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Why Madonna Still Matters

In Culture, Music

Yet putting together Madonna’s roughly 300-year career actually proves difficult, because Madonna was really the first pop star to be born simply as a series of images and ideas more than any singular catalogue of songs, or music videos, or film endeavors, or even high-profile relationships.

Her most enduring elements are narrowed down to choice photographs taken by Richard Avedon and the like, while she was made up like Marilyn, dressed in Jean Paul Gautier, shot often in black-and-white—and with a similar sense of minimalism applied to her own mythology: girl from Detroit runs off to New York at the height of the city’s fusion of art, music, fashion and energy, and girl exploits punk and pop to culture-dominating effect. This is the story of Madonna; does it really matter how much of it is perpetuated exclusively by Madonna herself?

No one was curating an image meant to sustain itself for some 30 years more than Madonna. She has always been fixated on being a few steps forward. That tactic applies to her music, too; who else has made a career out of pinpointing the sounds coming out of the most obscure alleyways and putting them on the radio roughly six to nine months before they really hit big (think New York clubhouse and the Vogueing movement; electronic house music and “Ray of Light”).

The thing about constantly reinventing yourself is that at a certain point, you’re no longer helping define the culture but just struggling to stay relevant in it. Superficiality is embraced as part of the postmodern lens. But Madonna’s legacy is rooted in a genuine belief that those elements hold weight. And when your legacy becomes button-pushing, how much of that provocation is due to an artist’s finesse and how much is due to the public’s inborn sensitivity? Was Madonna ever really that brilliant in how she broached subjects as taboo as sex and homosexuality, or was America just that buttoned up, that unwilling to hear it, that easily shaken?
Hard to say for sure; harder to say if it matters. As a pop star who loves to embrace exaggeration and distraction as vital elements of what she loosely called “[her] art,” Madonna has managed to craft herself just as she wants to be seen, even (or maybe especially) now. In that way, she has always positioned herself as a pop star meant to be deconstructed into a series of motifs and ideas, a vague sketch of what the 1980s must have been like—even for people who could have sworn they knew.

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