Miss Ciccone that a culture writer for the "The New York Times" refers to her as "MARdonna."

Exhibit A:

3. One is uncertain in what context, beyond the ability to overly impress blank gay slates, you mean "the real power of Madonna," but I submit that, beyond a BRIEF period many moons ago in which she publicly referenced empathy for those with AIDS and gave a few thousand out of her gazillion dollars, a sticky Mentos, and some pocket lint to an AIDS charity, she represents the kind of "political vapidness" any Repuglican Trust Fund Baby would applaud. Or, as the Divine Miss M [you can look her up] once said in another context, no doubt in the words of her gay master of bon mots Bruce Vilanche: she's "vogue on the outside and vague on the inside."

As you referenced Prop H8TE, it's the perfect example. Though her last wizened tour to add yet more gazillions to her stash [allegedly, "the highest grossing tour of all time by a solo artist"] coincided with that battle, there is no record of her having contributed a sous to defeat it while other rich Kinsey 0s such as Brad Pitt, Steven Spielberg, and Stephen Bing...none with careers propelled by the kind of gay adulation you manifest and MARdonna shows no genuine gratitude for...did. Allegedly the single reference she made to it throughout the pre-election portion of the tour [while anti-H8TE donations came from acoss the country] was during the Oakland concerts across the bridge from San Francisco [perhaps while sporting the white top hat Dietrich turned into an iconic image in "Blue Angel" 78 years before]. Gee, such powerful political bravado and risk taking! Not. [Yes, she said in L.A. afterward it was too bad it passed. With apologies to Carole King: "too late, Baby!"]

We now return you to your regular programming of "questions of cultural capital, race/gender ontologies, and the like."

1. I agree that my brief posting leaves a measure of ambiguity. That said, it doesn't necessarily imply the conclusions you draw. So in a spirit of fun I'll echo the aggressivity you gave with your reply, Michael.

2. You naively misunderstand or forcibly ignore the intent of my post in claiming that I offer Madonna adulation. That might have been apparent in my distancing from Madonna-canonization in my post's first point. I'm merely indicating Madonna's hold on audiences, especially as it's manifested in Glee's tribute.

3. I don't claim anything about the value of Madonna's work. Only the resonance it carries. The meaning of Madonna and the "power of Madonna" are not coextensive. The "power of Madonna" is less a political essence than a force she operationalizes in her visual, audial and public presentations. I guess those were the "polysyllabic" words you implied I was using when I actually wasn't.

4. The implication that Madonna's distance from queer/LGBT politics itself implicates the adulating gays who propel allegedly apolitical "Kinsey 0s" is interesting. In a formal sense, I don't think I would disagree. But under the same logic of responsibility, wouldn't your implied adulation for Marlene accuse you of a similar political vapidness? One might accuse Marlene of a certain homophobia (recognizing her bisexuality) or political cowardice in her silence on the AIDS crisis. Your exclusive focus on Madonna's relation to Proposition 8 seems to negate Madonna's (admittedly tenuous) relation to feminism. That Madonna offers nothing positive for women and women's sexuality seems like a pretty vapid statement.

5. Though you took little issue with it, I noted in my final sentence that Madonna is in fact a problematic figure for progressive politics. She is undoubtedly guilty of cashing in on the cultural productions of economic/racial/sexual minorities. The "power of Madonna" - alongside the "power of" Lady Gaga and even the marriage movement - is ambiguous in and of itself. My point is that it is grounds for debate, not outright refusal.

Well, I don't watch Glee, but I remember the first time I saw "Like a Prayer" on MTV. The power of "Like a Prayer" was in it's ability to bring social, racial, religious, sexual, and social issues into the realm of MTV and pop music. It was a way to bring the marginalized to a source that didn't necessarily de-marginalize them, but was able to lift the veil off, so to speak. Although Hip Hop had been doing that for years prior, Madonna and her version of awareness was something different.

I can understand Reid's concern over Glee covering such a powerfully edgy song. Like I said, I don't watch Glee, but I know of it. Glee's format, although able to deal with complex social issues, somehow takes the edge out of the issues as well. If shows like Glee take marginalized issues and bring them to the center, than can the issues themselves still be edgy? I don't really know the answer to this question, it's just a thought.

And somstimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I definitely agree with what you said. I was very disappointed with Glee's Madonna Tribute, though at the time I was watching it I wasn't sure why I was so disappointed. Now, after reading your analysis I realize that it is because i didn't get the feel of Madonna from the show choir's performances. I think part of it must be because the Madonna iconography wasn't present, as you mentioned, I also think that part of that iconography must be Madonna herself. When Rachel is signing to Madonna the sound, the impression, and the power dynamics behind it were just too different for me to identify it as Madonna.

Well, let's face it. It wasnt a tribute. It was a too-cute-for-its-own-good marketing stunt.

And it's pretty sad when a show that has the potential to be so much fun is jumping that proverbial shark so early in the game.

I can't wait to read your take on pre- and post-crack whitney

As it is true that you can't separate Madonna's music from her images, you can't separate her work from who she is and the effect she has had on the larger culture. She's a lot like Andy Warhol. The work itself is crap, but the artist is very important.

Madonna almost single-handedly changed the way young Americans viewed and talked about AIDS and "gay culture" in the 80s and 90s. For that alone, she's one of the most important artists of our time, without even getting into her influence on the way girls think about their bodies and their sexuality, her influence on feminism.

All that said, I watched the Glee episode last night, and I think the issue is much simpler than you're making it. Skip the jargon (hint: if you want us to believe you when you say you're not a culture studies person, avoid words like interpellated and ontologies) -- the show was bad because the songs are bad.

I agree with you on all points aside from the Warhol comment. But for the sake of both the thread and art history I won't go there.

I'm curious, having graduated with an emphasis in Cultural Studies - are you referring to that field in particular or a more generic mode of study that you define as "culture studies?" I'm thinking it's the latter, but I could be wrong.

Thanks for your comment, Yasmin. I was referring (vaguely, I know) to a method of cultural studies that basically (to me) aspires to a sort of fidelity to positivism I find suspect. For me, interrogating cultural texts is useful insofar as it ultimately foregrounds the politics of the text's relation to larger narratives. I guess this would align with the latter form as you outlined it. Cultural studies writ large is varied in its methodology and its institutional forms are too diverse to summarily reject.

You're right, it is vague and "culture studies" isn't a method. I think what you're referring to is "popular culture studies," perhaps. Which CS scholars (many, at least) would argue is a rather different area of study.

Echoing Steve, here's a piece of advice if you're interested in writing for an audience: Always assume readers are really smart, because they usually are, and don't try to drown them in unnecessary and inaccurate jargon when you find yourself in a corner.

I disagree. Totally. But thanks for your comment.

Being completely outside the area of my expertise, I readily admit to not being as intellectually adept with regards to the issues Mr. Uratani speaks of; but my question would be toward the validity of assigning the glee episode (or Madonna, even) as a legitimate piece of gay culture worthy of being analysed at all. Yes she (and glee) have been embraced by gay pop culture (though I am still confused as to exactly what standards such is measured against), but does this actually make them part of the gay identity or merit them a real place in such discussions? The over-the-top antics of divas and show choirs is labeled as "gay" but it seems to me that such is assigned to us by the non-queer community in the same way other stereotypes are assigned on other ethnic groups by outsiders who perceive connexions without understanding root causes (math and Asians, African Americans and take-your-pick, etc.), and in much the same way are then internalised by the gay community by the rule of "truth by majority voice."

In my opinion, Madonna became popular by being loud and constantly feeding people something new and fresh as a talented marketer, not because she is truly a part of gay/womens/etc culture. Glee then took that existing momentum and fan nostalgia (a powerful asset among the demogrphic old enough to actually remember her original catalogue) and did something stunty for ratings. I'm not knocking it per se (I personally thought it was pretty cute) but does it merit an active discussion on gay issues? Maybe a deconstruction of the deeper issues it brings to light in a passive sense, but perhaps not in relation to anything it's "trying to say."

Although I am a professed GLEE fan I too must concede to the fact that they did not do justice to any of Madonna's songs. I would even go as far as saying that the only performance I did enjoy was the Vogue video, but only for its clear joking cinematography that only served as an antithesis of what Madonna truly is viewed as standing for (besides prepubescent, overanxious, horny teens can hardly do justice to the sexuality Madonna portrays).

That being said, I don't know of anyone that expects GLEE to capture the essence of the songs they do, rather they interpret the songs with a view of todays society. Maybe I folks only see GLEE as a show offering entertainment and not reality or even a similar portrayal of the original artist. . It is a show on FOX after all.

Great post Mr. Uratani.

Yes to the second paragraph. Glee's messages are always obvious and shallow, which is fine because that's not what the show is about.

I watch this show because it gives me the warm fuzzies, and to that end, I didn't expect them to reflect anything but the shallowest interpretation of Madonna's performance.

linda Ikeda | April 30, 2010 6:10 AM

more power to mr. uratani and his sesquipedalianism. more posts like this and i'll have to become a regular subscriber.

Overall I would have to disagree with Mr. Uratani.

I enjoyed the episode in general because (as has been pointed out in recent posts) it was a form of shallow fun.

However, I do think that Mr. Uratani has a point, which I found best expressed in the show's Vogue video. At first I was enjoying the way the original aesthetic of Madonna's music video was undercut through Sue's portrayal, but after a minute, it just got boring.

Yes, Glee is meant to be simply enjoyable, but that doesn't mean that we can't expect something from it. It does try to tackle serious issues, teenage pregnancy, racial stereotypes, etc., through its light-hearted approach. And it could have done the same with the Vogue video.

I feel the video failed because it wasn't a true parody. Implanting Sue's character for Madonna wasn't enough to carry it through. Instead of offering its usual light-hearted fun critique, it took itself too seriously.

Interesting post, Mr. Uratani. Never did I think I would live to see the day where Madonna could stimulate a conversation beyond hairstyle and cosmetic scheme. Perhaps I’ve aged myself here with that statement. Yet, this is exactly what my sort-of problem is with the “power of” part of Madonna. Let me preface this by stating that I’m not trying to hate on Madonna here—she was definitely an iconic figure of the 80s and 90s pop culture, and the world was SO saturated by her ‘-ness’ during this period that I don’t think anyone could NOT be a fan of hers in some shape or form. But here is where I go back to the age part. There are two groups of people in this world: 1)those who were born into a world of Madonna—in other words, there is no recollection of a pre-Madonna world in terms of her music and videos, and 2) those who existed and partook in a pre-Madonna world. Group 1, I feel, has mythologized Madonna to the point where people actually take her more seriously than she probably ever took herself. Let me explain.

For many of us from group 2 (mostly thirty-somethings and older) Madonna was something cool that happened—in terms of fashion, makeup, and every once in a while, a good beat—but that’s it. Did she really “shock” people with her Like a Prayer video? Well, maybe if you were living in Jim Crow, but not 1989. A burning cross? Deep. Behind the big, blinking headlines that read “CONTROVERSIAL” that tried to convince people of Madonna’s depth was a whole generation of people who only cared that she had dyed her hair dark for the video. No, we weren’t shallow— but we were already living in a world where interracial relationships were accepted and where people were already saying fuck you to organized religion. It’s akin to how shocked we all were when Ricky Martin came out. Now, Madonna shocked white conservatives, but that was to be expected. And Vogue? Yes, I too memorized the lyrics to the song, and yes I loved the video. But that’s it. Was her fan base “shocked” that she had a bunch of queens in the video with her? No. Contrary to popular belief, gays (dancing gays for that matter) existed before Vogue, and though Madonna "introduced" this culture (many would say, exploited)to the 80s/90s it really wasn't as mind blowing as people today are making it seem. Now, did MTV make a huge deal about it and blow it out of proportion? Yes, and to the delight of Madonna.

What happens when you mythologize a figure is that an unrealistic line gets drawn in the sand demarcating the before and after—“before Madonna” and “after Madonna.” Gays and interracial relationships existed before Madonna—it just wasn’t on MTV and this was her contribution. She made videos featuring gays and people of color.

And this is where Glee fits in.

Those who were underwhelmed with Glee’s rendition of all-things Madonna were expecting to see all the messages and a aura of depth that were tacked on to Madonna from a generation that never knew a world without her. The lack of depth that Glee demonstrated is actually more in tune to the way it was when these Madonna videos and songs first came out. I was there, I know. These were just cool songs and cool videos. Nothing more and nothing less. About 80% of her fan base took it for what it was worth. Now, the remaining 20% were thanking her for putting gays on TV and for spreading the message of AIDS (I guess), and I’m not trying to discount her contribution to the _______ (fill in the blank) Movement, but they were really on the peripheral edges of her fan base. People today make Madonna out to seem WAY more than what she really was—a successful business woman. She was a white girl who decided to surround herself with whatever would make her seem less white and more cosmopolitan—gays and people of color—and it worked. She brought Sex and Ambiguity to the mainstream, the way Studio 54 did in the 70s except there was no MTV then. Madonna used MTV as a tool and it worked. But to try to make Madonna (i.e the Power of) into anything more than this is almost laughable, and I’m not trying to be snarky here.

One *could not* take the Like a Prayer/Vogue (and Papa Don’t Preach…remember that one?) Madonna seriously at the time she came out with those songs/videos because this was the same person a few years prior that rolled around in a torn wedding dress crooning “like a virgin, touched for the very first time.” It would be equivalent to Britney Spears coming out with a video today dealing with issues of racism and homophobia. If that wouldn’t be the biggest eye-roll in the world, I don’t know what would.

The Myth and Memory of Madonna reminds me of what one of my Prof’s once said when students kept going on about how the 1960s was such an “exciting” time and how things were so much cooler back then. He kindly told the class it wasn’t exciting. It was terrifying and an experience he would never want to live through again. It wasn’t about songs of peace and happiness for the people who were actually there to experience it, but that's how people who were not there are made to remember it. Perhaps this was not the best example, but I think it proves my point. If you strip away all the titles, the “messages,” the façade and hype that this current generation is piling on to her, what you will have is what we did in the 80s and 90s—a fluffy, feel good Glee performance featuring the one and only Madonna.

With that said, Mr. Uratani, thank you for the thought-provoking blog and for stimulating an interesting discussion on a figure that, whether you love or hate her, redefined pop culture when it most needed it.

"me" pretty much hit the nail on the head.

madonna is simply a business woman--an unbelievably successful business woman with a keen eye for marketing, circumstance, and the exploitation of what is deemed "shocking" at the moment, but that's it.

she had no intention of being a figurehead in the world of pop (minus her "i want to rule the world" statement on 1984's american bandstand interview with dick clark...)

She was a high-school dropout who wanted to be a dancer... not a scheming "I'm going to change the world and reform gay/racial politics" genius. She, like jesus, gains fame and credibility from her following.

The so-called "power" that seems to be a topic is fan-created. She has no real singing talent, her dance moves can/and have been done, and her ability to bring awareness to gayness/and AIDS was a timely hit.
Let's think back to the other performers of the 80's who made their way up with madonna: the culture club, michael jackson, new wave bands: bow-wow-wow, the smiths/the cure, grace jones, the eurythmics, and big hair bands completely adorned in make-up and bedazzled was a time when gender-bending was not only acceptable but fashionable. Gay acceptance came with the 80's, not madonna.

And "glee"
oh please. like someone mentioned in a post above, it's a show on FOX. enough said.

I don't even want to get into "like a prayer" because the whole idea of using black singers and Catholicism in hopes of being "controversial" or "pushing the envelope" on any type of issue is lost when you have a floating "pepsi" logo at the bottom of your screen.

So, if there is any real tie between Madonna/Glee or anything of the sorts, it is that it's shallow enough for people to add depth to it, but when taken at face value, they are both kind of mediocre.

fun topic, reid.

Thank you for your note. It took me a while to find time to fully process your own reading. From your reply I gather that there are two things that you highlight (and I agree with): 1) general time shifts make differences 2) these shifts alter our idealizations (or mythologizations) of figures, or even generations. It seems that that mode of beatification of times (and persons'/peoples' times) gone by is a common phenomenon. Queers have it with Stonewall, progressives have it with the New Deal era, etc.

What I appreciate in your comment is the foregrounding of this relation to time. I think that the "power of Madonna" is a generalizable phenomenon applicable to any sort of figure, movement or institution that uses an idealizing or mythologizing relation to its advantage.

It is easy to see that differentiated generational relations to phenomena (what I referred to as "habitus") produces clashes between viewpoints even within a certain movement. Today, I see that in queer/LGBT relations to concepts of marriage and sexuality. The ambiguity I mentioned in another reply pertains to the specific use an idealized figure/movement/institution might be appropriated - in both a positive and negative way for progressives.

I'm curious as to how this can lead to discussions of race and gender and exactly what it could imply- care to explain a little bit further?

Thanks for your question. As I just replied to "me"'s comment, I'll answer in that vein of thought. Within the specific example of Madonna, race and gender can be examined through Madonna's body of work (the videos, tours, whatever). I was thinking of the ambiguity of her video for "Secret," in which the titular secret may be that she is in some way biologically/sexually/romantically connected to the African American community from which she seems distinguished.

Concerning the issue of "the power of Madonna," I was thinking of the issue of Obama's ethnic and national background. Whereas some idealize the notion of Obama's blackness as a sign of triumph, others see it as a sign of doom for America. The idealization of triumph is further complicated by ideas of multicultural harmony and the end of racism.