In 2007, Stuart Hall, a co-founder of the academic field called cultural studies, expressed his exhaustion. He jokingly mentioned, “I can’t bear to read another cultural studies analysis of Madonna or The Sopranos.” Although his comment was lighthearted, it held truth: An overwhelming volume of scholarly work had been dedicated to Madonna, who, even four decades after her debut, remained a pioneering figure in the realm of modern pop stars.
Hall’s academic contributions focused on encouraging individuals to scrutinize their connections to popular culture, and he had extensively pondered crafting socially-conscious critiques. Despite his fatigue, Madonna’s trajectory and Hall’s vision for a transformative cultural studies domain were closely intertwined. They emerged around the same time, and their interaction not only reshaped academia but also gave rise to a broader movement, shaping a complex language for fans and writers within internet culture to analyze popular culture.
Almost immediately upon her music debut in the early 1980s, Madonna became a subject of scrutiny, an inspirational figure, and a focal point for cultural analysis, loaded with profound symbolic meaning. A complete generation of scholars saw her as a paradoxical embodiment of postwar mass culture: both rebellious and conventional, an outsider and an insider, remarkably adaptable, and a recognizable American protagonist—similar to Horatio Alger, albeit audacious—yet also a disruptor of the status quo.
As she reaches her 65th birthday this year and approaches a significant tour set to commence in October, she continues to engage with her fervent fans and provoke her critics. In the ’80s and ’90s, scholars multiplied their interpretations of her work through Marxist, feminist, queer, racial, ethnic, and religious lenses. Madonna, in a sense, practiced the very criticism she was subjected to, reshaping popular imagery and symbols, similar to her approach with Marilyn Monroe. Academics argued that she transformed pop music by portraying the self as ever-changing and endlessly malleable. Politically, this concept had dual implications: self-creation implied conforming to the norm while also rebelling against it, imagining an alternate way of life. This perspective is easier to articulate now, post the Battle of Poptimism, a discourse advocating the recognition of pop music on par with rock. Pop music emerged victorious, leading to both positive and negative repercussions.
However, in the ’80s, the landscape was different—fandom and scholarship were at odds. Detractors within and outside academia resisted this shift, mocking scholars for self-indulgence and a perceived lack of rigor.
The most insightful Madonna analyses acknowledge her inherent complexity. Recently, I revisited The Madonna Connection, a scholarly opus from three decades ago (published in 1993). It reads like a manual for understanding subsequent eras of celebrity culture, brimming with politically-charged inkblot tests, flexible interpretations, and dramatic leaps of understanding. It’s an engaging read, even though at times, I felt I could almost hear imaginary ’90s academic critics, with their dated attire and thick glasses, chastising me: “Why are you delving into this?” My interest stems from Madonna being my earliest memory, a form of heritage that introduced me to sensory experiences. Riding in my mom’s car, I’d listen to “Holiday” on repeat, the vibrant ’80s vocals echoing the cheerful tones of bubblegum pop from the Eisenhower era. Experiencing Madonna in the 2000s and 2010s meant recognizing her influence on subsequent artists like Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry—the Queen of Pop laying the foundation. I aimed to comprehend how an individual evolves into an ideogram.
From the outset, Madonna inspired imitators. By the time the Virgin Tour arrived in New York City on June 6, 1985, she had been a sensation for well over a year. She had boldly declared to Dick Clark in January 1984 her intention to “rule the world.” In September of that year, during a performance of “Like a Virgin” at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, she famously flashed the audience while clad in her iconic diaphanous wedding gown. Leading up to the New York concert, Macy’s erected a temporary store: Madonna Land, hosting a look-alike contest in her honor. Teenagers sporting fingerless gloves, leggings, teased side-ponytails, and slouchy off-the-shoulder tops gathered in Herald Square, enduring the summer heat. Over 100 girls from the tri-state area participated, with Andy Warhol serving as a judge. The lucky recipient of two tickets to the Radio City Music Hall concert was a stunned 16-year-old, JeanAnn Difranco (or possibly Gina Difranco; local news segments used both names), from Queens, who exclaimed, “I’m very shocked. I’m still in shock. I can’t believe it!”
Another Macy’s attendee, donning Wayfarer sunglasses and a messy scrunchie among her abundant auburn hair, remarked, “Madonna is the only contemporary figure we can look up to. She doesn’t suppress femininity.”
Earlier that spring, Madonna portrayed an eccentric and resourceful drifter in “Desperately Seeking Susan” alongside Rosanna Arquette. “Material Girl” dominated the charts, supported by a music video where Madonna emulated Monroe in pink peau d’ange and diamonds. Her layered outfits, distinctive hairstyle, and an aura of mystique akin to a modern-day Crucifixion-on-the-Lower-East-Side, styled by Maripol, led to imitations, such as those who participated in the Macy’s look-alike competition. In a May 27, 1985 Time magazine cover story, journalist John Skow noted, “These outfits somehow evoke the ’50s, a time now often perceived—based on old Marilyn Monroe films—as a quaint and fascinating albeit slightly gaudy era, rich in flirtatious pre-feminist sensuality.” Madonna’s artistic endeavors would grow more audacious and provocative over time.