Two MSN critics weigh in on the Material Girl: Creative pop pioneer, or merely a shallow trend-chaser?
By Mark Brown and Michael Shilling
Special to MSN Music
Madonna speaks and the world listens. Decades after her debut, she can still mesmerize us all with what she may or may not do next. Every album is an event, every tour is eye-popping, both for visuals and ticket prices. As for the latter, Madonna simply said earlier this year, "I'm worth it." To many fans that's true; for some, that may not be the case anymore. Madonna: A top innovator or just a very good self-marketer?
Mark Brown: When I first heard Madonna in 1983, I thought "I can't wait till this trend passes." Nearly 30 years later, I'm finally getting my wish. Though she didn't go the way of Kajagoogoo or Haircut 100, Madonna has finally run out of reinventions. The reviews for "MDNA" are lukewarm at best. The tour is selling poorly, with 10th-row tickets still available in my market at their $355 face value -- even the scalpers aren't biting. Her attempt at hip-by-association with Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. by having them chant "L-U-V Madonna!" in "Give Me All Your Luvin'" is an embarrassment for all involved. She is the Rush Limbaugh of modern music, willing to say or do anything to draw attention to herself, then back down when challenged. That's what she did when Deadmau5 and now Paul Van Dyk criticized her pandering, shameless veiled reference to Ecstasy at an electronic music festival in Miami. As music pundit Bob Lefsetz noted in the wake of the tiff, "Madonna is chasing her audience. Deadmau5 is leading his." Before that, the Super Bowl performance that was supposed to kick-start her year drew a mixed reception. A singer who doesn't sing and a dancer who doesn't dance and an actress who can't act is an entertainer who doesn't entertain.
Michael Shilling: When I first heard Madonna in 1984 (you were ahead of me, I admit), I thought, "What a remarkably transgressive performance pioneer who simultaneously encompasses her sexuality and comments on it." Just kidding! What I thought was, "Wow, I kind of can't believe how completely intense and real this half-baked pop singer is." That sounds like a damning with faint praise, but it's quite the opposite. What Madonna was doing was something no other female performer had, to my mind, done: embodying the inanity of pop stardom and utterly submitting to its cheap joys and easy outs, while keeping her tongue planted firmly in cheek and daring you to mock her for this brazen duality. She later delivered on this promise with "Like a Prayer," "Express Yourself," "Vogue," and the list goes on. She created a meta-musical-sexual playbook that no cultural critic can ignore (remember Madonna Studies?). So her new album is pretty stock and her Super Bowl appearance not exactly the most dynamic (though for the record it was way better than the Who, to name one). Fine -- but to say she's worth as much as "Too Shy" or "Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl)" is ridiculous.
Mark Brown: OK, we've found some common ground in "half-baked pop singer." And yes, in a just world half-baked pop singers deserve to open for some '80s revue in Branson. Like MacGyver -- another '80s reference as relevant as Madonna -- she became adept at making something out of nothing, improvising by using things (and people) around her and willing her way into the public eye. The Beatles reinvented themselves numerous times with true musical growth, vision and evolution. Madonna reinvented herself with a cynical eye on what might be the next big thing, using and discarding people as disparate as Warren Beatty, Vanilla Ice and now M.I.A., not to mention a track record full of hot-producer-of-the-moment roadkill and collateral damage.
Michael Shilling: Dude, don't play the Beatles card on me. Comparing Madge (or any pop musician) in the context of reinvention to the Fab Four isn't playing fair. Anyway, you present the standard saw that Madonna has always reinvented herself with an eye on commerce and fashion. And she has -- so what? She's a businesswoman looking to utilize the fashions of her time to reach a mass audience, just like Paul McCartney was when he wrote "Hey Jude." And within that purpose, as I said before, she changed what it means to be a pop star and a woman: specifically, the way those two ideas are in conversation. Even now, on "MDNA," she shows the way that pop music can be used to play ironically with matters of aggression and sexuality, as on "Gang Bang." It's done a little clumsy, sure, but she's still chipping away at the false wall that separates pop music and female power. That's a little histrionic, but my point still speaks to a performer still aiming to shake up preconceived notions about gender and power.
Mark Brown: Yes, the Beatles comparison wasn't the best. Better is David Bowie. Different producers, different styles, different genres, a will to reinvent himself to succeed but also a willingness to follow his muse even when it knowingly led to uncommercial paths such as Tin Machine. The only time Madonna went down an uncommercial path was with George Harrison and Sean Penn in "Shanghai Surprise" -- which she expected to be a blockbuster. As for sexuality, she may have broken some barriers once. Are songs like "Gang Bang" chipping away at or reinforcing the worst stereotypes?
Michael Shilling: I don't think "Gang Bang" is doing either, but it certainly shows a mix of playfulness and irony that may not be her best work but deserves considerably more credit than you are willing to prescribe. And the Bowie comparison also isn't fair because of the assumption that underlies it: Serious artists at some point cast off "commercial" music because that's where their true artistic interests lie. Madge is a pop musician, and that tradition is her easel. It's snobby to think that she doesn't aspire to more. The conventions of the pop music form are very well-known, but that doesn't make it any easier to create something a good pop song. There's a reason why "Express Yourself," "Borderline," and "Ray of Light" are classics: They make the difficult look simple and utilize levels of artistry that the narrative simplicity of the pop form obscures.
More: See photos of Madonna
Mark Brown: Am I overreaching to expect some "there" there in an artist? That's what makes every interview she gives an event, from the legendary David Letterman appearance in the '90s to the recent Jimmy Fallon Facebook interview. You watch because you never know which Madonna will show up. She can be a pop singer all she wants, but she can't be surprised when the formula applied over and over provides diminishing returns in the quality of the work and the sales of her concert tickets. Artists from the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen sometimes chase trends; if that's all you've got, however, eventually fans catch on. In one aspect she is a true pioneer: She started the modern trend of "Look at me!" fame, known more for her exploits and "edginess" rather than the quality of her work. That gave rise to the Kardashian Kulture, Snooki and Balloon Boy -- the notion that any attention is good attention.
Michael Shilling: Madonna's part of the same cultural through line as Snooki? That's like saying Justin Bieber's in the same through line as Paul Simon. In other words, puh-leeze. And I disagree that Madge's far more known for her exploits than the quality of her work. She makes music you can dance to and sing along to in a convertible. That's her primary objective, so to damn her for not being primarily concerned with a muso-crit definition of "authenticity" is to miss the point entirely. And again, within her stated purpose of helping people better enjoy their days off, she has thrown in more than her share of transgression, and been hugely successful in expanding what that style can accommodate along lines of gender/power dynamics. Just ask Lady Gaga. Also, did you just hold up the Rolling Stones as an example of musical integrity and creativity? "MDNA," shortcomings aside, is a hell of a lot more interesting than "A Bigger Bang."
Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for the Rocky Mountain News until its demise. He is also a contributor to MSN Music's Reverb and Scene & Heard blogs.
Michael Shilling is a recovering rock musician and the author of "Rock Bottom," a novel. He lives in Seattle, where he is a teacher, writer and editor.
Amazing ,How easy people feel the need to pass judgement on others, while failing to see themselves in the mirror.