Behold the Immaterial Girl
For the 10th time in her career, Madonna appears on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. She's stretched out on the May issue wearing a black leotard and over-the-knee boots, looking like a Vitruvian pinup.
The pop star is almost 50, which seems to be the leitmotif of the accompanying story -- as if we are compelled to check in with Madonna to see how she is handling each turning point in her life. Over the years, the magazine has dutifully recorded in words and elaborately styled photos Madonna's early success, her failed first marriage, the publication of "Sex," her hankering for film stardom, motherhood, Malawi and, of course, her magnificent physical upkeep.
In an online video promoting the May issue, editor Graydon Carter notes that the story on Madonna is "not the normal fawning treatment." Indeed, it is sprinkled judiciously with sarcasm and bits of wry humor.
The result is a story whose prose is more entertaining than its subject. Shockingly, Madonna has gotten boring. Our Madonna -- the rule-breaking, professional provocateur, endearing egoiste, subject of countless maligned college courses on postmodern female sexuality, patron saint of a generation of young women who relied on pop culture psychobabble to excuse their exhibitionist tendencies -- has become a cliche. She's just another aerobicized pop singer with a cause.
We saw this moment coming as her antics ceased being provocative and vaguely political and became slightly embarrassing in that 2004 Gwyneth Paltrow look-at-the-cupping-marks-on-my- back way. Madonna should not have French-kissed Britney Spears. She shouldn't have talked so much about yoga and her macrobiotic diet, and she certainly shouldn't have discussed either topic with that distracting British accent.
We have nothing left to ask Madonna. The only questions left are those that we hope no one has the audacity to pose. But of course, eventually someone will. And we'll be left with our hands pressed against our ears desperately trying to block out some piece of information dropped into the middle of an unassuming story the way Jennifer Lopez told People how her twins were conceived naturally with that hungry-looking Marc Anthony rather than artificially. We. Don't. Want. To. Hear. That.
But until we are sent screaming from the room, we are bored. In her past incarnations, Madonna has always chosen a character with which most people were unfamiliar. She didn't invent her different personas. She appropriated them from New York's downtown art scene in the 1980s or from gay dance clubs, but she walked all those archetypes into the spotlight. She popularized them and she was surprising.
But now her enthusiasms and eccentricities seem bland. Her fascination with the mysticism of Kabbalah pales next to the sci-fi oddities of Hollywood's favorite religion, Scientology. She decided to adopt an orphan-who-was-not-an-orphan from Malawi. And while it would be cruel to be suspicious of her motives, it would be fair to say that the decision came after Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were well on their way to setting up a miniature United Nations in their home. Where Madonna had once led the way -- in poking, prodding and agitating -- she was now following.
Her new CD, "Hard Candy," will be released April 29. She has collaborated with Timbaland, Pharrell Williams and Justin Timberlake, and we're more intrigued to hear how they will influence her rather than how she will interpret their sound.
She writes children's books, which is sweet, but placid compared with her earlier oeuvre, "Sex," a tacky, spiral-bound nudie book that featured pictures of an unclothed Madonna alongside people such as Big Daddy Kane and Vanilla Ice. She starred in the delightfully tawdry documentary "Truth or Dare" in 1991, which was based on her Blond Ambition tour. But now she has directed a documentary on Malawi as well as "Filth and Wisdom," her first feature film, which she told Vanity Fair had been "seriously influenced" by Jean-Luc Godard. That might be true, but couldn't she hear how pretentious it sounded? Our Madonna was never pretentious -- at least back when she still sounded like a Midwesterner.
Our Madonna was never a leader of an alternative, underground movement. She was just shocking enough to ruffle the sensibilities of middle America, mainstream religion and anonymous corporations.
Has she grown tired of being provocative? Or does provocation now require dangerously self-destructive behavior in the manner of Amy Winehouse? Madonna has become a curiosity: a pop singer pushing 50 with the perfectly preserved body of a 20-year-old and a hankering for Kabbalah water.
Madonna became a cultural icon because she was sly enough -- and daring enough -- to use her body as everything from a storyboard to a weapon. Ten years' worth of photographs in Vanity Fair document Madonna the boy toy, the powerful diva, the Lolita, the gender-bending dominatrix, the sexy mother. Each guise said something interesting about femininity. But her latest incarnation -- blond waves, lace-up boots and a corset -- speaks to the most old-fashioned, condescending sentiment of all: She looks good for her age.