The many faces of Madonna

MDNA, the title of Madonna’s 12th studio album, caused fun on Twitter.

In keeping with the tongue-in-cheek drug reference — MDMA is the main ingredient in ecstasy — one wag suggested the tour should be called ‘crack Ciccone,’ while another suggested HP RPLCMNT. Asked what MDNA meant, the singer deadpanned ‘Madonna’.

Madonna does neither drugs nor hip replacements. Nor does she let up, or fade away. Every few years, the Terminator of pop relaunches herself on the world, and the world sits up and notices; she may be 53, she may have Lady Gaga as a contender, but three decades on, she is still the biggest-selling female artist, and in touring terms a one-woman equivalent of the Rolling Stones, except more fun and better looking.

On March 23, on the eve of the release of MDNA, she is re-releasing her studio albums, from 1983 to 2008: Madonna, Like A Virgin, True Blue, Like A Prayer, Erotica, Bedtime Stories, Ray of Light, Music, American Life, Confessions On A Dancefloor and Hard Candy. While not all of the re-releases are worth it — some of her albums are plain duff — Madonna is bigger than her music. She is bigger than her films, bigger than her personal life.

This unwavering bigness is evident in her choice of launch pad for her first single from MDNA, Give Me All Your Luvin’ featuring Nicky Minaj and MIA — she picked half-time at the American Superbowl on Feb 5, where she appeared in front of 114m American viewers, plus more millions globally. It is the biggest annual television audience in the world. An international tour starts on May 29, taking in Dublin, London, Paris, Milan, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Warsaw, Berlin, Moscow, and Istanbul, and 26 American dates.

Tickets are not cheap — from €55 to €141 for her Aviva Stadium gig on Jul 24 — and costlier in London; you can pay a grand for a Hyde Park ‘platinum experience’, which involves cocktails and hobnobbing. Even the standard tickets are pricey — £77 a pop. But as she told Newsweek, “People spend $300 on crazy things all the time, things like handbags. Work all year, scrape the money together, and come to my show. I’m worth it.” (I agree — and far preferring Madonna to a handbag, have shelled out for myself and my daughter). In Dublin, sales are brisk, according to her Irish promoters. She sells out where ever she goes.

There are two reasons Madonna keeps going, keeps us interested and keeps ahead of the game. The reinvention has been well-documented — we’ve had boytoy, virgin, material girl, True Blue cutie, pointy-bra wearing Pope-botherer, dominatrix, yogini, American cowgirl, disco queen, M-Dolla, MDNA — and that’s just the music. She updates herself faster than a Facebook page, her creative collaborations appropriately zeitgeisty. (And her shows, with her die-hard fan-base of women and gay men, are truly fabulous.)

We’ve also had movie Madonna, from the bubble-gum popping wiseass in Desperately Seeking Susan to the sleek — if wooden — chanteuse Eva Peron, via several other films too awful to mention. Undeterred at her glaring lack of acting talent, she turned her hand to directing — her last movie, W.E., was not as widely panned as her directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom, but was still not quite rapturously received. Then again, the very words ‘directed by Madonna’ seemed to cause apoplexy in many critics — stick with what you know, they thundered. She ignored them.

Then there’s Madonna the madonna. While Angelina Jolie is deified for plucking children from sunlit poverty, Madonna gets slated every time she comes back from Malawi with another toddler in tow. While Angelina gets peace awards, Madge gets entire African governments in a rage; her latest plan to build 10 schools in Malawi has resulted in a furious reaction from the national secretary of education there. She can’t even write a fairly innocuous children’s book without being ridiculed. Not that this puts her off.

Which brings us to the second reason why Madonna remains as prominent as she is — three decades at the top in an ageist, misogynist culture with a goldfish attention span takes more than just knowing how to choose the right producer.

Apart from never allowing her image to stay static, her magic formula is simple — she never screws up.

Madonna has never spilled her guts on Oprah’s sofa. She has never been photographed off her trolley. She has never been to rehab, never had anyone do a kiss-and-tell, never been caught having sex in a public lavatory. She has never invited Hello! magazine into her gracious home (apparently she has quite a few), or used her personal life to shift product, unlike the Katie Prices at the other end of the scale. She has never had a public emotional crisis, a cancer scare, an addiction, or a meltdown. She has never published an autobiography, or a cookery book, or endorsed someone else’s product. She doesn’t bash the red carpet, and only rarely turns up in magazines.

Nor does she engage with her detractors (of whom there are many, from Elton John and a former Pope to the Malawian parliament, via swathes of middle America who have long regarded her as the whore of Michigan). She takes no notice, other than to remark to Sky News at the premiere of her last film, referring to its subject Wallis Simpson, “I do know what it is to be misunderstood on a global scale.”

Obviously, feminists love her. Camille Paglia referred to her in 1990 as the ‘future of feminism’, while Germaine Greer admires her business brain and utter self-belief: “Dullards can’t do transcendent marketing. It takes genius. It was Madonna’s genius to realise that marketing was where it’s at, as long ago as 1979, which was when she registered Madonna as a trademark.”

The only chink in her formidable armour came from one of her inner circle — her brother, Christopher, who in 2008 wrote a hissy-fit of a book which slagged her off. However, all we really learned was that she is super-focused, a control freak, a workaholic, and demands the highest standards of all around her. Oh, and she likes the Kabbalah. We didn’t need a book to figure that one out. Other than her brother, from whom she is still estranged, her circle remains longstanding and ultra-loyal — even her ex-husbands have not dared put the boot in.

Her drive could be rooted in the much-documented death of her mother, also called Madonna, when the star was six. This pivotal event formed the young Madonna, one of six siblings, propelling her to stand out, and to do better. We all know her story — arriving in New York in her teens seething with ambition, so that within a few years of dancing and hanging out with the right people, she had pretty much taken over the world.

Today, Madonna is a parent of four — Lourdes, Rocco, David and Mercy. She has a variety of boytoys, which her brother Christopher thinks are just for fun — he says her deeper emotional needs are met by her children.

And touring, and releasing records, and building schools in Malawi, and making dodgy films. With her muscley arms, her fishnets, and her funny English accent, she’s the Marmite queen of pop — you either love her or hate her. Although to hate Madonna is like hating life itself.


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