MUSIC

The spell of pop’s unstoppable siren

NICHOLAS JENNINGS July 13 1987
MUSIC

The spell of pop’s unstoppable siren

NICHOLAS JENNINGS July 13 1987

The spell of pop’s unstoppable siren

MUSIC

The costumes changed almost as often as the songs. Stepping out first in a black corselet tipped with coneshaped pasties and dangling tassles, she was all bare legs and shoulders topped by a shock of platinum hair. Two numbers into the show, she switched to a blue silk taffeta dress and petticoat, to become a vision of innocence. Next, a gold lamé suit and fedora presented her in a tough-guy pose. By the time she finished her 95-minute concert last week at Washington’s RFK Stadium before 35,000 fans, Madonna, pop’s starlet siren, had spun through no fewer than eight full costume changes, trying on roles ranging from stripper to toreador. Currently in the middle of a 16city North American tour titled Who’s That Girl—now on a swing through Canada—the poptart-turned-high-class-temptress is proving her versatility and staying power. And with the release next month of her third major movie, also called Who’s That Girl, she appears destined to conquer the screen as well. Indeed, she shifts from one medium to another with such apparent ease that Rolling Stone magazine declared, “Can’t stop the girl.”

Already she has powered her way to the top of pop. She can boast three albums that have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and 11 consecutive singles that have reached the top five on the Billboard charts—more than any other female artist of the decade. Her 1983 debut album, Madonna, introduced her as a flamboyant disco diva, while 1985’s Like a Virgin broadened her appeal with a shiny, mainstream sound. And her current album, True Blue, has won wide critical favor for showing her depth as both a singer and a songwriter. Two years ago, in her first movie, Desperately Seeking Susan, she parlayed a supporting part into a costarring role on the strength of her comic talent and natural screen presence. A second feature, Shanghai Surprise, in which she worked with husbandactor Sean Penn, proved a critical and commercial disappointment.

Meanwhile, Madonna’s troubled two-year marriage to Penn, who this week begins serving a twomonth jail sentence for violating the terms of his parole by assaulting a movie extra and driving recklessly, is now fodder for the scandal sheets. But that publicity has only fuelled the Madonna machine—as has the movie Who's That Girl, a romantic, fast-paced comedy in which she costars with Griffin Dunne. Madonna plays a girl who was unjustly imprisoned and, just out of jail, is bent on getting revenge. The film is one reason her face is currently on the covers of both American Film and Cosmopolitan. In its December, 1986, issue Life magazine gushed, “Madonna, at 28, exudes old-style Hollywood excitement like no other entertainer today.”

The key to her appeal is the unabashed way in which she decorates herself to court male eyes— coupled with the cocky delight she takes in commanding attention. Since she first burst onto the music scene Madonna has consistently mixed images, sacred and profane, with conscious disregard for whomever she offended. At first, she dangled huge crucifixes and Stars of David in front of seethrough lace camisoles and wore wired bras above a bared belly. In her video Like a Virgin, she parodied the diaphanous attire of a bride, cooing in delight, while her Material Girl video evoked Marilyn Monroe’s gold-digger dance number, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, from the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Now the look has changed again: she has abandoned junky assemblages in favor of drop-dead glamor gowns. But each successive style has struck a nerve among her young female fans. From Japan to New Jersey, Madonna’s bold declarations of fashion independence have become some of youth’s most slavishly copied uniforms.

Still, many music and media critics have dismissed the singer as a flash in the pan, with high potential for overexposure. One of the first tests of that prediction came with the September, 1985, publication in Playboy and Penthouse of nude photos dating from a short-lived career as an artist’s

model in the late 1970s. They were released on the eve of Madonna’s appearance at the internationally broadcast Live Aid concert. The singer faced the embarrassment with defiance, telling her concert audience, “I ain’t taking shit off today.” Still, the incident clearly hurt: later that year she tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the release of another skeleton from her closet, a B-grade erotic movie called A Certain Sacrifice, in which she had bared her breasts.

Another crisis came with her marriage to Penn. In an apparent effort to keep the glare of the limelight off the couple’s private lives, Penn began to battle physically with the photographers who dogged his celebrated wife. Now there are rumors that the marriage is foundering—an event predicted early on by syndicated columnist Liz Smith, who once remarked that Penn would soon be “Sean with the wind.” Still, Madonna defends her husband. “He wants to protect me,” she said, adding, “I’ve been dealing with the media since the very beginning of my career, and Sean never really had to. I wanted it and was ready to deal with it, and he wasn’t.”

Getting attention was something Madonna was working at long before she began her career in music. As the eldest daughter of six children born to an Italian-American family in Bay City, Mich.—the family later moved to Detroit—Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone often fought to be noticed. Her mother died of cancer when Madonna was 6, and Madonna helped her father raise her five brothers and sisters. But at parochial school she rebelled. Although she excelled scholastically, she wore heavy makeup and flashed brightly colored underwear beneath her school uniform. Recalled Nancy Ryan-Mitchell, her guidance counsellor at RochesterAdams High: “She presents herself as pretty hip, pretty loose. But we knew her as a bright girl, very mature.”

Early on, Madonna showed an ambitious, exhibitionistic streak as bold as the lipstick on her mouth. She appeared in a home movie by a Grade 8 classmate lying on her back while others simulated the frying of an egg on her stomach. She tried cheerleading and choir work— but to the dismay of her father, Antonio, an automotive engineer, she threw

herself into dance. A dance scholarship took her to the University of Michigan. Then she moved to New York City armed only with $35 and the certainty that fame would come her way. After dancing briefly with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Madonna de-

cided that rock ’n’ roll was a faster vehicle to success and joined a series of local bands. Finally she charmed a disco deejay, Mark Kamins, into listening to her and taking a tape of her sounds to the management of Sire Records.

Kamins is one of a long line of men who have helped Madonna’s career. But she has always insisted that, if there was exploitation, it was mutual. Said Madonna: “Whatever I learned or got from a man or a boyfriend, they got plenty from me. I don’t feel like I ever took advantage of anyone.” Indeed, a Michigan musician named Steve Bray, who was her boyfriend when she was 17, is still a collaborator: he shares songwriting and production credits on True Blue.

Despite that loyalty, Madonna has a reputation as a hard-driving employerone whose favorite saying on the job has been “Time is money, and the money is mine.” She is now trying to exert similar control on other aspects of her career-including Hollywood. She has rejected starring roles in such studio films as Blind Date and repeated offers to star in a film version of the musical Evita. Instead, her production company, Siren Films, is developing several scripts for her future, while at 20th Century Fox, actress/director Diane Keaton (Heaven) is reworking Marlene Dietrich’s classic, The Blue Angel, especially for her. Said Rosilyn Heller, producer of Who’s That Girl: “I think Madonna can do whatever she sets out to do. She’s a woman who will not be denied.”

The new Madonna is a slim version of the voluptuous vamp who flirted her way through the 1985 Virgin Tour. A serious vegetarian who runs as much as eight kilometres a day, she is also trying to correct some of the controversies around her. The song and video Papa Don’t Preach, from her True Blue album, came under attack from abortion groups for its prolife message, while advocates of planned parenthood said that Madonna acted irresponsibly by promoting the idea that a pregnant and unmarried teenager should keep a child. Although she refused to apologize for the song, she is now acting with uncharacteristic social awareness. In the middle of her Washington concert, the message “Safe Sex” was suddenly beamed onto a stage backdrop. And the singer has just announced that she will donate proceeds of her July 13 concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden to AIDS research.

Clearly, there is little that can stop the girl. Madonna has proven herself to be a canny strategist and a skilful artist in music and film, in the studio and onstage. Said the star: “I’m attracted to roles where women are strong and aren’t victimized. Everything I do has to be some kind of celebration of life.” Falling under the strength of her new spell, millions the world over are sharing in that celebration.

— NICHOLAS JENNINGS in Washington with MARILYN BECKER in Los Angeles

MARILYN BECKER