After my first post about the question of Madonna’s appropriation of black culture in response to bell hooks’ article, I felt compelled to continue the debate for two reasons: 1) I was told my earlier post had no argument and 2) I had more thoughts about the debate.
In my earlier post, I questioned the issue hooks had with Madonna – particularly the pop star’s coop of black culture to gain street cred among her audiences. The plasticity of her posturing was a cause of consternation and concern for many. I asked then why other white artists, in particular, Dusty Springfield, weren’t subject to the same kind of scrutiny and criticism. Some of that could be answered by saying “Well, Dusty Springfield sounded more sincere and genuine and less calculated.” So then the question could be asked – if you’re good at racial appropriation, then it’s okay? Other’s pointed to Madonna’s gargantuan bank account that she arguably built on the back of gay black men, but then we’d ask if Madonna’s wealth was only a fraction of what it is, would then bell hooks lay off?
Then I thought of David Bowie. And things just started to shift into place. Bowie, like Madonna, is a shape-shifting and sound-shifting pop star who gravitates toward different moods and sounds depending on his current project – much of what he did, he labeled “plastic soul” – the word plastic is in the word. Yet Bowie is never mentioned in hooks’ article.
Bowie has turned to black music many times in his storied career – his 1975 album Young Americans which aped much of seventies funk and R&B was coined by the singer himself as “plastic soul” which he explained as “ethnic music” sung by a “white limey.” He worked with Chic member, Nile Rogers (who worked his funky magic with Madonna’s Like a Virgin) on his 1983 smash album Let’s Dance as well as a follow-up in the mid 90s, Black Tie, White Noise. Throughout his chameleon-like persona, Bowie, like Madonna, looked to urban youth culture to attain a certain transgressiveness that he seems to be forgiven for.
And aside from his musical piracy of black culture, Bowie’s issues with racism also stems for actual racism. Or at least “alleged” racism. While hooks has a problem with Madonna’s girlish envy of black culture, I wonder what she would think of Bowie’s drug-fueled fascination with fascism and Nazi paraphernalia that dogged him in the 1970s.
And it’s not just Bowie. Eric Clapton has molded himself into a younger, white version of B.B. King. Clapton’s career would be nonexistent without black culture and unlike Madonna, he’s revered as an elder statesman of rock. Yet the blues guitarist indulged in some racist rants during the 1970s, using ethnic slurs when complaining of the increasingly diverse UK – it’s interesting to note that while Madonna may be called a plantation queen, hooks didn’t look to Clapton as a plantation master, making millions mining black music. Not only did Clapton best Madonna by actively embracing racism, but years later without the mitigating influence of drugs and alcohol, he defends the actions and behaviors of British MP, Enoch Powell, a notoriously racist and anti-immigrant politician.
So why Madonna’s target when it’s clear that in relation to a lot of folks, she’s at best, a minor offender? Well, firstly, “hating Madonna” is a sport, much like armchair football; she inspires visceral reactions from folks. For hooks, it could be that Madonna, perched on an ivory tower, represents all that is insane and foul about white privilege, something that she had to run up against during her whole life – that Madonna seems to be flaunting her white privilege with such abandon and with such a resounding lack of self-awareness may infuriate hooks.
It’s unequivocal that Madonna owes a great debt to the black, Hispanic and gay subcultures she’s flirted with – but her music and sound isn’t so much cultural theft as it is a cultural pastiche and a reflection of racial and sexual discourse. Despite her fame and wealth, Madonna does not operate in a vacuum – instead she works as a product of our society. Whatever racial or sexual hangups our culture shoulders, we can ascribe those to Madonna’s body of work. She is at once an artist and a fraud, using whatever cultural artifact or trope she finds marketable, but simultaneously participating in the creation of the work of art, thereby making the charge of thievery murky. That she is calculated in her crafting of her career is a given, but just like everyone else in our still-highly racialized society today, she exhibits deep-ingrained racial attitudes that could use some improving – the only difference is, unlike most, she’s working through her “issues” on a national stage.