We like our female icons, as they age, to go quietly—to tiptoe backwards into semi-reclusion, away from our relentless curiosity and our unforgiving gaze. Tina Turner managed this arguably better than anyone else,
By Mary Gabriel
All of this is true, and yet the volume of evidence that Gabriel amasses reveals something even greater: not just a cultural phenomenon, or even a postmodern artist transforming herself into the ultimate commodity, but a woman who intuits and manifests social change so far ahead of everyone else that she makes people profoundly uncomfortable. We may not understand her in the moment, but rarely is she wrong about what’s coming.
To try to write about Madonna is to stare into an abyss of content: the music, the videos, the movies, the books, the fashion, but also the responses that those things generated, a corpus almost as significant to the construction of Madonna as the work itself. More than 60 books have been devoted to her, encompassing biography, critical analysis, comic books, sleazy profiteering, and even a collection of women’s dreams about her. “With the possible exception of Elvis, Madonna is without peer in having inscribed herself with such intensity on the public consciousness in multiple and contradictory ways,” Cathy Schwichtenberg wrote in The Madonna Connection, a 1993 book of essays summarizing the growing academic field known as Madonna Studies.
Gabriel’s biography is astonishingly granular in its attention to biographical detail, and also to historical context. You could, if you wanted, read the book as a kind of late-20th-century history of women’s ongoing fight for liberation, filtered through the lens of someone whom Joni Mitchell variously derided as “manufactured,” “a living Barbie doll,” and “death to all things real” and Norman Mailer described as “our greatest living female artist.” More often, A Rebel Life reads like a Walter Isaacson biography of a Great Man, a thorough life-and-times synthesis of a world-changing, civilization-defining genius—only with a lot of cone bras and syncopated beats.
Gabriel’s attention to context is key, because trying to understand Madonna as a flesh-and-blood person—the biographer’s traditional endeavor—is a trap. Self-exposure, for her, is about obfuscation more than revelation. Every new identity she disseminates into the world is just a different layer; the more you see of her, the more the “truth” of her is obscured. Truth or Dare famously includes a contretemps between Madonna and her boyfriend at the time, the actor Warren Beatty, while Madonna is having her throat examined by a doctor mid-tour. “Do you want to talk at all off camera?” the doctor asks. “She doesn’t want to live off camera, much less talk,” Beatty interjects. “Why would you say something if it’s off camera? What point is there of existing?”
Beatty was then the embodiment of Old Hollywood, square-jawed and restrained, while the considerably younger Madonna supposedly represented the MTV generation, coarse and venal, willing to trade even her most intimate moments for hard profit. (Truth or Dare premiered a full year before The Real World ushered in a new realm of “reality” entertainment.) What Beatty, along with many others, missed was that exposure wasn’t about selling out in any conventional sense. For Madonna, the construction of her public-facing persona was about spinning masquerade, fantasy, and fragments of self-disclosure into mass-media magic that confounded, again and again, efforts to categorize her.
She teased ideas about gender fluidity and bisexuality; she declared herself to be a “gay man”; she played up her friendship with the comedian Sandra Bernhard as rumors flew that the two were sleeping together. The main constant through her kaleidoscopic permutations was the response they elicited: As the cultural theorist John Fiske once put it, her sexuality was perceived as a new caliber of threat—“not the traditional and easily contained one of woman as whore, but the more radical one of woman as independent of masculinity.” (No wonder Beatty, the most masculine of screen stars, chafed at it.)
And yet, believe it or not, Madonna is human, and she was born—to a woman also named Madonna and a man named Silvio “Tony” Ciccone—in Bay City, Michigan, in 1958. When she was 5 years old, her mother died, a fact that seems as fundamental to the arc of her career as music or sex or religion. Tony, Gabriel writes, struggling alone with a houseful of unruly children, simply raised Madonna in the same way that he raised her two older brothers. (At the time of her mother’s death, Madonna had three younger siblings; two more followed when Tony married the family’s housekeeper.) She played as they played; she fought and bit and belched and yelled just as they did. When we think about Madonna later, effortlessly disrupting conventions of feminine sexual presentation and power dynamics, this upbringing makes perfect sense. (In one of my favorite photos from Sex, Madonna stands by a window, facing outward, wearing just a white tank top, motorcycle boots, and no underwear, her buttocks exposed as she appears to scratch an imaginary pair of balls.)
Gabriel, from the start, is alert to signs of Madonna’s self-transfiguring urges: how, in elementary school, she put wires in her braids to make them stick up like those of her young Black friends; how, in eighth grade, she scandalized her junior-high-school audience with a risqué, psychedelic dance sequence set to the Who’s “Baba O’Riley”; how, at 15, she first presented herself to her dance teacher and mentor, Christopher Flynn, as a childlike figure carrying a doll under her arm, as if to signal that she was a blank slate for him to work on.
But the years that seem most crucial are the ones she spent in New York City trying to make it as a modern dancer after dropping out of the University of Michigan. In 1978, when she arrived, the city was experiencing ungovernable urban blight and a simultaneous creative renaissance. Modes of artistic expression were becoming ever more fluid; the Warholian creation of a persona, and the postmodern appropriation of original ideas and images into new art forms, expanded performance possibilities. After quickly realizing her limitations as a dancer, Madonna did a stint as a drummer in a New Wave band called the Breakfast Club. She did nude modeling to pay for a series of truly scuzzy apartments. When her father begged her to come home, she’d say, “You don’t get it, Dad. I don’t want to be a doctor. I don’t want to be a lawyer. I want to be an artist.”
Her desire to make art was tied up with her ferocious ambition, her early comprehension that celebrity could be its own kind of art form. A friend of Madonna’s recalls to Gabriel that when she first met her, in a club in New York in the early ’80s, Madonna said, “I’m going to be the most famous woman in the world.” By 1982, she had redirected her focus toward music and become embedded in what Gabriel describes as “a radical art kingdom” that melded high and low culture, where punk kids and street artists were suddenly the new creative aristocracy. The previous year, MTV had transformed music into a visual medium. Madonna started writing songs, and seems right from the start to have had a sweeping conception of what pop music could provide: not the kind of plastic, bubblegum stardom that jeering critics believed she was after, but a global canvas on which she aimed to project her vision.
Kim Gordon, of the band Sonic Youth, once wrote that “people pay to see others believe in themselves.” Madonna’s earliest fans were girls, gay men, queer teenagers of color who found community in the same spaces where her own sense of self was honed. In the video for her first single, “Everybody,” in 1982, Madonna dances onstage at a nightclub in a strikingly unsexy, punk-esque outfit: brown leather vest, plaid shirt, tapered khaki pants, theatrical makeup. The camera keeps its distance; you can hardly see her face. But by the video for her second, “Burning Up,” a year later, she’s unmistakably Madonna, with teased blond hair, armfuls of rubber bracelets, the mole above her lip and the slight gap between her teeth underscoring her confrontational, intent gaze. This was the moment when the product of Madonna seems to have coalesced. She wasn’t just making music (one critic famously described her vocals on her early albums as “Minnie Mouse on helium”). Provocation was part of her act—her second record, 1984’s Like a Virgin, was clear on that front—but not the point of it.
Rather, what her fans immediately recognized in Madonna was the animating spirit of her work: complete certainty in her worth, and a pathological unwillingness to give credence to anyone other than herself. Everything else about Madonna may change, but this fundamental self-conviction is always there. And for anyone who’s been raised to be or to feel like a modified, shamed, incomplete version of themselves, it’s intoxicating. At 7, in 1990, I wore out my cassette tape of I’m Breathless—the concept album Madonna recorded to accompany her role in Dick Tracy—thrilled by the unthinkable bravado, the cockiness of “Sooner or Later.” At 40, I keep coming back to her “Hung Up” video, stunned at the visual evidence that a middle-aged mother of young children could be so strong, so strange and charismatic and compelling.
This kind of power is unnerving to observe in women; instinctively, we’re either drawn to it or driven to destroy it. A Rebel Life sometimes feels excessively boosterish, noting and then brushing over criticism of Madonna’s more questionable acts over the years—her decision to forcibly kiss Drake at Coachella in 2015, to his apparent distress, among them. But Gabriel’s useful goal is perhaps to get beyond a debate that’s been stoked by an extraordinary amount of vilification. Madonna, the most successful female artist of all time, is also indubitably the most loathed. And her haters often respond to the same quality in her self-presentation that her most ardent fans do: her confidently incisive mockery of the way culture prefers women to be portrayed. People reacted to Sex—a work that constantly identifies and then undercuts how people want to see her—with the pearl-clutching faux horror that tends to accompany Madonna’s provocations, as though she had done something utterly novel and irredeemably graceless.
In fact, the book was right in step with contemporaneous art-world forays into hard-core erotica. Sex scandalized a mainstream audience that had presumably never seen Cindy Sherman’s Sex Pictures (the artist was one of Madonna’s inspirations) or Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven series, in which the artist created explicit renderings of himself having sexual intercourse with the porn performer Ilona Staller, who was briefly his wife. Madonna has said she intended her book to be funny (in more than one photo, she outright laughs). But Sex also asserts her engagement with a lineage of artists who helped shape her, and highlights her determination to unsettle the conventional gaze.
Madonna’s videos and live shows, Gabriel argues, tend to be where you get the most complete sense of her vision, “a new kind of feminism, a lived liberation” that pointed the way for a woman to be captivating “not because she was so ‘pretty’ but because she was so free.” In her 1986 video for “Open Your Heart,” which features a giant Art Deco nude by the Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, Madonna struts in a black corset in front of an audience that watches her—sneeringly, or with feigned lack of interest—but doesn’t see anything more than surface-level sexuality. At the video’s end, Madonna (dressed now in a suit and a bowler cap, with cropped hair) dances away with a preteen boy who’s been waiting for her outside. The spectators in the club want to possess and objectify Madonna; the boy wants to be her, recognizing her as an artistic kindred spirit, not just a sex object. (The video has long been interpreted by Madonna’s queer and trans fans as a gesture of affirmation.)
Three years later, in “Express Yourself,” directed by David Fincher, Madonna stages a riff on the 1927 Fritz Lang movie Metropolis, in which she rides a stone swan through a dystopian cityscape. She’s a kind of Ayn Randian femme fatale in a green silk gown, holding a cat; later, dressed in an oversize suit, she flexes her muscles and grabs her crotch; in another scene, she lies naked, in chains, on a bed. (“I have chained myself,” she later clarified in an interview with Nightline. “There wasn’t a man that put that chain on me.”) Madonna moves fluidly from subject to object, man to woman, captor to captive, skewering misogynistic Hollywood tropes. Her potent allure, whatever her guise, is unexpectedly disconcerting.
The video also has almost nothing whatsoever to do with the song, which is a totally generic, upbeat pop confection encouraging women to pick men who validate their mind and their self-worth. The discrepancy is, I think, purposeful: It begs us to notice the different registers her work is operating in, and to observe how “pop star,” for her, is just another chameleonic guise. I love Madonna’s music, which functions at a level that enables her to be stupendously successful, ridiculously wealthy, a public figure of a sort no one has ever seen before. But those accomplishments are so much less interesting than everything else her music allows her to do through the performance she choreographs around it: blast through boundaries of sexuality and presentation; explore the permeability of gender; expose the hypocrisy of a music-video landscape in which, as she said in that same Nightline interview, violence against women is readily portrayed but sex gets you banned from MTV.
Thirty years later, in a culture where bombastic, sexless superhero movies now dominate mass entertainment and where erotica—as opposed to porn—has been all but banished to the nonvisual realm of fiction, her explorations of sexuality feel as radical as ever. And we continue to resist them, to reflexively recoil. When I told people I was writing about Madonna, they invariably responded with some dismayed version of “Her face!!!” It’s easy to assume that she’s just another woman navigating the horror of aging in plain sight via an overreliance on cosmetic enhancements, just another former bombshell who won’t concede that her time as the ultimate sex object has ended.
But Madonna has never seemed to think of herself as a sex object. An objectifier who greedily prioritizes her own pleasure, yes; an alpha, absolutely; but never a sop to someone else’s fantasy. And the AI-esque strangeness of her appearance now suggests something else, too. I keep thinking about bell hooks’s argument, in a 1992 essay, that Madonna “deconstructs the myth of ‘natural’ white girl beauty” by exposing how artificial it is, how unnatural. She bends every effort, hooks notes, to embody an aesthetic that she herself is simultaneously satirizing. One might deduce that Madonna senses better than anyone where female beauty standards are heading, in an era of Facetune, Ozempic, livestreamed TikTok surgeries, and Instagram face. And that she knows what she’s doing: Her current mode of self-presentation is Madonna supplying yet another dose of what the media want from women—sexiness, youth, erasure of maturity—distorted just enough to make us flinch.
This article appears in the November 2023 print edition with the headline “Madonna Forever.”
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