|| Print ||
|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Sunday, 02 September 2007 19:00|
Madonna’s 1985 single "Material Girl" is undeniably a pop masterpiece. Its driving bass line and hypnotic melodies are the stuff of mainstream major record label dreams. On its release, the song perfectly captured the zeitgeist of mid-1980s America, a time when materialism and conservatism ran rampant. Youth in Reagan-era America were beautifully captured and projected back to themselves through the sitcom Family Ties, where Michael J. Fox’s conservative Alex P. Keating and his consumerist sister, Mallory, were contrasted against their ex-hippy and liberal parents. It is easy to see why Madonna’s song was a hit with an audience who were, for the most part, acknowledged materialists themselves. The song’s lyrics, written by Peter Brown and Robert Rans, exuded honesty and truth about cultural attitudes at a certain time and place in American history.
There was no pretense to the way Madonna presented herself and the song -- no ironic wink. This was Madonna articulating what everyone else in America was feeling. She was, at the same time, unselfconsciously reveling in the shallowness of bubble-gum pop music. Madonna was not trying to convince anyone that "Material Girl" was somehow deep. After all, the "deep" and politically conscious folk-inspired rock of the 1960s had morphed into the bloated and self-important stadium rock of the 1970s. It was these rock groups which then spurned the birth of disco as a response to rock’s self-important grandstanding. The producers of disco music were creating tunes that were meant to be danced to in a club, not performed on a stage dropped into the middle of a football stadium. It was disco, the perfect "content-less music," that eventually led to the early 1980s club scene, from which Madonna was most certainly birthed. Madonna was making music to get your body going, not your brain, and she wasn’t afraid to admit it.
Madonna clearly understood that persona was something constructed, not naturally inherent in individuals.
A large part of "Material Girl’s" success was the song’s brilliant music video, directed by Mary Lambert, which recreated (not parodied) Marilyn Monroe’s "Diamond’s Are A Girl’s Best Friend" number from Gentleman Prefer Blonds (1953). Madonna, in a pink dress, is doted on by barrage of tuxedo wearing dancers, who present her with jewelry, as they dance up and down a ruby red stairway. The video burst onto the MTV stage when the network was still young, and specifically acknowledged that Madonna’s ‘blond bombshell’ persona was simply a recycling of old cinematic and pop-culture tropes. The singer’s honesty was once again shining through. Madonna made a habit of taking freely from American Queer culture (introducing the gay underground dance craze "Vogue" to mainstream audiences), and it is perhaps there, dancing amongst the drag queens, that she learned to acknowledge the performative notion of gender and identity formation. Madonna clearly understood that persona was something constructed, not naturally inherent in individuals. By recycling tropes from the past, with no intention of presenting them as something "new", Madonna managed to tap into the contemporary mood at a time when people were much more interested in taking from the past than from learning from it.
The fact that Madonna’s musical persona was based largely on her honesty is perhaps why her movie career has been fairly disastrous. Actors, unlike musicians, are inherently liars. Thespians deceive as much as they reveal. The process of acting is an intentional mystification of the audience on the part of the performer. Acting in a film is, in fact, the complete opposite of the Material Girl gleefully channeling Marilyn Monroe while reveling in consumerist America.
Madonna’s acting career in Hollywood is much more comparable with the musical career of Britney Spears than with her own musical output. As the pop queen of her generation, Spears was set to take over where Madonna left off. This was made all but explicit when the young singer was signed to the Madonna-owned Maverick record label. Britney, however, lacked the strength of Madonna’s honesty. Spears expected audiences to take her and her act seriously, even as she strutted the halls of a high-school in a fetish outfit, singing "Hit me baby one more time," in her premiere video.
Spears’ persona was characterized by overt sexuality, combined with intense faux innocence.
Spears’ persona was characterized by overt sexuality, combined with intense faux innocence. She was someone who could perform dance numbers in a school girl outfit while simultaneously expecting audiences to accept her as ‘just a regular girl next door’. She continually presented herself to the public as someone totally oblivious to the fact that any of her actions could ever have sexual connotations.
Madonna, on the other hand, never hid from her sexuality. Even the cover to the "Material Girl" single featured the singer naked on a bed, barely covering herself with the blankets. When, in 1985, Playboy and Penthouse both published nude photos taken of her back in the 1970s, she was soon quoted in the New York Post as declaring, "I am NOT ashamed." While Madonna’s beauty was perhaps best characterized by the gap between her front teeth, Britney’s most distinguishing physical feature early on in her career was the steadily increasing size of her breasts. All the while, she clung to her innocence, denying ever having had implants.
As she released subsequent albums, there was a continual amping-up of Spears’ sexuality, yet still she refused to honestly acknowledge this aspect of her marketing. The title track of her sophomore album, "Oops, I did It Again," was clearly meant by song writers Max Martin and Rami as to be a tongue-in-cheek number, yet Spears seemed to approach it as though it were 100% serious. She presented herself to the public as a serious musician, even while dancing in a skin-tight red vinyl jumpsuit in the song’s music video. Her faux innocence was, of course, wearing precariously thin by this point. In a desperately blunt attempt to convince audiences of the genuine nature of the singer’s duality, her third album included the single, "I’m Not Girl, Not Yet a Women", but the song failed to chart well and few were falling for her act at this point.
The tabloids were all but frothing at the mouth to expose the "real" Britney by the time she broke up with boy band wonder Justin Timberlake and married Kevin Federline.
The tabloids were all but frothing at the mouth to expose the "real" Britney by the time she broke up with boy band wonder Justin Timberlake and married Kevin Federline. By aligning herself with K-Fed, Britney revealed a flash of white trash honesty, and a chink in her armor had finally been found. Since then, the tabloids have all but eaten her alive. Her increasingly crumbling public persona is a perfect example of what happens when pop icons begin to take themselves seriously, instead of being honest with their audience and themselves about the inherent shallowness and manufactured nature of mainstream pop music. Spears is, unfortunately, on a long and winding path that ends at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.
The Material Girl was one-hundred percent honest about herself, her ideals and her sexuality. In doing so, she made herself untouchable. There was nothing for the tabloids to scandalously reveal, because Madonna had already laid it all out on the table, all the while refusing to take herself too seriously. Spears’ deadly serious tightrope walk over the void between angel and whore left her ridiculously vulnerable, and most just waited with bated breath for her to fall.
It has been over twenty years since the release of "Material Girl," and Madonna is now recognized as a respected cultural icon. Less than a decade into her career, Britney Spears has already become little more than tabloid fodder. Spears’ inability to acknowledge the manufactured nature of her sexually vivacious persona left her guilty of deception, and far from the innocence she strove for. Her attempt to deceive her audience seems to have left only herself fooled. As Madonna taught us, we are living in a material world, and Britney Spears has become a product no one is buying.