When she first appeared on the scene six years ago, not much about Madonna marked her for transcendent stardom except her ferocious will. Early hits like Borderline and Holiday proved she had a good ear for a musical hook. But her voice had the range of a penny whistle, her songs were simpler than the alphabet, and around her famous navel the MTVenus packed a little mound of tummy blub.
No matter, she knew that image—or better still, a succession of images—had become as important to a pop career as musical gifts. Sticking her tongue out at critics, then lodging it firmly in cheek, she put on a series of brazen attitudes—the Material Girl, the blond bombshell, the Catholic penitent in a negligee. More than just a cartoon of vice, Madonna was a one-woman vice squad, a whole collection of public images crafted to tease our mixed feelings about lust, money and ambition. If you loved it, it was probably because there was something thrilling about seeing our secret passions so gleefully paraded. And if you didn’t love it—hey, Papa, don’t preach.
Madonna grasped very well that the best way to create scandal in an era that was blasé about old pieties was to twit the new ones. So she flipped a finger at the earnestness of the late ’60s and the ’70s, fashioning a persona of raw cunning and comically overcooked sexuality, a cross between Lady Macbeth and Betty Boop. And she tormented the feminists with her Boy Toy belt buckles and sex-cookie vamping, harking back to an era when a woman’s only leverage in life was the power of eye-batting sex. When Madonna dressed for success, it had nothing to do with getting into law school.
But the message she sent to the multitude of teen age wannabes was mostly about a dream of self-indulgence—a black-lace fantasy for a strait-laced generation. Madonna spread before them the agreeable but dubious proposition that you can play the cutie and still wield clout. In her case, of course, she had a point. Madonna is, after all, that rare cutie who heads a $30-million-a-year corporation. She co-writes her own songs, co-produces her own albums and has directed her mammoth concert tours from city to city as adroitly as Hannibal trotted his elephants across the Alps.
Madonna roamed across pop culture to find the models for her provocations. Her trash-flash wardrobe was pioneered by Bette Midler, her B-girl demeanor owed much to Blondie’s Debbie Harry, and Carol Channing beat her to the discovery that “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Above all, her scrumptious sexuality was a variation on themes developed by Mae West and Marilyn Monroe, among quite a few others. But she never just appointed herself the next in their line.
Like an Elvis impersonator bringing the beloved back to life, she reenacted Marilyn’s career for us in a wish-fulfillment version, in which Marilyn gets to be both sexy and shrewd. She doesn’t kill herself; she slays everybody else. It was Marilyn without martyrdom, Marilyn for a decade that loved a winner. Sean Penn stood in for both of Monroe’s husbands, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. In this public revision of the Marilyn saga, he played both the slugger and the somber artist, the big biceps and the furrowed brow.
Madonna was canny enough never to become too closely identified with any of her incarnations. Her most brazen pronouncements were delivered with a wink. (You have to love somebody who can describe losing her virginity as “a career move.”) “Being the vixen, the heartbreaker and the incredibly provocative girl is a very marketable image,” she once admitted. Then she added, with the have-it-both-ways tease that is essential to her appeal: “But it’s not insincere—you just can’t take it seriously.”
It was that kind of “only kidding” come-on that made Madonna the perfect temptress for the ’80s, when all of our pleasures were guilty pleasures, the age of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and “Just Say No,” when all of our excesses were conducted in the shadow of some impending calamity, whether it was AIDS or the national debt.
Madonna wasn’t just a mirror of her times. She was a hall of mirrors, reflecting back a cleverly mixed and fractured message that was just the thing for a decade in which people wanted to shake their hips while putting their shoulders to the wheel. Now that may be a hard position to hold. But like she says: Papa, don’t preach.