Because of her affront to so-called decency, Madonna has been attacked from the political right with a fervor almost medieval in its zealousness. Postmodernism claims irony as one of its defining aspects and, in truth, nothing could be more ironic than conservative Americans getting their hackles raised by Madonna.
Although Madonna may be the very model of a modern leftist in terms of social liberalism, in fact she is the very apotheosis of conservative economic thought. It is not going too far, to be completely honest, to say that Madonna and her career can be considered personifications of Louis Althusser’s conception of the machinery of capitalist ideology.
As with most things postmodern, Althusserian ideology represents a relationship that is “real” only in a subjective sense. For Althusser, ideology “represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The very idea of classic Marxist false consciousness is stripped of existence by Althusser; falseness on the one hand presupposes truth and reality on the other.
What could be more postmodern than to suggest that even our own consciousness is open to interpretation? Althusser goes on to introduce his theory of contradiction and overdetermination, more succinctly explained by John Fiske who wrote that ideology is “constantly in process, constantly reproducing itself.” Substitute the word Madonna for ideology and that sentence still makes perfect sense.
Madonna’s career has been one of continuous reproduction of herself. Madonna is on the conservative, capitalist side of the argument that Marx is making a point against when he writes, “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.” This is exactly what Althusser is talking about when he theorizes that the capitalist ideology must constantly reinvent and reproduce itself just to survive, must less prosper.
Madonna may exist as a postmodern icon because of her ability to turn herself into the subject of her art, but what is missing from most criticism is the fact that far from being the icon of liberal, let-it-all-hang-out, subversive thought that threatens to turn young women into promiscuous communists, Madonna is actually among the most conservative of artists.
The conservatives quickly jumped to the cause that Madonna was corrupting the youth of America. It’s true, she was, but not in the way they thought. And the way she was corrupting them would not have been considered such a bad thing by most of them. The young boys watched the dawn of Madonna through lascivious eyes. The young women saw a woman with a lot of money and famous boyfriends who got that money and those boyfriends by dressing up sexy and presenting themselves as an object of desire.
What was corrupting was that Madonna was adding her own supposedly subversive qualities to the long list of Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses that consistently and constantly sell the (false) joys of capitalism. Madonna appeared every inch the rebellious artist bent on sending the youth of American down the long road of ruin, but in fact she was promoting those false joys of capitalism in a more efficient way than Ronald Reagan ever dreamed possible.
A very successful advertising campaign for the soft drink Sprite told its viewers that “Image is Everything.” French philosopher Jean Baudrillard has been saying the same thing for decades. Baudrillard maps out a basic groundwork for the creation of what he terms a simulacrum of reality which is accepted as the truth. In the first phase, the simulation reflects reality. In the second it perverts it. In the third it reveals the absence of any true reality. And finally, the simulation replaces what it was simluating to become the reality. All four stages can be marked by tracking the career of Madonna.
Madonna was at first just a reflection of the youth culture in which she lived, a postmodern pastiche of fashion sense pinched from the ethnic subcultures through which she orbited; a young woman at home with her sexuality and ready to flaunt it. Gradually, she perverted that image to make it seem real, when it fact it was nothing more than a calculation to achieve stardom. With each successive reproduction of herself, anything approaching a true sense of self and identity in Madonna was all but impossible.
And finally, the simulation became reality. Madonna was just a body, just a “Boy Toy” after all, just a material girl, just another ambitious platinum blonde. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker’s infamous description of Oakland, when it comes to Madonna, “There is no there there.” Madonna is a cipher on the outside, much like Woody Allen’s character Zelig, while on the inside she is the very embodiment of the Ugly American, much like Bill Gates.
If there is one place where Madonna’s image is subversive, it’s in her ability to recreate herself in such a way that even though the audience knows what to expect, it seems new. Horkheimer and Adorno asserted that “under monopoly capitalism all mass culture is identical.” It has to be in order to appeal to the largest possible consumer base because monopoly capitalism is about nothing if it’s not about homogenizing taste in order to stimulate profit. When one listens to her music, Madonna fits quite snugly into this idea.
Basically, she hasn’t really changed her musical style in any significant way from “Lucky Star” to “Ray of Light.” And yet, her music seems to have changed. Madonna’s songs seem to have evolved in a way that say, Mariah Carey’s or Celine Dion’s haven’t. And that may very well be Madonna’s greatest claim to fame. Madonna has taken everyday, conservative capitalism and made it somehow seem subversive. Madonna has taken everyday sexuality and made it seem frighteningly threatening. Madonna has taken guitars and synthesizers and made it seem as though she has evolved musically when in reality she really hasn’t.
Althusser writes of something called interpellation, which is positioning the subject that so he responds when called. Interpellating the subject is a key ingredient to ensuring the survival of capitalism and Madonna has mastered it. By successfully positioning herself as a rebellious figure, as a provocateur, Madonna has successfully interpellated society to the point where if she presents herself as a slut, they willingly accept it or reject it depending upon how they feel about it. It has reached the point where a rumor about Madonna could be enough to send her detractors into a tizzy; or her defenders into a store-rushing mob.
As Marx indicated, in order for capitalism to sustain itself, it must reach into the world and remake that world in its own image. Madonna’s success reaches everywhere and that success has taken no hard hits anywhere. Even when faced with seemingly overwhelming controversy, the kind of controversy that would seriously undermine other careers, Madonna has not only survived, but thrived.
The reason for this is that Madonna has positioned herself so successfully as an outsider, as one from whom controversy is accepted. In other words, Madonna has successfully sold herself as a lightning rod for controversy. Again, image is everything. Again, there seems to be no there there for Madonna. Is there anything she wouldn’t do, is there any road she wouldn’t take? Take, for instance, the infamous Pepsi commercial. Coincident with the release of her video for the song “Like a Prayer” Madonna appeared in a Pepsi commercial.
So interpellated is society that Madonna could still appear to be a threat to all things American even when cashing in on her popularity by appearing in a commercial. Well, perhaps it was thought to be subversive because it was a commercial for Pepsi, rather than Coca-Cola. The fact that Madonna successfully sidetracked the accusation of selling out by making this commercial is one of the most amazing parts of her career.
Early on, Madonna saw through the simulacrum that is American morality. Compared to European countries, America may still cling hard to its puritan beginnings, but only on the surface. Again, Baudrillard comes into play. America truly is a simulation. The reality of what America craves and buys bears little resemblance to how America sees itself. It is not just the conservative religious right that sees America as a morally upright, morally uptight beacon of all that is right. The overwhelming majority of Americans view their country this way. We have become the arbiters and judges of correctness in all things from morality to politics.
America is a country that rallies together to decry religious fervor that builds toward terrorism. But America is also a country that rallies in support of a religious mission to invade and take over a sovereign country. By identifying the disconnect between what America is and what America likes to think it is, Madonna has almost assured herself of a career for as long as she wants. Because she can sell herself as rebel against what America really is while cashing in by being a rebel against what American wants to be, there is almost no end to how many different ways Madonna can reinvent and resell herself.
Which goes back to Althusser and the concept of an imaginary relationship of individuals to the real conditions of existence. This imaginary relationship works both ways. For one thing, what her fans and her detractors see in Madonna is really an imaginary condition. The irony speaks out loudly in the fact that those who are most vociferous against Madonna, conservatives, should be the ones most in support of her. America destroyed lives and wasted billions of dollars in the fight against communism.
Communists and all assaults on free enterprise and capitalism were deemed even worse enemies than fascism. Madonna is clearly no closer to being a communist than Pat Buchanan. While her social outlook may be liberal, even that is subject to questioning. After all, Madonna’s positioning herself in order to sell is based upon the role of the rebel. And, largely forgotten in today’s repressive political climate, America itself was founded by rebels.
Rebellion is, if you will, in the country’s blood. So even Madonna’s liberal-tinged rebelliousness is distinctly American. In effect, Madonna’s rebelliousness is calculated to sell and what could be more modern American than that?
Which raises the specter of the other imaginary relationship, that of her fans to Madonna. Madonna has sold herself as a rebel, as a woman to be admired for her refusal to play the game by any rules other than her own. In fact, Madonna is playing by the rules of Adam Smith, the godfather of capitalism. Those who most rally to the support of Madonna should actually be the ones most pissed off. A subversive she is not. She is the ideal capitalist, one whose business plan should be modeled as a perfect example of how to make it in America.
Madonna’s history is one of continual recreation and reproduction of her image. But that image has always been a mere surface glean on top of a deep-seated money-making machine. Staying on top of the music business for twenty years without a single flop album is almost unheard-of. That Madonna has accomplished this feat despite the drawback of not having the greatest singing voice in the world makes this accomplishment all the more amazing.
Some term Madonna a postmodernist icon in the way she has been able to consistently reinvent herself to meet the changing modes of music styles over the year, yet when looked at closely, Madonna’s music really hasn’t evolved terribly much, at least not in any genuinely profound way. Her reinventions really have been more about the reproduction of a single image, that of the rebel provocateur. But the rebelliousness has always been calculated to bring about profit rather than to truly subvert.
According to Marx and Althusser, capitalism can only subsist by creating new, ultimately false needs that must be sold to consumers once their basic needs have been met. Madonna met the basic needs of her core audience a long time ago, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that had she contained herself within that image she would long ago have gone by the wayside. Instead, Madonna saw that once she sold herself completely as a Boy Toy, she would have to reinvent herself and create a new need among her fans.
And that is why Madonna has been so successful for so long. Rather than defining herself through a single image to be sold over and over, Madonna has created new markets for herself. She has successfully sold herself as rebel in various guises despite being very conservative in her economics. She has created surface personae that provoke just enough to create a sensation but not enough to alienate her audience. Madonna truly is a capitalist icon rather than a postmodern icon.