Madge : The Cultural Icon That Tries (a little) Too Hard

Madonna is the queen of pop.

There is no doubt about this in my mind.

She undoubtedly built the ubiquitous box in which young pop divas are able to squeeze into and conform within. The path she’s paved, beginning in the 90s, has been repeatedly stomped on by the platform pumps worn by recent princesses of pop including Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and the mother monster, Lady Gaga. While Madonna’s archetypal originality and blatantly visible sexual agency (insert her “Justify My Love” music video) is, from one angle, inspiring to a generation of women and men who find strength in sexuality, I find her dedication to diversity and individuality within her work……contrived to say the least.

Now, I might have not thought this until having the opportunity to perform with Madonna the week after having read, coincidentally, bell hook’s chapter within Black Looks entitled, “Madonna.” I witnessed, first hand, exactly what “Madonna attempts to do when she appropriates and commodifies aspects of black culture,” according to hooks (157). I do feel, however, that the Queen of Pop’s commodification not only includes black culture, but any culture that does not fall within the gamut of white and privileged.

The finale of Madonna’s glamorous Superbowl XLVI Half Time show included a reenactment of her famed music video for “Like a Prayer,” black Jesus (Cee Lo Green) and all. Entering rehearsals for the internationally televised event, I found myself excited, nervous, and most importantly, ready to perform the sh** out of one of my favorite Madge songs as a member of a choir that would join her on stage during the finale. It soon became clear, however, that performance ability was not the only thing Madonna’s choreographers (flown in from the big apple, of course), were looking for.

We learned from Madonna’s choreographers that she didn’t want anyone standing near her that to closely resembled her likeness, white and blonde, and from there the profiling continued. Those choir members standing around Madonna on stage included mostly non white men and women, who fulfilled specific height requirements and were conventionally attractive, according to mainstream norms. It became even more evident that some sort of profiling was in place when the famed Queen herself took the time to inspect the faces of those standing within her proximity on stage, upholding the ability to switch people around if she was not content with their appearance. Madonna’s raised platform surrounded by “racial others” symbolically, and literally, highlighted her “whiteness” and de-emphasized their “otherness.”

Madonna’s apparent need to be inclusive and the fact that she “likes to play mother” to those who are racially and sexually deviant from herself, was overtly dramatized before my, and bout 200 others’ eyes during those five or six rehearsals (hooks 163). Not only were her strategic steps in creating a vision of ethnic diversity laid flat on the table with out any sort of discretion, her plan worked. In watching the half time show as a spectator after the fact, to me we looked like your everyday, run-of-the-mill, extremely racially assorted gospel choir plucked out of some picturesque, urban city (whatever that means).

So Madge……I guess your plans were successful. 111.3 million people viewed your inter-racial cast of every day, church going, gospel singing folk who assumingly, unintentionally arrived at the Superbowl half time show, just in time to sing with you. Did your ends justify your means, Queen Madge? I suppose we’ll leave the answer up to the viewers.

-Sally Stempler

Hooks, Bell. “Madonna.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End, 1992. 157-64. Print.

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