Madonna wants to be taken seriously, people. Like really, really, really seriously.
In her new film, which I watched projected onto the wall of the Santa Monica Civic Center, she proclaims her desire to start “a revolution of love.” Over visually stunning imagery of Madonna being imprisoned, we hear her inimitable voice: “I keep telling everyone that I want to start a revolution, but no one is taking me seriously,” she says. “If I had black skin and an Afro, would you take me seriously? If I was an Arab waving a hand grenade, would you take me seriously? If I was wearing combat gear and I had an AK-47 strapped to my back, would you take me seriously?” she asks. And then she adds the film’s best and most self-aware line: “Instead, I’m a woman. I’m blonde. I have tits and ass, and an insatiable desire to be noticed.”
It is hard to argue with Madonna’s impulse here. She wants to make a bold and grand statement about freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I’m on board with her revolution of love. What I want to tell her, though, is that she really started this revolution of love back in 1983 when she burst into our collective consciousness. Her revolutionary spirit is exactly what attracted fans like me and kept us in her thrall. Madonna challenged women to own their sexuality early in her career. She was among the earliest voices speaking about gay rights in the mainstream. She challenged notions of race often, most strikingly in her “Like a Prayer” video, which also served as a personal fuck-you to the concept of corporate branding when it forced Pepsi to shelve its Madonna ad while letting her keep her $5 million dollar fee. She challenged our idea of spirituality long before we were all doing hot yoga. Throughout all these (r)evolutions, her work has had one unifying message: Express Yourself.
I’m not sure why Madonna feels she needs an AK-47 or an Afro to be taken seriously. Doesn’t she know we’ve been taking her seriously for thirty years? We have devoted college courses to her work. We have devoted books to people’s dreams about her. We have compared every post-Madonna primadonna to her. We have taken her seriously. But apparently, she wants to be taken MORE seriously. And this is where I’m a little disappointed in her latest artistic endeavor. It is infuriatingly self-important, often losing sight of the complexities of its content. “There’s too much beauty in the world going to waste,” she says in the film. “Too much talent going unnoticed, too much creativity being crushed beneath the will of corporate branding.” It’s a wonderful message, but isn’t this the woman who has a line of clothing at Macy’s, a line of perfumes, and a chain of worldwide gyms including branches in Russia, the very country she has been criticizing for imprisoning members of the punk rock collective Pussy Riot and for their persecution of gay men and women? I’m sure that Madonna could intelligently argue her way out of these contradictions. After all, an artist like Madonna having a presence in Russia probably does more for freedom of expression and gay rights within Russia than her boycotting the country would. That said, her film completely misses the opportunity to creatively explore the obvious tug between Madonna’s role as a corporate brand herself, and her desire to remain a rebellious outsider.
There is still much to love in the film. The imagery – a cross between the “Vogue” video and a 1940s film noir – is beautiful. The dancing is poetic. And damn, she looks good. Most importantly, the film itself is just a platform to launch Art for Freedom, an online global initiative curated by VICE and distributed by BitTorrent. Madonna says the purpose of Art for Freedom is to “fight oppression, intolerance and complacency.” I applaud Madonna for thinking outside the box, following her heart, embracing new media, and creating a work of art that isn’t tied to promoting anything. I’ve been following Madonna’s revolution since I was seven and saw her “Lucky Star” video. When I was ten, I emptied out the tiny room of our suburban house where the suitcases lived, filled it with Madonna posters and records, and dubbed it “the Madonna room.” I took my parents to “The Virgin Tour.” I took my Iranian grandmother to “Truth or Dare.” Where Madonna has gone, I have followed, and no mid-Atlantic accent or Justin Timberlake collaboration is going to change that. But truth be told, I’m not taking her any more seriously now than I was before. And she should know that.