Madonna: Bawdy and Soul

By Fishwick, Marshall W. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), March 2006 | Go to article overview

Madonna: Bawdy and Soul


Fishwick, Marshall W., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Madonna: Bawdy and Soul Karlene Faith. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

Hers was one of the best-known names in America. Madonna Louise Ciccone was born of working class Italian Catholic parents in 1958. Later Veronica was added to her baptism name. Her Mother, also named Madonna, died when she was five years old, causing her great grief. After that loss, she learned to cope for herself.

The name Madonna, derived from Old French, literally my lady, was long used as a form of respectful address, and also to refer to the Virgin Mary. Madonna is central to the Christian story. Madonna, also called Mary, the Virgin Mother, bore the infant Jesus and played a central role in Christ's life. Her statues are everywhere in the Roman Catholic and Protestant worlds. The difference between that Madonna and our current one is startling.

Small town life was not for Madonna Ciccone. She was a white girl fascinated by the black community and street life. Deciding to move on, she never forgot her working class background; and that class never forgot her. At the age of 20 she left home and took a bus to New York City, hoping for a show business career. She always liked to test her parameters by exceeding them.

Taking any work she could find; she modeled, danced, was a hat-check girl, sang disco back-ups, and was a drummer with a band named Breakfast Club. These were years of poverty but also unflagging self-confidence. She knew she would make it, and she was right. Good luck and sex played a big part too. What is young Madonna about but sex? She was a sex queen in the old Clara Bow-Mae West-Jane Mansfield pattern-tempting but not available.

She laughed at sex, flaunted her good body, and did not mind showing much or all of it. Sex was for her a private theater, a valuable asset, to be treated as private theater always ready to be viewed. She seemed to be repeating Mae West's famous question: "Why don't you come up and see me some time?" Quite a few young males were willing to come. Free and independent, she could project both a put-down and a come-on.

Madonna helped to invent liberated social values and body-centered living, which captivated America, and later made their mark around the world. She has always been a work-in-progress, right up to today, a kaleidoscopic commodity, disrupting and reinvigorating familiar codes. Crowds love her. She delivers good-time big time. She is the ultimate sex symbol, even in her 40s.

Not only her long-sacred name but also complex cultural forces helped her to succeed in many areas (stage, film, video, literature, advertising, talk shows, photography). She ignored the downs of feminine propriety and ended up representing different things to different people: hero, villain, slut, celebrity.

Alert and intuitive, she not only mastered the traditional and pop media of the moment, but also the new crossover genres which shift the cultural context and reception. Madonna has drawn from cultural studies, postmodernism, poststructuralism, semiotics, psychology, and lifestyles. She even writes best-selling books for children. She is in sync with the postmodern age.

Nothing demonstrates this better than her career as musician and singer. During the 1940s, before she was born, Hollywood's singing cowboys (Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers) changed cowboy songs into hillbilly mountain music-a marketing strategy which Madonna understood and used. So did female country artists like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. They recast and produced a mare salable commodity, as have less famous Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Gillian Welch, and the Dixie Chicks. Madonna has benefited from being a metaphorical cowgirl, which fitted her liberal politics and global outlook. She used the American Dream as a free-roaming cowgirl, encompassing the wide open plains of global popular culture, introducing European electronic dance music into mainstream American pop culture; she also opened doors for other celebrities like the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Destiny's Child, and Jennifer Lopez. …

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