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Puce Naugahyde

Strike A Pose, There's Nothing to It! Rogue!

Word has it that someone or -ones have written in to the friendly folks at F News to comment on my deplorable taste. And while I find it more amusing than anything that some of you saw fit to put pen to paper to grouch about my musings on popular culture, I thought I would take this opportunity, my last article for the esteemed monthly publication of SAIC, to further expound on my beliefs concerning one matter in particular.

Friends and colleagues, I loathe Madonna. And while my feelings toward the pop music star rank closer to the slow, wincing aggravation of a toothache than the burning hot agony of un-anesthetized limb removal, this is still one bicuspid that must be dealt with.

It should be stated forthwith that I am always willing to give a performer the benefit of the doubt. We all have our off days, a bad album now and again. Perhaps we show up at the Oscars wearing a real dud of a Vera Wang. But the Material Girl is anything if not consistent in her unremitting ability to blatantly steal from any morsel of originality she finds in front of her and serve it up to us "anew," in an embarrassingly adulterated form. But with a good choreographer, she can sell anything.

I take as my primary example her most recent recorded concert for HBO. Here we are given our down-home gal-pal returning to her great state of Michigan. Recorded interviews with back-up dancers testify to their boss's grueling work ethic, her natural ability as an entertainer par excellence, and her approachability as a "real" person. (Oh yes, and then they mentioned how she has a great ass.) Quickly, then, the camera cut to a shot of Madonna strumming a guitar. "Yes, she really is a great musician," the viewer thinks. "And she plays her own guitar too! Take that, Mariah!" Well, at least Mariah Carey writes her own songs.

So then we get the concert itself. Madonna writhes around a stage better than anyone else. I'll give her that for sure. But then again, I think most people look pretty damn good when you pour them into latex and force them to clutch and grab at the ground like a leashed weasel. Well, except for Nathan Lane. He'd look just plain pathetic. So our grande dame proceeds to sing a tune from her most recent album while her backing performers don leather garb, clawing the star. Thumping techno can be found in the mix somewhere. But you know what? The set looks remarkably like the video for Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like a Hole," a single released in, what, 1991? But now with MIMES! Yes, some of the poor dancers are forced into faceless foam TUBES and made to skulk around the stage. For the precedent for this monstrosity we must go back a little further still: Mummenschanz. (For those youngsters who aren't aware, Mummenschanz is a Swiss mime troupe of sorts, known almost exclusively for their appearance on "The Muppet Show" in the late 1970s, when they basically writhed around the stage in foam tubes.)

But that's not the pathetic part. Oh no, it gets worse. You see, since Madonna lives in London with her new hubby Guy Ritchie, she fancies herself as something of, well, an actual British person. And since she's now beginning to age, Madonna sees it necessary to get in touch with her "roots," if you will: English punk. Mixing plaids, lots of buttons and large safety pins. Yes, it's all very fun, kicky, chic. Add a few carefully chosen background dancers with bright, spikey Mohawks to complete the scene and you're set! Well not exactly. This is where Madonna actually plays the guitar. And when she does this, there is nothing else in her world. She plays something like, oh about three chords, but she labors so ponderously that she can't so much as look up from the frets. She should have completed the look by sticking her tongue out and furrowing her brow to show that she really was deep in what one might call "thought." But then, once the final chord is struck, she makes a fatal mistake. She adopts a British accent long enough to let out an "OI!" while she scrunches her face into a punkish scowl.

There are some high points though. Of course, they are all when Madonna is off-stage during a costume change. At these moments, several of her music videos are projected onto the screen while, yes, her DANCERS do some really interesting things on stage. Buff men wearing loincloths, suspended by wires high above the stage? Who wouldn't love that? But this does bring me to another major beef I have about Madonna: her incessant need to surround herself by impossibly chiseled arm candy in the form (invariably) of gay men. And what have Madonna's movies and videos taught us about gay men? That they are wacky and loveable, hairless and muscle-bound, and that we should love them, gosh darnit. By all means, love a gay man, I say, but let's also love the grumpy ones who can't dance, those who are heft-identified (to borrow a term from Film Bitch), and perhaps even those who are art nerds deep down inside. The gal has done nothing to help the stereotype of the gay man as the bubbly next-door neighbor who has the looks and fashion sense, but whom the leading lady can never have because he likes cock too much. But I digress...

So how about cowboy glam, eh? "Brilliant!" one friend exclaimed, "Who else would have thought to put together Country and Western style with disco?" Gay men, that's who. Anyone who has visited Charlie's up in Boystown on a weekend night will know what I am talking about. Sometime around 2:00 a.m., the two-stepping gives way to thumping break beats underneath a disco ball in the shape of sequined cowboy boots. (Matthew Barney had to get it from somewhere too.) And perhaps the best example of this style also came out of England in the form of Isaac Julien's breathtaking 1999 work "The Long Road to Mazatlan," a video which shows two gorgeous men in 10-gallon hats getting it on after a cattle auction followed by drag queens strutting down a dusty road? You can't tell me that Madonna was not in some way inspired by this.

And of course there are other embarrassing moments in the show. The blatant rip-off of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, complete with mid-air acrobatic sword-fighting; a gratuitous Austin Powers redux; and, of course, lots and lots of glitter. Another friend agreed that Madonna has brazenly appropriated from anywhere she could find it, but wondered, "Well, isn't that what all artists do?" Perhaps they do, but the good ones at least comment on what they are stealing or add a new twist to an old theme. Madonna simply bores me with her unflinching ability to take all these bits and pieces and pass them off as original examples of art without so much as a nod to the true originators out there in the world.

Yeah, you betcha I'm jaded. But if there is one thing that passing through the halls of SAIC has taught me, it's that there's something better out there than Madonna, folks. There are great artists in our own studios who can comment on and critique popular culture in a smart way, and they may still make a lot of money doing it one day.

Thanks for listening to one final rant. It's been a lot of fun playing Puce for a year or so. Don't take anything I've said too seriously, please. There are more important things to think about than pop stars, but I hope it has made for fun bathtub reading.

Hate mail can be sent to [email protected].

Illustration by Kevin Lonergan

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