If you are in the mood for reading Hilary Mantel, writing about Madonna (and a Madonna biography) in 1992 – and who isn’t? – this is the place to be: The London Review of Books (Vol. 14 No. 8 · 23 April 1992), to remind you of the joy of Mantel’s writing when she is feeling unburdened and unrestrained, and to rediscover the luminous, indelible pleasures of a truly funny, vicious book review.
Christopher Andersen’s book begins, as it should, with the prodigal, the violent, the gross. But what do you expect? Madonna’s wedding was different from other people’s. The plans were made in secrecy, and backed by armed force. ‘Even the caterer ... was kept in the dark until the last minute.’ You also, you may protest, have been to weddings where the caterer has seemed to be taken by surprise. But we are not talking here about a cock-up with the vol-au-vents. We are talking about something on the lines of Belshazzar’s feast: but more lavish, and more portentous.
When Madonna married the misanthropic actor Sean Penn, ‘reporters were stopped at the curb by a guard armed with a .357 magnum handgun ... an army of journalists descended on 6970 Wildlife Road, the palatial $6.5 million cliff-top home of property developer and Penn family friend Dan Unger. Armed security guards scanned the horizon with infrared binoculars.’ Overhead, press helicopters competed with the ocean’s roar. Inside the steel gates, sushi and champagne were served – sometimes by journalists impersonating waiters. No writing appeared on the wall. Instead, Penn ran down to the beach, and scrawled his message to the world in twenty-foot letters in the sand: FUCK OFF. Madonna wore a ten-foot train and a bowler hat. They exchanged vows on the brink of a cliff: ‘Prophetically,’ says the author. He is not a man to let a symbol give him the slip.
The unblushing bride was born in 1958. Her mother, also called Madonna, was a French-Canadian X-ray technician; her father, the son of Italian immigrants, was an engineer. The family was large but affluent, and Madonna grew up in pleasant suburbs: the blue-collar upbringing she claims for herself is one of her inventions, it seems. Andersen makes Madonna’s early years sound like those of St Thérèse of Lisieux. Surely Catholic childhood in Sixties America was not quite so stifling and bizarre? We can be sure it featured crucifixes and rosary beads, all the jolly props which Madonna would later find so useful, but when the author quotes Madonna on her formative influences, he doesn’t try to discriminate between what she thought then and what she says now. ‘Crucifixes are sexy; there’s a naked man on them.’ If Madonna went to a post-mortem, would she find the corpse sexy too?
Is there any point in trying to write about Madonna’s life in the conventional way? One thing everybody knows about the woman is that she has invented herself: it is a commonplace. When constant revisionism and re-invention is under way, what does it profit a biographer to drag the weary ‘facts’ before us? Something Sterner is required: whole blank pages, paragraphs of exclamation marks. Andersen’s mode is conventional, his style good enough for his subject-matter and appropriate to it. His technique, though, is sneakier than at first appears. You may grow infuriated by what seems an uncritical, gormless narrative: but if you stop reading for five minutes and rehearse what you have learned, you realise that anything you now know about Madonna is entirely to her discredit. Yet this is as it should be. Didn’t the girl herself, in high school, ask her friends to call her ‘Mudd’?
Still, let’s truffle with Andersen on his dogged path. When Madonna was five years old, her mother died of cancer, and her father married again. Cue self-examination on the superstar’s part: ‘Like all young girls I was in love with my father, and I didn’t want to lose him. I lost my mother but then I was the mother; my father was mine.’ Andersen refers us – as he often must – to the film In Bed with Madonna, in which his subject explains how she would often crawl into bed with her father. ‘I fell right to sleep after he fucked me.’ Inane giggle. ‘Just kidding.’ The pause is fractional, not long enough for a reaction from the viewer. The girl knows when she’s gone too far. At the age of six or so she would say to Papa: ‘If you ever die, I’m going to get buried in the casket with you.’ This Donne-ish sentiment Tony Ciccone found ‘really disgusting’. Poor man! His disgust threshold will have to rise. When he reaches 59 his daughter will drag him onto a stage to sing ‘Happy Birthday’, her navel exposed and a pattern of laces, like evil stitching, covering her private parts.
The pages concerning Madonna’s childhood are far more interesting than those which follow: but is this not often the case with biography? The relation of mature achievement, in any contemporary life, becomes a dreary procession of dates and places and figures; even the potential excitements of a life like Madonna’s seem to melt away under scrutiny – another day, another million dollars. Madonna Unauthorised is full of names of people who were forgotten by the time they reached the page, or which belong to people who were never more than a footnote in the subject’s great narrative. And most people are a footnote to Madonna, who is no nurturer of other people’s reputations. A great many people who have passed through her life have been famous for 15 seconds; or less, if she could manage it.
It would be good to feel human while you read her life; it would be good to feel pity where pity’s due. But you are prevented. Here is Madonna on her mother’s death and its implications:
It was then that I said, okay, I don’t need anybody. No one’s going to break my heart again. I’m not going to need anybody. I can stand on my own and be my own person and not belong to anyone.
Each line of this sounds like a trawl for a song title: sounds like some awful, thumping, monotonous chart-topper.
Until she was 12, Andersen tells us, Madonna wanted to be a nun; and he tells us in a way that makes it clear that he expects us to throw up our hands and say ‘Lawdie me!’ In fact, most intelligent Catholic girls go through a phase in which they would rather be like Mother than like mother: but then their eyes are opened to wider possibilities. (Besides that, Madonna naturally feels that ‘nuns are very sexy.’) One feels that Madonna’s onstage antics with Romish paraphernalia have never brought her quite the odium she craves. Perhaps we all recognise that the faith lends itself readily to vaudeville productions. Catholic vaudeville is divisible: Waugh and Greene purveyed the intellectual version, and Madonna has done it for simple souls.
In her early teens, by Andersen’s account, Madonna gives up on Thérèse of Lisieux and turns into a Tyson. When she chases a boy, it’s no figure of speech. ‘At one point she ripped off her blazer and blouse and began pursuing a boy named Tommy around the playground.’ Still, sex and religion are very much confused, as she tries to fathom the still unfathomable riddle of her gender.
You know how religion is ... Guys get to do everything. They get to be altar boys ... They get to pee standing up.
Determined to do something about this Vatican-sponsored inequity, Madonna ‘experimented with ways to urinate without sitting down’. Andersen does not go into much detail, or tell us what success she had. But he describes with diligence her early sexual relationships with boys and girls: in one case, a beau ‘asked her if she wanted to take a walk through Samuel A. Howlett Municipal Park’. And she did, it seems; she did not deem it too exciting. One of her swains reports: I realised I’d actually kissed a girl, though in my case it happened to be Madonna.’ However, when party-going, ‘she guarded her virginity by sometimes wearing a purple turtleneck leotard.’ There is a point where the reader loses interest in Madonna, and becomes ambitious only to meet the man who can paint such a word-picture.
There is nothing else in Andersen’s book that comes near to the pleasure he gives the reader in these early pages. The account of Madonna’s defloration is an anti-climax in every way. Notoriously, she has described the loss of her virginity as a ‘career move’, which one took to mean that she had preserved her hymen until she met someone prepared to pay to shred it. But if Andersen is to be believed – and why not? – the fateful evening began at Knapp’s Dairy Bar, and Madonna yielded to the caresses of a 17-year-old schoolboy who had trouble with her bra-strap; a veil is drawn over what he made of the rest of her. He is quoted as saying: ‘I had this great urge to laugh, but Madonna was pretty methodical about it.’
Madonna was now missing Sunday Mass in favour of trysts at Dunkin’ Donuts. Soon, too, she would meet the gaiety, in the shape of a dance teacher, who took her to museums, concerts, art galleries, and also to places where ‘she felt strangely at home as the only female among hundreds of writhing men.’ Andersen may mean they were dancing, but perhaps it depends at what point in the evening she arrived. Madonna has a prurient fascination with male homosexual activity. The film In Bed with Madonna (the film, if you need to know, of her ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour) shows how she likes to encourage it amongst her friends and co-workers. One of her other biographers, Douglas Thompson, quotes her as saying that she thinks of homosexual men as her ‘alter ego’. This is interesting, but Andersen does not pursue it. He is more concerned at this stage to describe her intellectual development. She had decided to grow the hair on her legs, he tells us, believing that this indicated a bohemian cast of mind. She won a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan: ‘Keeping herself to herself, Madonna devoured the dark poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.’
An axe-murderer couldn’t carve up the girl more efficiently. But is it a case of diminished responsibility? One would like to think Andersen is of sound mind, that he writes with premeditation and intends the consequences – but then again, who wants to brand a family man a killer? The blurb tells us that the author ‘lives in Connecticut with his wife and two daughters’. He has previously written ‘highly-praised’ works on Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. This does not seem adequate preparation. Perhaps life’s ambiguity has passed him by, or he has come by praise too cheaply?
So: Madonna went to New York. Her dance teacher persuaded her she needed the larger stage, and so she took herself off in search of fame, living in slums and foraging in dustbins for her food. Andersen brings tears to the eyes with his account of her early struggles, but does not feel for her so much that he suppresses the verdicts of her various teachers and colleagues. No one seems to have liked Madonna, or seen anything in her, or thought she had much talent. But – unaccountably – she was taken up by two French music producers, who spirited her off to Paris in the hope of turning her into a disco queen. But Madonna wanted to be a punk: so when they gave her a car, a maid, a secretary and a voice-coach, she sulked and sulked until she found herself back in New York.
And then ... but come now, if we go at this pace we’ll be here all day. When Madonna got back to New York she joined a band. There was a female vocalist who performed in her underwear. Madonna got her sacked, and took her place. From there she made the progress of which we are all aware. The received wisdom is that even if you have talent, you still need luck; even if you’re lucky, without talent you’ll be found out. Madonna shows that energy can be a substitute for talent; and she has made her own luck. She is thorough: ‘she asked me,’ says one of her friends, ‘to teach her how to spit.’ And spit and spit she did, over and over, till she spat like a veteran. Someone else taught her how to smoke. From Michael Jackson she learned how to grab her crotch. Are these not accomplishments, hard-won for a girl from a nice family? So often Andersen seems to miss the point. He will, persistently, describe Madonna as a transcendent beauty, when, as everyone can see, she’s the plain girl’s revenge made flesh. Madonna has cultivated ardently – apparently without humour or irony – her identification with Monroe: he mentions that she is said to have purchased an adjacent crypt, so that their dust may mingle, but he does not insist on this as fact.
If he recognises pastiche, he never says so. If he identifies id-in-boots, he doesn’t let on. His book has photographs, but he is almost perversely unable to set down, in words, what Madonna is like. And the truth is that three hundred pages, however well-composed, could not convey what three minutes of In Bed with Madonna make explicit. Our heroine is charmless, foul-mouthed, will admit the camera and the sound-recordist everywhere, except into a business meeting. We know that in this film we are seeing the real Madonna – for we know from her other films that she cannot act. And also, that she sees no need to: for she has tapped, somehow, into a rich deep vein of fantasy and cash, and all she needs to do is mine it. A proper enquiry might be instituted, into what Madonna means: perhaps a joint enquiry, to look into the question of Michael Jackson too, for they seem of a kind. Their appeal is to children ten or twelve years old, too young to know who or what they are, aware of sex as a waiting, empty arena, desperate perhaps to burrow back into a childhood of fantasy and irresponsibility. Madonna has always wanted to be black, if we are to believe Andersen, and she looks like a female impersonator. Michael has transformed himself from a black man into a white-ish female-child. They have dined together (‘vegetarians are paler,’ Madonna says) and appeared together at award ceremonies. But it seems they are locked in competition, about who has the more formidable publicity machine.
The most interesting moment of In Bed with Madonna shows the star before a mirror, her make-up lady hovering at her shoulder. Face white, blank, hair-piece cosied on her skull like the top of a cottage loaf, she waits for experience to be layered over the impersonation of innocence; she could, you think, become anything at all. Madonna says: ‘I will be a symbol of something ... Like Marilyn Monroe stands for something. It’s not always something you can put a name on, but she became an adjective.’ For anyone who wishes to become an adjective, Madonna is an inspiration. On stage, her little muscly body twists itself in a parody of sensuality: her mini-soutane rides hip-high, her voice wavers on and off-key; up and down she dips, over the supine body of a spreadeagled semi-man. It all happens too fast for words, and it repels or excites at too deep a level for any writer who has offered his services so far. Madonna is not a subject for easy writing. She is a commentary on something, but God knows on what. Andersen doesn’t, that’s for sure.