Lady Madonna: Cultural thief or renaissance woman?

Madonna’s gotten some surprisingly good press for her performance during the Super Bowl, but a thread on Facebook linked to bell hooks’ “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?” shows that the pop diva still makes many uncomfortable with her image and sound. Since the beginning of her success in the early 1980’s, Madonna has always kept an eye on various subcultures to buttress her sound – whether it’s black culture, Latino culture or gay culture, like a child in a candy store, she rushes through, picking and mixing aspects of each that she finds would be digestible for a mainstream audience.

Some have found this to be innovative and interesting. Others like hooks find this to be a little more complex and troubling. In her article, hooks argues that Madonna has been able to swipe aspects of black culture as well as exploit our society’s notions of black sexuality for commerce. Like many young white suburbanites who ape black hip-hop artists, hooks believes Madonna’s fascination with black culture is analogous –  a rich white woman showing “cred” and “rebellion” by taking on various markers from the black community, without having to shoulder the discrimination, disenfranchisement or violence; Madonna’s also done that with Latino culture, revelling in a drag Hispanic performance through much of her career, indulging in “othering” or “exoticizing” Hispanic culture. Her use of the gay community is now legendary, and some of it overlaps with her exploitation of black culture – namely disco music and her triumph with dance music. While young gay blacks and Hispanics were voguing in the clubs for years (and still living in abject poverty), Madonna wrote a nifty tune in 1990 called “Vogue” and raked in millions from the song’s sales.

So in light of all this, where do we stand in looking at Madonna’s work – is it cultural theft? Black music has been plundered by white artists for years: respected artists such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and Dusty Springfield all found some of their greatest successes by reading over the musical blueprint of black musicians (interestingly enough Springfield is largely revered as a soul singer and has not received much backlash). That some are sensitive to the thievery of black music is understandable: black musicians and performers of the 1950s and 1960s have been largely stiffed of royalties for their work, while their white counterparts were able to earn thousands. As a result many of these legendary artists have often died in penury. So, in the face of all this, a white artist being able to garnish millions of dollars may seem unfair and unjustified.

But just as we have to call Madonna out on her cultural pirating, we also should then cast a critical eye on all art of appropriation and decide how will we react. Hip-hop today is largely splintered, but a major force in the art form is sampling – the lifting of a particularly memorable hook or sound and reappropriating it for a new song. P. Diddy, or Puff Daddy, or Sean Combs became notorious not because he was the first (he wasn’t), but he became a commercial behemoth, by taking catchy riffs of pop songs – especially the nostalgia-ridden catalogue of the 1980s. Because of his high media profile, many in the press asked whether what Diddy and other rappers were doing was art or theft.

So with Madonna the question becomes rather murky, because we will never know how calculated or how sincere her appropriation of disparate cultures really is – we only have the end result: popular music that is earning this already wealthy woman even more money. But when listening to her work, one may wonder if she’s more akin to the Beastie Boys, Lisa Stansfield or the aforementioned Springfield: white artists who have taken in black music and fused their performance DNA; or is she a crass and cynical product like the New Kids on the Block, that was crafted solely to compete with young black boy groups, yet appeal to the lucrative white consumer.

Madonna’s musical roots can be traced not only to black music, but to the tail end of the punk/new wave movement. She flourished under the tutelage of garage bands before turning to black dance producers (i.e. Chic guitarist Nile Edwards who helmed her Like a Virgin record). She ascended to the kind of superstardom only rivaled by Michael Jackson, Prince or Barbra Streisand. As she moved further and further into the “rich people’s club” she still attempted to seem “real” and “genuine” to her viewers by embracing what is seemingly rebellious and raw – namely black culture. She wore black (and gay) culture like a shirt, shedding it in her real life and thereby ensuring that she escapes the difficulties facing the black community (in much the same way Tyra Banks would jump into a fat suit and then tearfully commiserate with her audience about how she understands what heavy people go through – except she gets step out of her costume and become svelte again).

So in looking at Madonna one may ask, “So what?” “So what if she’s stealing from other cultures, so what?” And to be fair, it’s a good question – art is often a product of tapestried influences. How is what Madonna do different from Andy Warhol, Banksy, or Shepard Fairey, aside from the obvious she makes like a billion dollars? Is the wealth the problem? Would people have less issue with Madonna if she wasn’t one of the richest women on the planet? Is it the perceived cynical, calculated way she navigates through cultural artifacts like a thieving archaeologist? As mentioned before, Springfield did much of what Madonna did in her career, and yet she’s regarded by most as a genuine soul singer, and is lauded by most.

The fact that no one answer emerges from this debate is very apt and telling, because Madonna’s career seemed built on creating questions that spawn more questions instead of definite answers: Is she a feminist? Is she a misogynist? Is she a racist? Is she a humanist? Is she a homophobe? Can she sing? Is she talented? These come up over and over again whenever Madonna decides to emerge from her million-dollar cocoon and grace the television screen and radio waves with her latest four-minute pop missive. What is certain is that even some 30 years after she first came to public attention, her work is still sparking this debate.

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