Madonna sometimes likes to lay low for a few years, give people a chance to miss her, then come roaring back with a flurry of new projects and appearances. And the world is in the throes of the biggest such onslaught in years.
It’s been percolating for weeks — her song “Masterpiece” was a surprise winner at last month’s Golden Globes, her interview with Cynthia McFadden on ABC’s “20/20” found the singer famously weighing in on Lady Gaga and she was on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” this week. Fans are salivating in anticipation over Sunday night’s Super Bowl halftime performance, this week’s release of new single “Give Me All Your Luvin” (with Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.), new album “MDNA” (slated for a March 26 release) and, to a markedly lesser degree according to some camps, the new movie “W.E.” which had a limited release in December and went into slightly wider U.S. release this week (no word yet on D.C. screenings).
Madonna fans, of course, are whipped into a frenzy but the rest of the world is curious too and it raises an ocean of questions: Is too much being made of the Madonna/Gaga comparison? How can Madonna call Gaga’s work “reductive” when the former spent years mining old pop culture imagery for inspiration? Is it unfair that we keep wondering if Madonna still “has it” to a degree we don’t require of, say, the Stones or U2 each time they re-emerge? And could Madonna — known, of course, for her controversial TV performances — risk a Janet-caliber disaster if she tries something outrageous at the Super Bowl? We checked in with several gay pop culture observers — some fans, some not — to weigh in.
Snark king Michael Musto, famous for his “La Dolce Musto” column in the Village Voice and author of the new book “Fork On the Left, Knife in the Back,” says, for starters, that the similarities between Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself” justify some questioning.
He calls Madonna “the ultimate pop culture sponge,” but says it’s important to differentiate between homage and an all-out rip-off.
“It wasn’t Madonna at all who was pointing this out at first,” Musto says. “Everybody online was chirping that it was eerily similar with the chord progressions and the rappy part being kind of ‘Vogue’-ish,” he says. “But I’m all for anything that drives Madonna crazy … her haughtiness, her pretentiousness. I mean let’s face it, she’s not the warmest tool in the shed and that has led to some ill will. Lady Gaga is deeply talented and obviously a better singer than Madonna, though I do think Madonna was great for calling out that one song. I am still on the Gaga team, but I did recently write that Madonna has, once again against all odds, made herself hot again just by putting herself out there.”
Musto predicts Madonna will continue to stay front and center in the pop culture limelight as long as she wants.
“She comes at it with steely determination and she wears these blinders 24 hours that bar out negativity,” he says. “To her, her new project is the best thing in the world. Yes, the deck is increasingly stacked against her, but she knows all the tricks to stay on top. She knows to work with the young, hot people and once again, she’s made herself hotter than she’s been in a long time.”
Others say Gaga’s success doesn’t mean Madonna can’t continue in a big way too.
“I don’t think there has to be a Gaga-versus-Madonna thing like you’re either one or the other,” says Michael Crawford, a gay activist with Freedom to Marry who’s been a huge Madonna fan since the 1983 single “Burning Up” was released. “It’s not like you’re either a Republican or a Democrat. Clearly I worship the ground Madonna walks on and I always will, but I think Gaga is very good too. A lot of people just want to be bitchy but Madonna is Madonna, Gaga is Gaga.”
Others say the comparisons are inevitable and warranted.
“I’ve always told the rabid Madonna fans who’ve said Gaga is overly inspired by others that they’re on a weak foundation considering Madonna’s many homages and references in her work,” says Matthew Rettenmund, the gay author of “Encyclopedia Madonnica.” “Sometimes when you listen to Madonna’s most ardent fans, the ones who dislike Gaga anyway, they are using many of the exact same slams against Gaga that were used against Madonna her whole career by her detractors. That lack of perception is discouraging because I think Madonna’s work does attract pretty smart fans. Her references are not low brow and while you don’t have to understand every one of them to enjoy her work, being educated and informed does enhance your appreciation of it. I think Lady Gaga is the only artist in 30 years to even approach Madonna’s blueprint and I hope she is able to change and grow and keep it interesting in the way Madonna has been able to. One doesn’t cancel out the other.”
Madonna, of course, clearly channeled Marilyn Monroe — from the all out recreation of the “Material Girl” video to the more subtle bleached blonde looks she sported in the “Bedtime Stories” and “Who’s That Girl” eras — but is that any different from what Gaga’s doing with her or what Monroe herself may have channeled from her own predecessors such as Jean Harlow?
“It would be interesting if Marilyn had been around in the ‘80s and gone on ‘Nightline’ or something and been asked about Madonna,” says local nightlife impresario Ed Bailey, who DJs the popular Madonnarama events here and around the country. “I think [the ‘Material Girl’ video] was not just using that old concept for her own good, it was more of an homage and a statement about a strong powerful woman, which is something that clearly speaks to Madonna. I think there is a line between copying somebody and taking inspiration from something and there is a line between those two concepts. Sometimes it’s very blurry and sometimes it’s very clear.”
Rettenmund says the comparisons get silly after a while.
“I think it says more about gay men in particular and how they project themselves into their idols and how personally we take this trivial stuff,” he says. “I mean, ‘My diva is better than your diva,’ is the level at which this is and my reaction to it, aside from obviously admiring and liking Madonna for 30 years and being brand loyal, is that I love Gaga too and I’m happy to have all the divas around. It’s gay-on-gay crime to be attacking over this nonsense. It’s a homosexual civil war.”
Others wonder if Madonna will continue to be able to capture the world’s attention indefinitely. She’s been at it for decades now and even with all the changes in the way people hear and buy music, pop radio — especially in the U.S. — is as much a young person’s game as it ever was, especially for women artists. On the last few albums, Madonna almost always manages a Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hit with the first single, but follow-up singles routinely fail to chart stateside (they do better abroad and on the dance chart) and her last few singles — “Celebration” and “Revolver” — failed to hit big on U.S. radio. Younger divas — from Rihanna to Kelly Clarkson to Gaga — are logging much higher numbers. But while her chart peaks have waned, Madonna’s concert tours have skyrocketed in popularity.
Musto says that’s just how the industry works.
“I mean imagine if Peggy Lee had released something in the ‘80s or something,” he says “Would it have charted? No way, not unless she hooked up with the Bee Gees or something. Diana Ross could come out with the most amazing song ever right now, it wouldn’t get played. Working with these younger artists, like M.I.A., that’s [Madonna’s] way around it.”
Bailey says this time could be different.
“I’ve been in clubs for 20 years and never in that entire time has there been a time when the dance music in the club and pop on the radio were identical until now,” he says. “It’s just the way the world is right now. People are listening to Lady Gaga and Chris Brown and David Guetta and Flo Rida, you wouldn’t call them pop artists really. They’re dance artists. Now it’s every single thing you hear. People have an appetite now for that dance/pop sound with Rihanna, Katy Perry. I think for Madonna, this is gonna work out really well.”
And as for the Super Bowl? Is Madonna taking pot shots at her old rival Janet Jackson when she promises “no nipples” or is it just more of the gays making too much of off-the-cuff remarks?
Rettenmund says it will be huge. Rumors abound that she’s invited the Gay Men’s Chorus of Indianpolis to join her on stage.
“I’m assuming it’s going to be a visual orgy of cheerleading with water cooler moments,” he says. “Madonna is an artist who is never considered fully proven … every time she returns, there is this expectation of ‘OK, show me’ from some quarters. And the Super Bowl is no exception, except this time Madonna has set it up as a make-or-break moment of her own doing … so it has to be great. She knows that and in the past, she has lived up to expectations.”
Bailey calls it “a tall order.”
“The Black Eyed Peas were really good last year and she’s got to live up to that. It has to be a visual spectacle. She can’t just come out and say, ‘I’m gonna strip it all back and just make it about good, quality music.’ That won’t work.”
And if a stunt should backfire?
“Madonna would just laugh and keep going,” Crawford says. “I think Janet is really great, but Madonna just goes for it and makes no apologies … Janet apologized and Justin sold her out, there was a lack of strength in that whole episode. Madonna has a unique ability to make things work to her advantage.”