Madonna & Me edited by Laura Barcella

24th Feb 2012

Madonna & Me edited by Laura Barcella

Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop, an anthology edited by Laura Barcella, covers topics from sex and race to religion, as told by a generation of women who grew up with the music of Madonna.

Watching a home video of herself dancing to ‘Vogue’ as a child, Courtney E. Martin admits that ‘Since then, lamenting the era of “too sexy, too soon” has become a big business.’ However, ‘It wasn’t about the mini-skirt,’ she claims. ‘It was about the imagination.’ For her, Madonna was one of many models of womanhood (her schoolteachers provided another.)

In her introduction, Laura Barcella remembers Madonna as a different kind of role model than her mother, while Marisela Huerta reflects, ‘I admired her – not for her foul mouth and sexual escapades, but for her confidence and independence.’

But Maria Raha argues that Madonna’s brand of rebellion, diluted for suburban palates, has ‘never steered far from the visual’. Though conceding that ‘marketable music isn’t a bad thing on its own,’ Raha found Madonna’s ascendancy ‘calculated and cold…compared to the passionate struggle and sacrifices of other, more marginal artists’, including some of her peers in New York during the late 1970s and early 80s.

Some men felt threatened by Madonna’s explicit sexuality. “Little girls who worship Madonna worship the devil, too,” a bewildered Sarah Sweeney was told by her father, while Laura Barcella’s first serious boyfriend ‘seemed to downright resent her, calling her nasty names and making ludicrous proclamations about her “setting feminism back hundreds of years”.’

For Stacey May Fowles, Madonna’s increasingly risqué videos offered her teenage self ‘a glossy, uncomplicated version of sex-positive feminism.’ But the widespread condemnation of Madonna’s 1992 photo-book, Sex, anticipated Fowler’s struggle to explore her own desires. ‘For all its good intentions, “express yourself, don’t repress yourself” was liberating in theory but proved to be difficult in practice.’

 J. Victoria Sanders describes Madonna as ‘the first non-black artist of my generation to really place herself in the center of blackness and black art without mocking it or trying to supplant it.’ Madonna’s roots lie in dance music, and she famously kissed the feet of a black saint in her ‘Like a Prayer’ video. She brought ‘Vogueing’ into the mainstream, and has championed black artists like Meshell Ndgeocello.

Sanders’ praise stands in contrast to bell hooks’ 1992 critique of Madonna as a ‘plantation mistress’, undermining black culture, and the more recent controversy surrounding her two adoptions in Malawi.

Whereas the young Madonna was scruffy and sensual, with a prominent beauty mark and hairy armpits, she has become a sleek, middle-aged, multi-millionaire Kabbalist, spending several hours each day honing her brawny physique at the gym.

Cintra Wilson wryly compares Madonna’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, unescorted by her soon-to-be ex-husband, Guy Ritchie, to the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Queen Elizabeth I: ‘Madonna was forced, as Elizabeth was, to publicly acknowledge that the reward for all her work is the terrible loneliness of being too singular.’

Some of the pieces in Madonna & Me are distinctly blog-like, anecdotal and chatty – with more emphasis on the ‘Me’ than Madonna. Perhaps the Material Girl’s much-vaunted narcissism is as much a projection of her audience’s self-absorption as a mirror to her own.

Most of the contributors are American, but Madonna’s appeal is global. The all-female remit is somewhat limiting, because gay men (and quite a few straight ones) form a large proportion of her loyal fan base. But for the most part, this is a lively, provocative collection, highlighting Madonna’s enduring influence.

Madonna & Me will be published in March by Soft Skull Press.

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended for: Literary-minded Madonna fans and anyone with an interest in women’s music journalism.

Other recommended reading: I Dream of Madonna: Women’s Dreams of the Goddess of Pop, edited by Kay Turner; Madonna: Like an Icon by Lucy O’Brien; Madonna by Daryl Easlea and Eddi Fiegel.

Tara Hanks