Madonna turns fifty-three today. Fifty-three!
Although she has dabbled in low-key activities since the conclusion of her epic Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2009, and with Lady Gaga reigning supreme over the pop music scene with Adele and Katy Perry, the power of Madonna’s influence must be reiterated.
Madonna became one of the first contemporary pop musicians whose work has produced a sub-field of gender studies entirely onto itself. Leading feminist writer Camille Paglia wrote extensive academic essays on her. The Vatican all but called for her excommunication. MTV, back when it played nothing but music videos, at once revered her and punished her, as she has become the most-awarded MTV VMA Award winner in history and also one of the very first to have her work banned from the network (that would be the videos for “Justify My Love” and “Erotica”).
1990’s Blond Ambition Tour was the concert tour that cemented her iconic status. Intended to cross-promote her blockbuster Like a Prayer album, its follow-up I’m Breathless, and her starring role in her then-paramour Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy film, it was the cultural phenomenon of the summer. When she premiered the Gaultier-designed cone bra in 1990 for her tour, it was one of the first instances where underwear was outerwear, and proved so iconic that the garment is on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Gallery. Until then, no one would ever think of wearing just a bikini top and bare midriff as a stage costume. The tour was so controversial that it prompted protests in Rome, almost landed the singer in prison for public obscenity in Toronto, and yet was so highly reviewed as performance art that it became the highest-grossing concert tour of the year. Hell, even Gorbachev – yes, Gorby!! – went to see her show, even though the Soviet Union was still alive and well. (To this, Madonna quipped: “Warren [Beatty]’s gonna be so jealous that I met him first! Hah!”) Rolling Stone magazine named Blond Ambition, despite being released at the start of the decade, the “Greatest Tour of the 90s” in 1999. The tour has become legend, especially since Pioneer signed an exclusive contract to release the concert tour recordings on Laser Disc only, and thus it is not available on DVD. Random clips have been uploaded onto YouTube, but the only place to see high-quality clips of some of these performances are in Truth or Dare.
Madonna became the single most powerful woman in show business. And everyone has, ever since then, tried to follow or out-do her: Gaga, Katy, Britney, Ke$ha, Rihanna, Christina, Gwen. Everyone. And if you asked any of them to name a musical influence, they would each say Madonna.
Truth or Dare, theatrically released in 1991 after a third album in a year and a half, was the document of the concert tour that burned through pop culture. In an era before the Internet became prevalent, the fact that Madonna was letting cameras follow her 24/7 to produce an all-access, no-holds-barred documentary, was unheard of. Camera phones and YouTube were but twinkles in their developers’ eyes. This was as close as we could get to reality TV at the time (asides from Cops on the Fox Network). Twenty years ago, this all-access documentary was considered the ultimate reveal. It’s still a cinematic powder keg twenty years later.
For those of you unfamiliar with the documentary or too young to remember it when it was first released, this was one of the first mass representations of the gay male in mainstream cinema. No discussion of gay rights representation in the media is complete without reference to, out of all of Madonna’s works, this tour and this film. Nearly all (but one) of Madonna’s male dance troupe were homosexual, and she played the role of nurturing den mother to them all. The film was considered obscene at the time because even an image of two men kissing was unheard of (this was before fake lesbianism on the MTV Awards became de rigueur), and Truth or Dare was nearly given an NC-17 rating (it was eventually given an R). It was a co-opting of homoerotic imagery in a mass-marketed work. In other words, Madonna used her image to forward gay rights by showing her dancers as friends, lovers, employees, adopted children and basic human beings. The cameras followed them to Gay Pride in New York in the summer of 1990, when it was still considered a fringe event and gay marriage was unthinkable. Pride was still a political march, sporting no commercial support the way it does today, and with attendants shouting “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” to defy hetero-normative convention. It’s no wonder that Gaga cited Madge as one of her greatest influences, given her penchant for theatricality and advocacy for LGBT rights that has influenced the culture and evolved over the next twenty years.
Before the religious right had to contend with Howard Stern, Marilyn Manson and Eminem, Madonna stood alone as the consummate s***-disturber. She was relentlessly pursued by the paparazzi worldwide throughout her tour, and was photographed sunbathing in the French Riviera, jogging in Central Park, and on a date with Antonio Banderas in Barcelona. Many of the film’s most outrageous moments have since become the stuff of pop culture legend, including:
- Kevin Costner referring to her show as “neat”, with her sticking her finger down her throat and exclaiming, “nobody calls my show neat!” (Costner was reportedly so offended that he gave the juicy part in his smash film The Bodyguard to then-aspiring actress Whitney Houston);
- A visit to her mother’s grave, at which she danced and sprawled herself out on the tombstone, much to the shock and chagrin of her brother Christopher Ciccone (as documented in his autobiographical 2009 book which has since caused a near-permanent riff with the singer);
- Her simulation of oral sex using a Vichy bottle;
- The pre-concert backstage group prayers led by her and including all of her dancers and singers in a prayer circle, which has since become matter-of-fact and expected today; and
- The complete performance of her on-stage masturbation during “Like a Virgin”, the number that nearly got her thrown into prison.
Perhaps the ultimate legacy from this film is the fact that Madonna worked together with the director and various business associates to present herself at her most outrageous. It is one of the first show-business documentaries showing just how a star’s image is cultivated, marketed and packaged in the name of art to create public image. She makes her entire private life into a form of public performance art, and was rivaled only by Elizabeth Taylor before her in blurring the public/private sphere. To put it in perspective, if you really think about it, what do you really know about some other singers? I bet you that you know almost nothing about Kylie’s or Sade’s personal lives. We know everything about Madonna thanks to this film: her volatile family relationships, her propensity for cursing a blue streak, her workaholic tendencies, her need to control every single aspect of her music empire, her insecurities and paranoia, and the fact that she is one bitch you do not ever, ever mess with, especially when it comes to business.
Roger Ebert was very astute in his original 1991 review of the film, to which he awarded three and a half stars: Madonna would make an exceptionally powerful executive, and if she hasn’t gone into show business, one might imagine her in a boardroom, wielding power and making ballsy decisions the way Anna Wintour does now. One of the earliest scenes in the film is of the camera crew attempting to enter a room but being told “This is a business meeting, get the f*** out of here!” by Madonna herself. This was one of the earliest observations that the singer at the centre of all this was first and foremost an entrepreneur, executive and the mastermind behind her very public image. It’s a lesson imparted throughout the revealing film, and one that so many stage parents and aspiring singer-songwriters have undoubtedly studied.
And if you still believe Madonna is only an okay singer who lucked out, remember that such luck could not have lasted nearly 30 years without actual hard work and determination. (You should also note that her net worth is estimated at about $800 million today, inclusive of all properties, portfolios and art. That’s a hell of a lot of, um, “luck”.)
Although Truth or Dare might not shock the bejeezus out of the casual viewer today, given our exposure to so much more, it remains an outrageous document of the cultivation of the public figure’s public image. No discussion of media imagery is complete without the landmark Truth or Dare.
Happy Birthday, Madonna. Your legacy is safe and sound.