The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

“Becoming has no number. We can count, measure, dissect only the lifeless and so much of the living as can be dissociated from livingness. Pure becoming, pure life, is in this sense incapable of being bounded. It lies beyond the domain of cause and effect, law and measure. No deep and pure historical research seeks for conformities with causal laws – or, if it does so, it does not understand its own essence…”
(Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol 1, Chapter III: Alfred A Knopf Inc, 1926)

What if absolute certainty failed to disguise the nothingness which sometimes constitutes the essence of something only considered to be “pure life” by the person living it, provided that person is impelled so forcefully to impose themselves upon the world, unasked and only grudgingly loved? “Loved” defiantly but definitely tethered to its inverted commas – loved because the aim of your media is to burnish your image on the inner retina of everyone, so that they can never hope not to see you, be aware of you. Such is the case with Madonna; so brazen and bold is her hatred and contempt of the world, and more than anyone else, her fans and perhaps her lovers. And we, her spectators, are made to feel the guilty parties. Don’t we have anything better to do with “our” lives?

Hard to imagine that, although Madonna played no active part in the No Wave movement of the late ‘70s, her career couldn’t have happened without it – and more importantly, Ze Records - as a guideline. Early hits like “Holiday” and “Borderline” wouldn’t have been at all out of place on Mutant Disco, and the genuine pop and fizz of her music at this stage is comparable with the jouissance of the early Jackson 5 records; from a period when she was still on the make but didn’t let us, or even herself, into her secret agenda. And what about “Like A Virgin” – the record which finally gave Nile Rodgers a new trick card to deal with, a supremely ironic statement of unironic chasteness, deliciously derailed by her performance of the song on TOTP in a proto-Kelly Osbourne pink wig, committing fellatio on the studio floor. How could she lose? “Into The Groove” – the punctum behind her only cinematic appearance of worth, playing an airbrushed self within the airbrushed post-No New York of Desperately Seeking Susan, but which is the closest and most sublime celebration of the subjugation of her already very big Self into the non-verbal communiques of the music. “Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free/At night I lock the door so no one else can see.” But barely has she liberated/imprisoned herself before she expresses the deep desire to “dance with someone else.” Isolation does not equate with a monastery, at least not one which Madonna cannot run with an iron heel.

One might have expected the ego to go supernova in tandem with the career, but apart from the tacky “Material Girl” which sounded and still sounds like a Hazel O’Connor B-side, with its entirely unnecessary Monroe pastiche of a video, the standards were maintained; “Live To Tell” is as moving and affecting as any of her ballads, and “Papa Don’t Preach” is a seamless Barthesian analysis of the value and meaning of the word “baby” in popular music, a direct counterpart to Scritti Politti’s “The Word Girl” – how literal do we take the word “baby” when sung? Are we turned on by it or turned off by realism? Is it her boyfriend or her pregnancy whom she is intent on “keeping”? (And note the sublime third way in the first verse – “I’m not a baby”) Think of how moved you are by Joni on Blue until you realise that the profundity of your affection and empathy with her is directly affected by how carnal her otherwise despondent (or despondent because it’s carnally frustrated?) voice sounds (as with Rickie Lee Jones – the two most sublime and sexual singers of the word “baby” I can think of). And “Open Your Heart” with its cascading drums a crucial half-beat behind the introductory vocal of “watch out, watch out” is as persuasive an argument for unregulated capitalism as one could ever dream up, amplified sinisterly by the video which pictures 13-year-old Felix Howard trapped within a peepshow. Would anyone get away with that now?

Sadly, the myth then took precedence over any notion of “quality” and the persona became more of an issue than whatever art she could turn her hand to. The film and soundtrack Who’s That Girl? were fatally (because uninterestingly) self-referential. Shanghai Surprise typified the sort of empty vessel which any ego will ultimately be compelled to sail. And all this fed back into 1989’s grotesque and overrated Like A Prayer - Madonna’s final demand to Take Her Seriously (but we already were! Ciccone Youth’s “Into The Groove(y)” was an unalloyed tribute - No Wave’s Fifth Cavalry claiming back someone who should always have been one of their number), her attempt, more or less, to be Prince. Indeed Prince contributed to the distinctly unsexy duet “Lovesong” (never to be confused with Lovesexy) and anonymously to the title track and its closing mirror “Act of Contrition.” It is self-pitying, Sean Penning, otiose and overblown.

Madonna then drew back a little. Taking Malcolm McLaren at his word, she caught up with his ambulance to produce “Vogue”; and then corralled Lenny Kravitz into producing his only good record “Justify My Love” wherein a Public Enemy beat is ripped out of its testosterone surroundings and, to an extent, feminised. But both of these were a warm-up for 1992’s astonishing album Erotica which is still viewed by most with wariness and suspicion but which, a decade later, is more clearly than ever her one great album; the only one, dare one say, which admits the existence of doubt. Of un-happiness.

“Erotica” the song, as with Erotica the album – and its distant and misleading cousin, the Sex photobook – is of course unsexy. The “sex” is a red herring. Everything here – submission, dominance, masochism, sadism, pleasure, coming – is subdued to the unasked question “is that all there is?” (and why Madonna has not covered that song in blancmange yet I do not know). Shep Pettibone did most of the production, and alone of all Madonna’s producers, from Reggie Lucas to William Orbit, appears to have understood her and understood what to get out of here. Erotica was, along with its alter ego Automatic For The People, my most played album of 1992 (especially on Oxford Tube journeys – alas I did not overplay, or even underplay, the more ostensibly hip records of that year such as Lazer Guided Melodies or It’s A Shame About Ray). It came out in the autumn, and autumnal it certainly sounds; no more so than on the title track, which deploys the saddest and most poignant use of a Kool and the Gang sample (“Jungle Boogie”) to provide a slight atonal but wistful counterpart to Madonna’s oddly distant and asexual pleas. Every song on this album is in a minor or semi-minor key.

And speaking of “Is There All That Is,” how right it should be that Madonna should get around to covering that tormented torch song’s prequel, “Fever.” But if your yawning can barely be suppressed at the thought of yet another cover version of “Fever,” this is understated, underplayed, and crucially reharmonised – the carnality is turned into abstract philosophy revealing the true poverty of human historicism. The groove is subdued; the vibraphone warns that a heartbeat can dwell a universe away. But is the veil lifted? Not a chance. “Bye Bye Baby” manages to paraphrase both PiL (“This is not a love song”) and Dylan (“So I’ll just stop blowin’ in the wind”) to tell the boy who has dared to make her cry to fuck off. I’ll sneer so that I can’t be seen crying.

Then comes “Deeper And Deeper” which may well be Madonna’s finest and most yearning single. It sounds like, of all people, Stock, Aitken and Waterman with a dash of the Pet Shop Boys (the opening and chorus vocals are very Kylie) and some flamenco guitar towards the end. Within the song Madonna succeeds in uniting her dysfunctional parental disapprovals with the need for greater and realer sexual fulfilment. She becomes her own mother and paraphrases her own “Vogue” to climax the song. Brilliant and still underrated.

“Where Life Begins” is a far more comely invitation to/exaltation of cunnilingus than the, shall we say, somewhat over-literal Yeastie Girls on Consolidated’s “You Suck” from the same year; within it are some embers of compassion. Then comes the letdown, however; “Bad Girl” (“drunk by six” with its unambiguous use of “baby” in the chorus) is another good ballad which stops just short of sentimentality; “Waiting” is about non-tantric tension.

Side two of Erotica is a fairly bleak affair; death is evident within its grounds, and sex is only, literally, the flipside of death. “Thief Of Hearts” bounces along uncertainly, punctuated by the percussion of smashed glass and a snarled “Bitch!” “Words” reconfigures and ultimately negates Martin Fry’s idealisation of discourse above/parallel with penetration (cf. the subtle reference to “The Look Of Love” in the intro to “Papa Don’t Preach”). Then things slip into winter: “Rain” veers too far into the land of gloop; “Why’s It So Hard” (“to love one another”) is a deliberate pun and a routine pop-reggae plod whose sentiments would shame Sting; “In This Life” is the album’s intended epic ballad, and though its threnody for AIDS victims might just be discerned as heartfelt, and its piano refrain which sounds like Monk’s “Misterioso” played sideways, isn’t unmoving, it’s too literal; you’re telling us too much, running the risk of being banal. Perhaps that’s why you hide. And that is why she, at the end of the record, retreats to her “Secret Garden” – a remarkably early attempt at refined drum ‘n’ bass, and one of the most disturbing pieces of music she has ever recorded. As with none of her other records, she sounds as though she is talking, no, whispering, to herself, trying to reconstitute her existence. She is on the verge of unmasking herself as what she has always been – a blissful blank space. “You plant the seed and I’ll watch it grow” – we’ve been here very recently, haven’t we? “Where my place is – where my FACE is – I know it’s in here somewhere…a heart that will not harden/A place where I can be born.” But, as with any Second Coming, can we truly believe her? At the end – following a truly chilling moment where she switches directly from narration to singing – extremely threateningly in its assumed composure - she confides in us: “Somewhere in Fontainebleau lies my secret garden,” and almost imperceptibly, James Preston’s piano paraphrases a motif from Tadd Dameron’s 1956 tone poem “Fontainebleau.” That she says nothing about this, either on the track or on the sleeve, may well be a pleasing exemplar of how hip Madonna expects her audience to be; but then again, and more likely, it may just have passed her by.

And she never got near it again. All Madonna’s subsequent output seems to me like a desperate attempt to keep up. 1994’s Bedtime Stories wanders around in Nellee Hooper’s immense corridors to little effect, with the exception of her last great ballad, the one time when she does let the mask slip, “Take A Bow” – an extremely moving piece of self-assassination and realisation of one’s own imminent iconic redundancy; perhaps she ought to have said “goodbye” for real after the song ended. But no, there followed Ray Of Light which only shows how much better Orbit understood All Saints than he did Madonna, and the incoherent, unfathomable mess that is Music. What certainty does she have left now? Her ill-advised tenure as faux lady of the manor in Britain is coming to a very precise end; she gets back to LA just in time, before she’s snared as the star turn in the Conservative Party’s 2005 election rally. For Madonna, borderlines were never as important as deadlines.

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