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Madonna’s Drowned Worlds:
New Approaches to her Cultural Transformations, 1983-2003

Santiago Fouz-Hernández and Freya Jarman-Ivens, Eds.
Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.
$29.95, 223 pages, 0-754-63372-1

Chris Bell
University of Illinois at Chicago

Given Madonna’s unquestionable role as popular culture maven, trendsetter and savant, it seems odd that there are only a handful of book-length treatments about her. Madonna’s Drowned Worlds is the newest entry in Madonna scholarship, focusing primarily on the last decade of her twenty year career. Fittingly, each of the four sections in the text is named after a Madonna concert tour.

The text opens with a de rigeur introduction that does very little to draw the reader in. The exception is the discussion of filtering; that is, the necessity of paring down critiques:

Academics […] must face the challenge of precisely how to write about such an intensely pervasive cultural icon as Madonna. This entails primarily the question of how to filter (indeed, to what extent to filter) the surplus of popular writing about the subject […] there is an inevitable chain of time delays between production by the artist, reception by the media, reception of the media (by the academic), the production of analysis and the publication of findings. |xviii; original emphasis]

The reader should note the editors’ reference to academics, a clear way of identifying their perceived audience. Indeed, readers unschooled in academic discourse and epistemologies might find themselves turned off by Madonna’s Drowned Worlds, a concern I address momentarily.

The first essay in the collection, Stan Hawkins’s “Dragging out camp: Narrative agendas in Madonna’s musical production,” is a dense treatise expressly aimed at a very specific audience. The discussion is written in a manner that, frankly, turns the reader off. An example of the abstruse writing style is the discussion of the Madonna song “Music” wherein Hawkins writes, “Quite unexpectedly, the dissonance of the C-sharp deceives us into a harmonic minor shift, just before the melodic minor descending line is emphasized” [p. 9]. Who cares? The issue, to emphasize, is one of audience. Who, specifically, is this text geared towards? Madonna enthusiasts likely will find themselves apathetic to such a hyper-fastidious discussion. This essay takes a turn for the interesting in its conclusion where Hawkins offers some interesting perspectives on Madonna’s career, including notes on her stylistic changes, musical tastes and “her unique blend of camp [which] can be perceived as an attempt to disavow the control mechanisms of a male-driven music industry” [p. 18]. Hawkins’s insistence on sending his reader through the exercise in music appreciation to reach this conclusion is baffling. Since potential buyers tend to look at the first and last chapters of a text before purchasing, beginning Madonna’s Drowned Worlds with this essay was an ill-advised decision.

In “Madonna’s girls in the mix: Performance of femininity beyond the beautiful,” Patricia Pisters also employs the aforementioned technique of integrating advanced musical theory [p. 29], but does so in a limited way, sagaciously relegating this trajectory to merely a fraction of her critique. Overall, Pisters’s contribution is a much more engaging one, as evidenced in the following characterization of Madonna’s mercurial nature:

She can rarely be consigned to a stable category: when one thinks she is pleading for equality, she foregrounds hyper-femininity and difference; when one thinks she is relying on binaristic or stable representations of sexuality, she simultaneously deconstructs those binarisms. In short, she is semantically slippery.[p. 26]

This reader is necessarily enamored of any essay that includes the alliterative phrase “semantically slippery.” This is not to say that Pisters’s contribution is an ideal, let alone wholly factual, one. A case in point is her discussion of Madonna’s video for “What It Feels Like For a Girl,” which Pisters describes as “banned in the USA” [p. 31]. Not quite. Although the cultural powerhouse that is MTV made the decision not to broadcast the clip, MTV’s sister channel VH-1 has run it in its Madonna retrospective. Additionally, gay bars showed the video with regularity, with many continuing to do so. The Virgin Megastore offered copies of the video for purchase à la “Justify My Love.” Pisters’s characterization makes the video sound like it’s Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934), which was banned in the US until 1961.

Corinna Herr’s “Where is the female body?: Androgyny and other strategies of disappearance in Madonna’s music videos” includes the phrase, “the feminization of the oriental ‘other’” [p. 48]. This reader is intrigued by the fact that the ‘other’ is placed in quotation marks, but not the culturally-insensitive term ‘oriental,’ which is usually deployed in describing objects, not people. Keith E. Clifton’s “Queer hearing and the Madonna queen” offers a promising title, but ultimately fails to deliver a rigorous analysis. For instance, his discussion of Evita is relegated to a scant two pages [pp. 63-64]. In “East is hot!: ‘Madonna’s Indian Summer’ and the poetics of appropriation,” Michael Angelo Tata’s humor becomes cloying right away. There is no essence to this piece, no—as Gertrude Stein terms it—there there. Instead, the reader finishes this piece feeling annoyed by its sleight-of-hand technique in offering linguistic sound and fury in an effort to disguise the fact that little of substance is being conveyed—an assessment that is applicable to more than one of the essays in this collection.

Rahul Gairola’s “Re-worlding the oriental: Critical perspectives on Madonna as geisha” includes a masturbatory reference that is indicative of Madonna’s Drowned Worlds as a whole:

Madonna was the forerunner of a frenzied reaction of not only Americans to publicly proclaim a neo-nationalism through flag display, but companies to manufacture everything from trinkets to clothing that capitalized on the resurrection of American consumers’ patriotism and desire to be perceived as patriotic. [p. 111]

What Gairola is speaking of is Madonna’s patriotic stance during her immediate post-9/11 concerts. Interestingly, Madonna chose not to participate in the nationwide music concerts occurring the week after 9/11, opting to continue her tour (read: add to her empire) instead of creating patriotic solidarity. Statements such as Gairola’s, that position Madonna as the center, occur with frequency in this text. Consider, for instance, the footnote in Clifton’s essay, wherein he suggests that Madonna’s performance on “Secret” recalls that of Robert Flack and Tina Turner! [p. 67]. Consider as well this excerpt from David Gauntlett’s “Madonna’s daughters: Girl power and the empowered girl-pop breakthrough”: “it has to be admitted that Madonna’s presentation of the ‘fluid genders’/’fluid identity’ idea hasn’t really been adopted by many other stars” [p. 172]. Janet Jackson, anyone? The problem with this text—and this is a significant dilemma—is its positioning of Madonna as everything. Although she may be the center for some, she is not the center for all, and it would have helped if the writers and editors had taken that issue to heart.

In “Crossing the border(line): Madonna’s encounter with the Hispanic,” editor Hernandez offers the following hyperbolic take on the video for “La Isla Bonita”: “the children are not at school, the adults are probably unemployed and dependent on welfare” [p. 145]. The reader immediately recognizes this characterization for what it is—an overly-theorized and unfair critique. Who knows but that the video was shot on a Sunday when school was not in session and the adults had the day off? An additional gaffe is Hernandez’s mention of the film Jamon, Jamon in the essay [p. 147], and its simultaneous omission from the bibliography [p. 147]. As editor, he should have been more cautious in copyediting his own piece. Of course, the reader was already attuned to Hernandez’s penchant for error, remembering that in the co-editors’ introduction, Missy Elliott is referred to as a DJ, which she is not [p. xxii]. Indeed, Elliott is given short shrift throughout the text. Later, she is tellingly not cited as a co-performer with Madonna at the 2003 MTV Music Video Awards. Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, on the other hand, are [p. 87].

In “Madonna’s daughters: Girl power and the empowered girl-pop breakthrough,” David Gauntlett includes an admirable rhetorical flourish in the following dashed assertion: “Traditionally—in other words, before Madonna—feminist messages were not often a key to success in the mainstream pop charts” [p. 168]. He then lists exceptions to these rules. He is unable to list many, which reinforces his contention (and the book’s overarching premise) that Madonna is the epitome. Interestingly, one of the exceptions that Gauntlett mentions, Aretha Franklin, invalidates his point. Franklin’s songs are rife with feminist messages. The reader need only consider her signature version of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” her blistering performance of “Think” in the film The Blues Brothers, and her laying claim to the male aria “Nessum Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. The positioning of Madonna as alpha and omega necessarily precludes an original critique of those individuals who do the same work she does, especially those individuals who, like Franklin, preceded her.

Madonna’s Drowned Worlds takes itself very seriously; a regrettable reality, considering that Madonna’s own tongue-in-cheek attitudes are nowhere to be found in the text. Some readers will be turned off by the ridiculously small font size. The in-text citations practically have to be scrutinized with a magnifying glass. Olivier Tridon’s line drawings are a nice touch. Since his work appears throughout the text, it would have been helpful—not to mention, a nice gesture—if the editors had included him in the Notes on Contributors section. Taken as a whole, Madonna’s Drowned Worlds is a valuable text, but it’s value lies not so much in the individual essays as in its revealing of how appealing a person(a) Madonna (still) is. This text, unlike Madonna, seems reticent to laugh at itself, an unfortunate conceit, especially since the reader is often tempted to laugh at its unnecessarily erudite tone.




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