The biggest mother of them all

Once a virgin, now a parent for the very first time. John Lyttle is in awe of Madonna's shrewd career move

John Lyttle
Tuesday 15 October 1996 23:02

While we're all waiting for the inevitable In Labour with Madonna: The Obstetrician's Cut, and day-old, six-pound Lourdes Maria - really, what's wrong with Janet? Or Beryl? Surely even Sally would be better than plain Silly? - is learning to breast-feed through a conical nursing bra, let us take one day out of life, get into the groove and put our love to the test.

Let us consider how the one natural act of Ms Ciccone's recent career may affect her future as a singer, actress, multimedia role model and consenting adult who enjoys miming masturbation on stage to the perennially inappropriate tune of "Like a Virgin".

What can I say? Motherhood may not be as sassy a career move as losing your virginity or proclaiming yourself a Material Girl/Marilyn's successor or publishing a bound, and occasionally gagged, photo-book of yourself in various suggestive poses (what was she doing with that depressed-looking German shepherd dog?) tellingly and redundantly entitled Sex.

But, as Sex proved - see your local porn shop's remainder bin - there's only so far a girl can go before wet dreams dry up and what once may have looked like artistic obsession (yeah, right) begins to resemble sheer monomania. Rather Momomania, the role untried, than defining yourself solely through blunt sexuality.

That was always sure to be a dead end - as Madonna, a dedicated raider of gay culture, should have realised - and, let's tell the truth and shame Beelzebub, there does come a past-your-prime-time when you're no longer a hot young thing fearlessly exposing Western civilisation's hypocritical mores. No, you're actually something perilously close to a Dirty Old Woman, who needs to be told, in a caring, sharing way, to start acting her age, not her shoe size (slingbacks with a stiletto heel, size five).

The brave people who lived to tell Madonna were, of course, the public. A few sampled beats ahead of the critics, the canny, many-headed monster realised that the Empress of Reinvention was running out of new clothes - scanties, to be specific - and that, indeed, Madonna might be less the Mistress of the Multiple Image and more a Variation on a Theme (see also Prince, the royal personage we'd most like to see abdicate). Which maybe wouldn't have mattered much if the explicit object of desire hadn't suddenly gone from gung-ho to po-face: from Causing a Commotion to Express Yourself.

Previously she had made pop culture seem like a game - scamming Pepsi with the 'blasphemous" transmission of her product-linked Like a Prayer video had both the avant garde and hoi polloi shrieking at her rouged cheek - but in the hall of mirrors that once reflected her ever-changing moods, the role as self-appointed ambassador of the liberated libido was increasingly hogging the frame.

Out went any old irony, in flew High Art - the product, one direly imagines, of too many evenings spent in New York's SoHo, hanging out with independent film directors watching obscure German silent movies. Sex bombed, the sales for the accompanying album, Erotica, were, in industry parlance, "below expectations" - never be a sex goddess with a slipped disc (not when you've just signed a $100m deal) - and the movie Body of Evidence - Basic Instinct again, with Madonna's vagina as the all-too-plausible murder weapon - was laughed off screens everywhere when the woman who would be Queen announced portentously, not playfully, "That's what I do. I fuck."

Some said it was patriarchal society's revenge on a dangerous feminist icon. Others simply suggested that the Bad Girl was losing the plot, unsure of her next step. Whatever, she was burning off her original wannabe fan base. Turned out not many wannabes really wanted to grow up and croak middle-aged millionaires with their private parts. Not if they were going to get those sort of reviews.

"I'm not sorry," Maddie sang on her next album, Bedtime Stories, "It's human nature." Well, no one was buying that particular bedtime story, or that particular song, a rubber fetishist's dream that seemed a tired imitation of genuine impulses after the trashy shock sensations of Erotica and Justify My Love: call it groaning through the motions. For with the backlash came a wave of He Hurt Me ballads, very victim, very MOR, very safe and snug, almost ... traditional, it being the ageing chanteuse's duty to display her scars and suffering, the hard-won medals of emotional experience.

Long in advance of the pregnancy, the Mumming of Madonna had begun - much more (middle) classy, much more middlebrow: this beast would see off sundry rivals, take a pay cut, and humbly audition to be in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Do/don't cry for her ...

Take a Bow pointed the way ("You deserve a reward for the role that you played") putting her back at No 1 in America. Before long she was telling the next guy "You'll See ... it takes more strength to cry, admit defeat", before covering "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" ("You abandoned me"). In between, Daddy and a violent boyfriend took turns smacking her around in the video for "Oh Father". As penance went it wasn't quite up to Jody Foster standards - she had to be raped on screen before America felt moved to clear her of any taint in William Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Reagan - but it certainly made the next stage easier: Madonna, diva.

Madonna as diva is destiny. Destiny cannot be fought, only quarrelled with. Turns out that what she said when she first met Barbra Streisand - "I want to be you" - was an honest declaration of ambition. Those tortured, torchy songs signal bye-bye to bare breasts and mock documentary footage of oral sex performed on a mineral water bottle. The tramp, it turns out, is a lady. Which is why the parts of mother and Evita ("Both projects are my babies," says the smart blonde) are the right roles at a pivotal moment. The first, like it or not, carries (nominally) clear cultural messages: motherhood is not only maturity - a farewell to any lingering odour of childhood, and hello to a child - it allows vulnerability as well as strength. Madonna knows her P's and cues: "I'm not interested in being WonderWoman in the delivery room. Give me drugs." Just because it's true doesn't mean it isn't also a PR release: a flagship statement from the new, emotional, damp eyed Madonna, still upset over Sean Penn ("You abandoned me") and aghast at unflattering maternity wear. It's all a far cry from bondage corsets and leather whips.

But she says it with a tinkle, not ire, in her voice, having finally learnt from Evita the fine art of the politic. The merger is smooth, even to the trained, or jaundiced, eye. As Madonna says, "This is the woman I was born to play", one self-invented machine perfectly understanding the other. In this month's Vogue and Vanity Fair, photo lay-outs carry a smoother, sleeker, older star, supposedly in character as Evita - but it's the illusion that tells the truth, and, more, it is a declaration of intent. There's a stately aura, a determined divorce from what once was in favour of what it is that could be about Evita's history, or about her impersonator's. Only Madonna isn't impersonating. At the beginning of her career she was perfectly herself in Desperately Seeking Susan. In Evita the same holds true.

Which could be cause for celebration or dismay. Either way, Mum's the word.

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