Unlawful assembly


Madonna is famous for her transformational inclinations.

Madonna has demonstrated a gift for playing the currents of the diffusion stream and she is routinely cited as the defining token of a transformational culture. (Salon.com calls her “pop’s most irresistible changeling.”) She picks up a new fashion just as it is hitting the “radar” of her fans, and she abandons it as it is about to go “mass” and lose its currency.

To give Madonna her due, it is exceedingly difficult to play the diffusion wave as well as she does. Thousands of artists try each year, and only a relatively few succeed. And no one has succeeded as well as Madonna over the two decades of a career. (McCracken, below)

But in her new tour, which kicked off Monday in California, Madonna breaks two rules of the transformational game.

The first rule is that artists (and the rest of us) should DO transformation, not talk about it. Madonna chooses to call her new show “Reinvention.” This is unnecessary (Sanneh of the New York Times compared it to John Kerry calling his cross-country tour “lots of speeches”)> It is also unwise: a little like Robin Williams opening an improv with “and now I am going to become a bewildering succession of people in quick succession. Watch!”)

No, no, no. The interest of live performances of transformation is that they come at us in the real time of the real world. This is what we admire about our transformational exemplars. (In the language of linguistics: we want the direct comparison of metaphor, not the proposed comparison of simile.)

The second rule is that the transformer is supposed to keep moving. Madonna is repeating herself. As Sanneh puts it, the new show finds her “shadowboxing with her own past lives.” Apparently, Madonna has retired from the diffusion stream. Now she is reprising not popular culture, but herself. “There were times when Madonna seemed somehow oppressed by the weight of all her old selves, times when it seemed that she just wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over.” says Sanneh. Indeed, this is what she used to do and this is what we want our transformers to do. Keep moving.

Maybe she’s tired. Living in a transformational society, remaking ourselves with such frequency, there is an unmistakable wear-out factor. Staying ahead of the diffusion curve in a dynamic society, as Madonna does, or did, must be even more difficult.

Or maybe she is dropping out of the transformational game altogether. She appears to have taken to a gentrified life in England with some enthusiasm. (Though surely that new English accent is one her very worst impersonations. Get a voice coach!) New religious enthusiasms also appear to have won her heart. Perhaps the two together, not too mention motherhood and all that wealth, make it more difficult for a girl to follow, or to care about, the diffusion curve.

Poor Madonna. Her concerts were staging areas for the next restless self. They sprinted out ahead of contemporary culture, sending back new intelligence. Now they are more like a high school reunion, with all the old Madonnas turning up, unbidden, unwelcome, and more often than not, uninteresting. Somewhere in the life of this changeling, the transformation stopped. As Sanneh, says, “Having created all those old selves, she can’t now disown them, she can only play with them.”

McCracken, Grant 2001 Transformation. Toronto: Periphe: Fluide. (available for download on this site)

Sanneh, Kelefa. 2004. Madonna’s Latest Self, a Mix of Her Old Ones. New York Times. May 26, 2004. Available here.

Saroyan, Strawberry and Michelle Goldberg. 2000. What’s up with Madonna? Salon Magazine. October 10, 2000. Available here.

Thanks to Jim Carfrae for the head’s up on this one.

3 thoughts on “Unlawful assembly

  1. LK


    glad you wrote on this topic. i read this article in the NYT the other day and of course thought of you, the titan of transformation. while living in england in 2000 i recall reading a particularly apt appraisal of madonna’s (then) newfound anglophilia when a writer referred to her accent as “recently purchased at harrod’s”.

    after reading the NYT article it occurred to me that madonna’s self-referential “look at me i’m changing” tour may be yellow-markering and in the process moving toward the mainstream the idea of our many selves. just as she made thrift store trampiness so appealing to young teenage girls in the mid 80s she is now putting the notion of expressing one’s self in multiple ways into the vernacular. one day i’m a latina knockout, the next day a south kensington doyenne, and hey at night i can still hang with all those fabulous gay guys. and you can too. i don’t see her latest turn so much as her losing her touch as it seems to be a kind of mass marketing of the idea of the complete acceptability and ease of personal transformation.

  2. grant

    Leora, thanks for the post.

    I always thought Harrod’s sold a better quality of accent than that. Foreigner ownership, obviously.

    Very nice point about Transformation moving to the mainstream. She’s decided to franchise the system. Can it be long before transformation is declasse? Have to get my book out soon!



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