Friday, August 31, 2018

Drama Galore

It's Madonna's city if she wants it!
August Ends With Drama Galore, and a Few Thoughts on Madonna.  
by Denis Ferrara

“IT will not always be summer; build barns,” advised the Greek poet Hesiod.
I REALLY couldn’t allow summertime, the month of August to slip away without commenting on what a particularly dramatic month it is. I know, others are just as dramatic, but I have my own particular lives, deaths and themes in mind.

Right off the bat, August 4th marked the passing of Marilyn Monroe. On August 16th Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin died. (1977 and 2018 respectively.)  The 16th is also the birthday of Madonna (1958).  The epic, violent Democratic National Convention of 1968 happened in on August 26-29. Today marks the 21st anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, the victim of lax security and a drunken chauffeur in a Paris tunnel.

And also, today Miss Aretha Franklin, in her 24-carat coffin and five-inch heeled red Louboutins, will be laid to rest. 

Senator John McCain
died this August, as well.  In normal times, I might not include McCain’s passing, but these are far from normal times, and even I, eternally shallow, recognize what his death signifies in a world and a country in tumult.  I hear people say that these days — dark to many of us — will be written about in “history books.”  I think that is an extraordinarily positive spin on things.

Because ... from what from perspective will that history be chronicled?
Headlines from 100 years ago today.
SPEAKING of Aretha and Madonna, I guess it would be remiss of me not to mention The Big M’s now infamous appearance at the MTV Video Awards, during which she was inexplicably tapped to give a tribute to Franklin, although her initial mission there was to hand out Video of the Year. 

If Madonna had refused to say a few words about Franklin — “I’m not prepared, etc.” believe me, word would have gotten out — “Madonna wouldn’t honor Aretha! Who the hell does she think she is?” 

Madonna with MTV video of the year winner Camila Cabello, who dedicated her award to ... Madonna!
So she came out, wearing one of the strangest get-ups in a career that has included some epic doozies, and delivered a rambling speech that appeared heartfelt, but was more a story about her own early journey, with Aretha squeezed in — she said she sang “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” to several initially unimpressed European producers.  But — according to M — the spirit of Miss Franklin had infused her, the French guys hired her, “and the rest, as they say, is history,” which is literally what Madonna said, and NOT the kind of thing to reference when one is honoring somebody else’s history.

Was I surprised by this?  Definitely Yes and Definitely No. 

Over the many years of covering Madonna and then actually getting to know her, being given a remarkable access — thanks to her former, longtime press rep Liz Rosenberg — I came to see the multitude of Madonna’s.  The imperious, self-centered, bitchy side — which so many of her fans seemed to enjoy and encourage, and then the startlingly softer, more vulnerable, human and accessible woman.  In fact, it was the latter that I saw most often. When I wrote of her this way, from my experiences, I realized it was if I had traveled to the dark side of the moon.  And almost nobody seemed to believe that Madonna had an unseen side. 
Many fans appreciated the fact that the Liz Smith column of all things, was giving Madonna such heavy coverage, mostly favorable, but even when critical, trying to sort out her perverse instincts, her determination to pretend she didn’t care what people said.  (She did, actually, quite a bit. And she read the column.  When I praised her excellent performance in the movie “Dangerous Game,” but trashed the film, she was furious — she believed in the entire product and felt I’d damaged its chances. Her language was colorfully outraged.)
M in “Dangerous Game."
Although Liz Smith was initially perplexed by my interest in Madonna, I was vigilant and assured my boss that La Ciccone was no flash in the pan, had real talent and a genius for self-promotion and also for gathering the best people around her, to present the talent she had, at its apex. In time, Liz came to agree that Madonna was, indeed, a phenomenon.  (If she didn’t quite swoon to Madonna’s music, she adored the brilliant early videos — didn’t we all?)

Liz was also impressed by a number of faxes and emails Madonna sent me over the years, writings that revealed a totally different person from even the most sympathetic fan-coverage.  Liz, a gossip columnist after all, encouraged me to print some of this private correspondence.  I did not.  Although Madonna and I were not “friends” in any true sense, she had often paid me the compliment of trust and unburdened herself freely from time to time.  I would not cross that line.

And she — Madonna — would continually surprise me with moments, hours, of utter normalcy and a poignant sweetness, on movie and video sets, in London, New York, California, backstage at her concerts, at innumerable events, dinners — even appearing startlingly at a restaurant where I was celebrating my birthday!  Once, while interviewing her in England, she led me on a tour of her home.  There taped to her computer was small picture of Guy Ritchie — something ripped from a magazine! — her rumored man of the moment.  When I nodded toward the photo, she said, like a high school girl, “I guess you can say he is my boyfriend.” Who knew she was already pregnant with their son, Rocco!  (That scoop she saved for the world, although I had my suspicions — she was awfully busty during that time, filming the “American Pie” video.)
She deeply loved both her husbands, Sean Penn and Ritchie, and I saw firsthhand how involved she was in promoting Ritchie’s career.  I doubt she’s easy to live with, but I don’t doubt she meant every word of her marriage vows.

She tries not to care that adopting four children (a family of six, total) is looked on with suspicion — as if she needs to adopt kids for publicity!  (I once sat for over an hour with Madonna and Liz Rosenberg in the latter’s New York office, during which Madonna spoke only of her children. I knew I wouldn’t write it — too personal, off the record.  But I wished I’d had a tape recorder and could have written it up — the global icon as motherly hausfrau?)  Her work in Malawi, Africa has been sincere and vigilant.  She is perversity itself and contains multitudes.  Go to YouTube and find a vast array of Madonnas, interview to interview — bitchy, funny, pretentious, genuine, hard, soft, bored.  Whatever she’s feeling — or not feeling — is unfiltered.  
And irrevocable, apparently.  I last heard from Madonna two years ago, after the election.  She appeared at the huge women’s march and made news with a lot of expletives and talk of blowing up the White House.  I emailed, praising her passion, sharing her distaste for the occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue but warning that such inflammatory language didn’t help. I received a terse reply: “Thank you for your concern.” 

We have not been in touch since, although I send her birthday greetings, and, of course, informed her of Liz Smith’s passing.  I feel a little bad.  But not nearly as bad as I feel about friends who won’t talk to me because I refuse to worship at the shrine of Rachel Maddow. We live in divisive times. (By the way, I have not even one photo of myself and Madonna together — although I appear in the background of several.  Posing with her, or with any major stars, was never my thing.  Cher had to insist I get into a shot with her! For all my insecurities, having “proof” that I’d met or knew these people, was never a way to get over those insecurities).
As it was Madonna’s artistry that first fascinated me, I have watched with some dismay where she’s gone musically over the past few years, but I am ever hopeful.  Her 14th studio album is due at some point, perhaps this year, and I don’t despair of a grand “return” (“Rebel Heart” could have been that return — it contains some of her best latter-day material — but as released it was a hot mess — not all her fault, but still.) 

Even her most slavish admirers acknowledge that she needs — well, THEY need — something more from her, more than telling us, “Bitch, I’m Madonna!”  We know that, honey — who are you trying to convince?  (Everybody’s happy she’s happy being a mother and mogul of various businesses, but, come on — one more great album, please!) 
For those who care, I’d go find Robbie Daw’s recent Billboard article, “Five Things We Want From Madonna’s Next Album.”  I agree with every single word — from the excessive use of Auto-Tuning, which makes Madonna’s distinctive voice depressingly indistinctive, to the excess of producers on recent efforts, resulting in musical chaos.

And Daw gets to the rub, the essence of where Madonna has gone astray — although she’d never, ever see it that way — which is both admirable and wildly frustrating; she does not live to please her fans or beg for love. 

Daw writes:

“Yes, artists evolve and mature. But you know what would be revolutionary 35 years into the Queen of Pop’s truly remarkable story? Getting back to her roots! We don’t need her to save the planet. Nor are we looking to her to fix the political system. Upon the release of Confessions on a Dance Floor 14 years ago, Madonna stated, ‘I feel that I just want to have fun; I want to dance; I want to feel buoyant. And I want to give other people the same feeling. There's a lot of madness in the world around us, and I want people to be happy.’
“That’s a distraction we’ll still gladly accept from her. In the end, all we really want from Madonna is to put the current state of the world on a shelf for a bit, and get into her groove as we have so many times before.”

And I say:  The microphone is in your hands, honey.  Sing out, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone!  We are waiting for you, with love.
Contact Denis here.