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Our Madonna, Ourselves

Love her or hate her, she’s still winning the American dream
/ Source: contributor

In the ’70s-themed videos from her new LP, “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” Madonna dances, roller skates, and busts intense yoga moves that rival the young bucks and chicas with whom she shares the screen. Wearing feathered hair and metallic leotards, she contorts her body to extremes usually reserved for 12-year-old Chinese acrobats. And in case you thought her perfect Pilates-honed thighs were some special effect, the 47-year-old trotted them out live at the Grammys in a stunning opening number with the animated Gorillaz.

We get it Madonna! You’re immortal! You’re unconquerable! You’re just as vibrant and vital and full of life as when you tore it up at New York City’s Danceteria when it really was the ’70s!

Except for that hernia … the one for which Madonna received surgery after the Grammy performance and before she accepted the Brit Award for Best International Female. And she did break several bones after a nasty horseback-riding spill on her birthday last August. There are also rumors that her marriage to director Guy Ritchie is in peril.

Theories that Madonna casts no reflection have been replaced by a realization as disturbing as it is comforting — Madonna is human. Just like flabby old us.

Because we are human, we’re guilty of schadenfreude — from the Madonna-indifferent to her most vocal detractors and biggest fans. It feels good when someone powerful, rich, toned, famous and driven meets our wage-slave HMO-bound level, even for a second. “See,” we snipe by the virtual water cooler, “I may have failed to achieve Madonna’s plateau for various reasons of not-my-own failing, but at least I don’t have a hernia.”

Even to the non-judgmentally Zen, it seems Madonna is trying to prove something. In photo shoots to promote her new persona, she wears dance panties, mesh hose and the shirt tied up high — a look very few people in their 20s can pull off. And that Farrah Fawcett hairstyle is not her friend. Overly structured and un-ironic, it’s the evil twin of the platinum wig from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Like Hedwig, and Cher and Marlene Dietrich before her, Madonna kinda, sorta looks like she’s turning into a drag queen.

American life
Look past the momentary satisfaction of celebrity-superiority, and you may realize you don’t want Madonna going out like that. Her quarter-century presence in the pop culture consciousness has changed things, especially for women. As feminist pundit and our country’s foremost Madonna scholar Camille Paglia wrote in her 1990 New York Times editorial, “Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.”

Moreover, this baby-boomer sex bomb is a fascinating twist on the American Dream. The Dream, of course, is that any smart, industrious person can rise out of impoverished beginnings and make something of him or herself by unstintingly applying intelligence and drive. That’s not to be confused with the “American Idol” dream, that everyone, no matter how lazy or annoying can luck into a bunch of fame by being discovered. You must have a plan to be part of the American Dream; it can’t just happen to you.

Anyone, at any level of society can live the American Dream, but it’s most poignant and fun when that person’s humble beginnings contrast with her eventual stardom. It’s also important that she doesn’t screw up the whole thing at the end of the day (Britney Federline, tsk, tsk). Eminem is perhaps Madonna’s closest peer in this achievement. Both came from sad, hick Michigan roots, and are both really, aggressively, trailer-trash smart.

It’s that trailer-trash smarts that makes Madonna so changeable. Without much benefit of fancy schoolin’, she’s had to learn as she goes. Madonna makes some choices that seem baffling to college-educated middle Americans (Kabbalah?), but she never takes her eyes off the future. And she keeps her street smarts wherever she goes.

You know when you see a child look at something new for the first time, and you can almost hear the gears whirring in her head?  That’s the feeling we get watching Madonna’s latest move as she gets the lay of the land in whatever new environs her latest gambit lands her.

What’s particularly encouraging about Madonna, and artists like her, is that they haven’t moved comfortably into gated communities, stuffed their cash into IRAs, their laurels into Barcaloungers, and joined the moral mainstream.  They continue to look ahead, and they do so in a way that is bound to make us rethink what we know about our own American life.

Madonna has been adopted by some people as a strong woman who has no qualms about trading on her sex appeal, and demonized by others as a hussy. She didn’t invent herself as the embodiment of the her/whore complex by mistake. But just like some white guys can jump but will also put money into their 401K and then enjoy a delicious sandwich with Miracle Whip, Madonna is actually a real person. No real people love growing old.

Madonna is real person who doggedly made it in an industry that would normally have cast her aside years ago. So, while she’s treading dangerously close to the mutton-dressed-as-lamb territory that starlets often end up flirting with, you can understand why she might be doing so. Being sexy has always been important to her, though, so you have to wonder how much of her contortionist yoga, Britney-kissing lifestyle is a natural thing for her to do, and how much is a frantic attempt to keep age at bay.

Music hasn’t been the focus of Madonna’s career for years. Most now tune in for her work as cultural commentator. She’s a performance artist in that sense, and, once she gets over the hernia, we’ll all be waiting to find out how she deals with old age. Will her next reinvention be as bold, forthright and intelligent as some of her previous ones — or will it be more Jewish-Brit-Named-Esther? I know one thing, we’ll still tune in to find out.

Helen Popkin, who lives in New York, still has her Boy Toy belt buckle and is a regular contributor to