The Cyrus fiasco, however, is symptomatic of the still heavy influence of Madonna, who sprang to world fame in the 1980s with sophisticated videos that were suffused with a daring European art-film eroticism and that were arguably among the best artworks of the decade. Madonna’s provocations were smolderingly sexy because she had a good Catholic girl’s keen sense of transgression. Subversion requires limits to violate.
Young performers will probably never equal or surpass the genuine shocks delivered by the young Madonna, as when she sensually rolled around in a lacy wedding dress and thumped her chest with the mic while singing “Like a Virgin” at the first MTV awards show in 1984. Her influence was massive and profound, on a global scale.
But more important, Madonna, a trained modern dancer, was originally inspired by work of tremendous quality — above all, Marlene Dietrich’s glamorous movie roles as a bisexual blond dominatrix and Bob Fosse’s stunningly forceful strip-club choreography for the 1972 film Cabaret, set in decadent Weimar-era Berlin. Today’s aspiring singers, teethed on frenetically edited small-screen videos, rarely have direct contact with those superb precursors and are simply aping feeble imitations of Madonna at 10th remove.
Pop is suffering from the same malady as the art world, which is stuck on the tired old rubric that shock automatically confers value. But those once powerful avant-garde gestures have lost their relevance in our diffuse and technology-saturated era, when there is no longer an ossified high-culture Establishment to rebel against. On the contrary, the fine arts are alarmingly distant or marginal to most young people today.
Great minds think alike, as the kids say on the Interwebs, and that last paragraph sounds awfully familiar. As I wrote last Wednesday, linking to Paglia’s recent interview in Salon:
Pop culture, whether in the form of the original modernists, or pop music, in the form of rock and roll in the 1950s and early Beatle-era 1960s, only really produces anything interesting and new when it has a more conservative and traditional overculture to push against. The original modernists had a millenia of tradition to rebel against — or reject outright — in the late 19th and early 20th century. At least until another group of leftists, led by their own wannabe artist, were even more eager to “Start From Zero” in Germany’s post-Weimar era. (Philip Johnson, who founded the Museum of Modern Art’s architectural department really hedged his bets, by maintaining a concentration camp in both groups.)
By the 1960s, there was nothing left other than modernism, which is why every office building built in America looked like Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and 860 Lakeshore Drive, and every corporate and government logo incorporated Helvetica:
Similarly, MTV was the perfect platform for Madonna to mount (OK, pun slightly intended) to release her early videos, to blow off (sorry) 30 years of the network Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters. Once that was gone — and particularly, once Madonna released her Mapplethorpe-inspired “Sex” book in 1992, where else could the culture go?
As I asked last week, how does an artistic movement continue its “nostalgia for the mud,” once it’s wallowing in it?