Gross National Madonna

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Gross National Madonna
At one time, if you said people who care about Madonna don't care about music, you'd be a snob. But her new single "Music" proves it's now true. The word "music" becomes Madonna's euphemism for record industry capitalism. When she bleats the homiletic chorus, "Music makes the people come together," it's such a banal sentiment the only emotion you feel in it is her calculation that the platitude might still guarantee a hit. That reduction is the one thing in the song that's new. And sure enough, the media has fallen in line. VH1 and MTV hosted simultaneous broadcast premieres the afternoon of Aug. 2. (Spokesmodel-cheerleader Roshumba pumped up hollow effervescence, joined by in-house rock hacks Alan Light, Joe Levy, Danyel Smith?madhouse delegates announcing Spin, Rolling Stone and Time's Madonna support.)

"It's a quarter of an idea," Benj DeMott said of the lyric. Maybe that's all you need to keep music hacks going. That would include VH1's specially invited audience of geeked-up Madonna fans. Way past the innocence and honesty of American Bandstand teen enthusiasts, they like to think they think.

Just how half-baked Madonna's notion is is exposed by remembering the O'Jays' 1975 "I Love Music." That proto-disco paean described a music trend that really did bring people together?not the fragmented, diminished markets represented by teen-pop and electronica, or even Madonna's strenuous attempt at looting-and-hybridizing it all. (She uses French composer/producer Mirwais Ahmadzai to guide the track's derivative use of 70s disco and early 80s hiphop stylings.) When proclaiming, "I love music, any kind of music, just as long as it's groovy," the O'Jays covered the field. They enriched their euphemism by making it genuinely romantic: "[Music m]akes me laugh, makes me smile, all the while, when I'm with you, girl. While we dance, make romance, I'm enchanted by the things that you do."

The O'Jays correctly understood music as an adjunct to feeling?an adult realization. And they sang it out: "Nothing can be better than a sweet love song. So sweet, so sweet, so mellow yellow." You could hear that as a reference to Donovan or just perfect slang jouissance. That's why when they assert, "Music is the healing force of the world, it's understood by every man, woman, boy and girl," it's not just blather. The O'Jays' knowledge of how joy feels just makes sense. None of that specious music-of-a-generation crap. They connected music to personal experience. Proving you could get to the universal through the specific, lead singer Eddie Levert underscored group verses with personal, detailed asides:

O'JAYS: Music makes the atmosphere so fine

EDDIE: Lights down low just me and you, baby you know

O'JAYS: Especially when you've got a cold glass of wine

EDDIE: Mellow wine and song

For the O'Jays music epitomized a style of living, a way of loving (configured in echoey harmonic repetitions of "ILOVEILOVEILOVEILOVE"?their voices etched feeling against the rhythm section's mad pulse). Certainly, "music" was metaphor, but it was never simply product. The O'Jays (and their composer/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) wouldn't have reduced their life-calling to venality. Too much opportunity and emotion?theirs and their disco-infatuated audience's?was invested in it.

With "Music," Madonna proclaims her role not as person or artist but as scenemaker and market-tester?and that's her doom. A Madonna product can't express musical definitiveness anymore. (The record's jerky pulsing is as modern and limited as the O'Jays' swirling groove is timeless.) If there's an honest motive in Madonna, it long ago became synthetic. Instead of a genuine semiotic provocation like Scritti Politti's song about "A hammer and a pop sickle," "Music" simply mimes semiotics. And in the year 2000 postmodernism is tired?particularly if it doesn't express love. She doesn't make "music" signify the way the O'Jays could. In a world where everything from news to education is entertainment, just singing about "music" is a scam. Her "bourgeois/rebel" chorus isn't a political statement, it's a politician's commercial pose. That's why you can't trust it.

Reaching the limits of subversion, Madonna falls back on reckless cultural and sexual flirtation. Jonas Akerlund's video Music strains for naughty excitement?but most of all for meaning?that the record itself doesn't articulate. In a jumble of faux-black postures and iconography (gold limousine, white Versace cowboy hat, white fur coat, gold bracelets, rings and chains) Madonna and two gals visit strip clubs. They're chauffeured around town by British comedian Ali G, who wears a "Ghetto Pimp" jersey (and hums the video's theme "Ridin' the punany"). Girls' night out shows Madonna as cultural ambassador for the clueless (you know, those who thought "Vogue" was actually a dance). Music steals the pop signifiers that have proven more potent than Madonna's own recent gambits. The orgiastic carousing repeats Deeper and Deeper (1992's superior, and apt, Warhol homage), yet none of it explains an actual scene. So she borrows a little "soul"?a convenient, horrendous parody.

"It's like a role reversal thing," Madonna described the video's concept to VH1. "Usually you see, you know, like in a lot of videos?traditionally, like, r&b, rap videos?guys getting together with their friends going out on a night on the town and just having a wild and crazy time and that's what we're doing. It's really just a spoof in a way."

Yeah, but of what? Girls assuming men's prerogative? Her typical white appropriation of black manners? A spoof of license or privilege? Once again Madonna pulls a cultural measuring rod out of her kit-and-caboodle and holds it up for everyone to smell the stench. Just as hiphop videos have reached a nadir of booty-begging (sex as life rather than an aspect of life), Madonna drags out her oldest act?doing blackface with a straight (white) face. As usual, the sexual innuendo distracts (and pleases) her apologists. Ali G's limo bears a license plate titled Muff Daddy to underline Madonna's muff-diving, strip club tease and her Puff Daddy ripoff. For "a role reversal thing," the halves don't click.

Asked the leading question, "Are you concerned about the video being censored?" Material Girl defensively argued, "If you look at a lot of those videos that's where they end up?in a strip club. So if I'm gonna do a role reversal take on it then I'm gonna do it all the way. And if Snoop Doggy Dogg can have strippers and strip clubs in his video, why can't I?" As if she ever went unsponsored by video broadcasters! (MTV frequently passes on any number of hiphop videos they deem out-of-bounds?like the one good Snoop video Doggy Dogg World, where he and a host of 70s blaxploitation stars hung out at a strip club.) Madonna's plea for parity is laughable.

Music copies innovations by artists who lack her media access. She struts, imitating Eve's Ruff Ryder hauteur. There's a cartoon superhero interlude modeled on the anime in Mariah Carey's Heartbreaker and the girl gang spree is lifted from Jennifer Lopez's Feelin' So Good. Lopez's video (featuring Fat Joe and Big Pun) had special charm, detailing uptown recreation and Latino fellowship as a release from workaday drudgery (think the O'Jays' "Living for the Weekend"). Longing came across in Lopez's planning and talking with friends; spirit showed in her on-the-street greetings; and the reality of modern pleasure was depicted when she spontaneously purchased a frock. In Music, Madonna debases the quotidian, revealing money exchange only when putting dollar bills in strippers' crotches.

That the strippers are female (and the club bouncer a beefy black guy to whom Ali G protests, "me no batty boy") is not minority-group (gay, Caribbean) support, it's pandering. Madonna flaunts her sexual audacity as if championing everyone's free will. But you could say the same about Motley Cre's stripper video Girls, Girls, Girls. In both cases the norm?Cre's heterosexuality, Madonna's white privilege?makes subversion impossible. Like all commercials, Music exalts the status quo. The anime segment briefly caricatures Madonna as a Kali figure whose many arms spin records at a disco. That, too, is a pandering distraction from the video's central offensive myth. For Madonna: pimpin' ain't only easy, it's cool.

It's an imperial misinterpretation of black pop's life study (what Benj DeMott's Jay-Z essay in First of the Month called "get[ting] the flow of feeling right"). Music falsifies the complex sensuality and greed of Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'," where acquisitiveness is so bold and insistent and funny it suggests life?a motivating force that is also a genuine political reflection. Even Hype Williams' Big Pimpin' video follows through. It's the work of a lust master?and pop culture fiend. Hype mixes solid mounds of flesh with slanted Titanic ship angles. Jay-Z and his crew float through the Caribbean, kings of their own world?a dream Williams erects through tumescent fantasies of luxe. In any other medium Williams' erotic talent would be disreputable, but joined to pop music's rhythmic mythology of success and liberation, it celebrates black male ambition. The widescreen compositions are framed by white bands ("milkbox" as opposed to "letterbox"). This joy can easily be mistaken for rebellion (life literally turned into carnival). Yet, in Williams' suggestive imagery?capitulating to greed and hedonism?there is an unironic consequence you can't deny: that contemporary hiphop falls even as it rises.

No such truth is apparent in Music; it's morally unconscious. In the despicable Secret video (made before the concept of "ghetto fabulousness"), Madonna skulked around Spanish Harlem, asserting prerogative that only perverts pop culture's illusion of camaraderie. When a figure of her power, wealth and prestige goes slumming, it's not noblesse oblige, it's just Taki.

With Madonna you have to weigh insult against her past gifts to the culture (the truly challenging Like a Prayer video, the superb Take a Bow and Deeper and Deeper and "Into the Groove"?a global anthem the O'Jays might approve of). Anybody who makes a beat or melody has done a good thing. It's the new song and video's philosophizing that stinks. Pretending to be "ghetto fabulous," a phrase coined by record exec Andre Harrell, allows Madonna to show off imperialist indifference as fun. Don't laugh. It's a record industry shibboleth.

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