The Muchness of Madonna
MADONNA: A Rebel Life, by Mary Gabriel
“I want to be alone,” Greta Garbo’s dancer character famously said in “Grand Hotel,” a quote permanently and only semi-accurately attached to the actress after she retreated from public life. Garbo was first on the list of Golden Agers in one of Madonna’s biggest hits, “Vogue,” but the pop star has long seemed to embody this maxim’s very opposite. She wants to be surrounded, as if with Dolby sound.
“Before Madonna even had a manager, she had a court of valets and minstrels following her everywhere,” the record executive Seymour Stein observed.
Though technically a solo vocalist, Madonna has been backed by dancers from the beginning of her career in the early 1980s. She has six children: two biological, four adopted from Malawi. Many more consider themselves her spiritual offspring: gay men to whom she’s been den mother; younger female performers she’s inspired.
And she’s trooped around the world with an elastic entourage of friends, writers, producers, directors, handlers, photographers, publicists, reporters and fans, all of whom helpfully populate Mary Gabriel’s big, indignant new biography of her: a dogged, brick-by-brick bulwark against any detractors bobbing in the moat of her castle.
“Madonna: A Rebel Life” is one of those books you measure in pounds, not pages: almost three, which would have been more if the publisher hadn’t decided to post the endnotes and bibliography online rather than printing them. It’s not going to fit on the little shelf of the StairMaster at the gym — a classically Madonna piece of exercise equipment — though you might hoist it afterward for wrist curls.
If you wander into an aerobics class instead, not only are chances high that the instructor will play a song from Madonna’s catalog, but she’ll probably be wearing a hands-free headset microphone — and that is muy Madonna as well. As Gabriel notes, though the technology was used before by pilots and Kate Bush, it was her subject who popularized it on her 1989 “Blond Ambition” tour.
For this book, though, the woman born Madonna Louise Ciccone in 1958, the same year as Prince and Michael Jackson, stayed quiet. Her voice is piped through from plentiful previous interviews, recorded performances and the occasional post on Instagram, where early in the pandemic she outcringed the Gal Gadot “Imagine” video with one of herself naked in a bath amid floating rose petals, declaring Covid-19 “the great equalizer.”
The closest Gabriel gets to Madonna in the actual flesh is half a dozen conversations with her brother, Christopher Ciccone, whose best-selling 2008 memoir, “Life With My Sister Madonna,” caused at least temporary estrangement between the siblings, longtime professional collaborators. (Madonna’s sense of betrayal is hard to jibe with her ardent defense of free personal expression.)
Gabriel also talks to 30-odd other sources, surprisingly few for the scope of the work, and turns up a few interesting archived nuggets, such as Norman Mailer, in an early draft of the more than 200 he wrote for a 1994 Esquire profile, describing Madonna as a “pint‐size” Italian American (he used an ethnic slur instead) “with a heart built out of the cast‐iron balls of a hundred peasant ancestors.”
Previous Madonnagraphers have either been breathily unauthorized — Andrew Morton, J. Randy Taraborrelli — or taken a more “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” approach; universities have offered entire courses on her. Gabriel brings extra intellectual cred to the task. “Love and Capital,” her book about Karl Marx and his wife, Jenny, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award; her group portrait of five female painters, “Ninth Street Women,” was rhapsodically received. But she doesn’t describe her own connection to this project, as she did the others, and this reader was left wondering if it might be less love than capital.
Not that Gabriel doesn’t make a diligent case for Madonna’s cultural importance: inviting us to consider, for example, her Mylar-encased coffee-table book “Sex,” pummeled with judgment when it was published in 1992, in the same light as James Baldwin’s novel “Giovanni’s Room.” She airs at length the praise of the curator Jeffrey Deitch, who worked with Madonna on a 2013 multimedia installation called “X‐STaTIC PRo=CeSS.”
Maybe we’ve all miscast Madonna as the Queen of Pop — a dubious analogue to Aretha Franklin’s Queen of Soul — and she’s closer, on a mass scale, to Karen Finley, the performance artist who used to smear her nude body in chocolate or honey? Indeed, describing the period Madonna lived in Miami, Gabriel writes of her “daily ritual of covering herself in honey and jumping into Biscayne Bay, where she floated until the honey melted away,” with no apparent concern for sharks.
“Madonna: A Rebel Life” is organized as a busy, seven-decade, mostly urban travel itinerary. Like Franklin, Madonna lost her mother early and was raised in Detroit, where her father, who also had half a dozen children, “thought we should always be productive,” she said. Her Barbie would tell Ken: “I’m not gonna stay home and do the dishes. You stay home! I’m going out tonight. I’m going bowling, OK, so forget it!” Among her formative influences were J.D. Salinger and Anne Sexton (literary); the Shangri-Las and David Bowie (musical); Martha Graham and Frida Kahlo (visual). “The sight of her mustache consoled me,” she said of the latter.
I might be biased as a native who craved rubber bracelets and lace socks and waited to hear if FM radio played “Borderline” through the “la-la-la-la,” but the section when Madonna arrives in New York City, though well trafficked, is one of the most compelling in this book. She eats French fries out of garbage cans; learns guitar at an abandoned synagogue in Flushing Meadows nicknamed “the Gog”; brings a demo tape to the DJ booth at Danceteria; and, signed by Stein from his hospital bed, hangs with a “coterie” of artists that included Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. She was also raped at knife point on a rooftop, an ordeal not publicly aired until the punishing Abel Ferrara film “Dangerous Game” in 1993.
Having segued to Hollywood (and later Broadway and the West End), she gave the middle finger to its male establishment: walking away from an early marriage to Sean Penn, cursing out David Letterman on the air and roundly shushing Harvey Weinstein when he offers feedback on “Truth or Dare,” her 1991 documentary. (“I don’t care what your point of view is,” she tells him. “I never want to hear it. Who the hell are you to tell me what kind of film I should be doing?”) Her onetime paramour Warren Beatty, who directed her in “Dick Tracy,” mocked how she wanted to live on-camera all the time; who with an iPhone now does otherwise?
Madonna is rightly celebrated here as a pioneer of AIDS education — she lost countless friends to the disease — and a genuine philanthropist. But as she grows more practiced with the press and isolated by her fame, the book softens and suffers. The muchness of Madonna, her cross-disciplinarity — from MTV to “Evita” — seems impossible to corral.
Madonna’s drug is work — she makes a discipline of even decadence — and “A Rebel Life” increasingly becomes a litany of remote description and tabulation: boundaries crossed, records broken, shows staged, money made, countries visited, foreign cultures sampled. “All artists appropriate,” is how Gabriel defends her against a frequent charge. “It is called inspiration.”
Clichés sneak into her prose. Madonna is burning the candle at both ends, igniting a firestorm and is a lightning rod for controversy. She has never taken the road most traveled, but does take a long hard look in the mirror.
Speaking of mirrors: Gabriel acknowledges Madonna’s talent for self-reinvention, but oddly ignores her transformation after cosmetic procedures and the resultant backlash — a sensitive matter to parse, but hardly irrelevant for someone whose oeuvre has been so entwined with image. “I’m going to make it easier for all those girls behind me when they turn 60,” the star said when promoting her 2019 album, “Madame X.” Well, some of those girls want to know why she can’t shake her skull-topped cane at the anti-aging industrial complex.
“A Rebel Life” hits its marks but rarely soars, as Madonna did suspended by cables during her Drowned World tour. (Rather, the book is submerged in names, places and dates and historical exposition.) Then again, assessing Madonna’s legacy before she has a chance to recover from recent health setbacks may be an impossibly premature endeavor.
“The verdict time and again would be that she had gone too far, that her career was over,” Gabriel writes. “Time and again, the jury was wrong.”
MADONNA: A Rebel Life | By Mary Gabriel | Illustrated | 858 pp. | Little, Brown & Company | $38