Madge and the Music Industry
Hello, it’s your stern moralist calling – again! Today I am taking as my text Madonna, and the outpouring of love and congratulations on the occasion of her 60th birthday.
It all reminded me that the first time I ever had a letter printed in a newspaper, back in the 1990s, it was on the subject of Madonna. (Another twenty years would pass before I repeated this feat.)
What had fired me out of my usual state of blissful apathy was the assertion of US ‘feminist’ shock prof Camille Paglia that Madonna was a role model.* Needless to say, I cut out my letter to the dear departed Independent on Sunday and treasured it so carefully that I’ve completely forgotten where I’ve put it. But I remember the gist of it, which was that brilliant dancer and defiant megastar she might be, but as a role model she was rubbish, as her success simply confirmed to teenage girls that there was no advancement in this world without a lithe figure and photogenic features.
Yet now our beloved WikiWomeninRed, campaigner for balance in Wiki biographies (currently 83% are of men and only 17% of women) have tweeted their birthday greetings with the hashtag ‘RoleModel’.
My original objection still stands, but in the revealing glare of the #MeToo spotlight, we now know that there is another sense in which she has been a disastrous role model.
Can those who uncritically hail her as the way to go for womanhood really not see what a toxic influence she has had on the music industry? The aesthetic that she shaped of her own free will all those decades ago has become the sexist and exploitative raunch culture in which young women aspiring to a career in popular music find themselves trapped. The following account in Marie Claire last year makes for grim reading:
‘It’s late evening in a London studio and filming on a teenage pop singer’s first video has halted. Her manager, an executive from her record label and the director – all male – are huddled round a laptop, looking at footage of her and discussing their displeasure in tones they make no attempt to hush. The star herself sits alone and crying on the other side of the room, wearing hotpants, a bralette, and sky-high stilettos … a witness on the shoot [said] ‘One of them told her she’d have to lose weight and practise her sexy dancing because she didn’t look ”shaggable enough.”’
To be scrupulously fair – and abiding by damesnet’s principle of not slagging off the sisterhood – Madonna herself has probably never claimed to be a role model, but has had this albatross conferred on her. (As Paglia herself pithily summed it up, ‘As Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde knew, neither art nor the artist has a moral responsibility to liberal social causes.’)
But I’m not making the case for women’s actions to go unexamined simply because they are women – that would be to deny them agency.
And this is why I must at least level the charge of hypocrisy at Madonna. Why? Because she would not let her children watch television, dismissing it as trash. Yet this is the medium through which she herself has become famous! Let me get this right: so it’s OK for Madonna to subject other people’s children to quasi-pornographic imagery and earn a fortune from doing so, but such entertainment is not good enough for her own children. Nice one, Madge!
*She has since changed her mind.