Review of Madonna: A Rebel Life by Mary Gabriel.

Madonna Ciccone didn’t look back. One auspicious day in 1979 – after she left her strict Italian family in Michigan and hit the dystopian streets of Manhattan with $35 and no place to live; after losing a university scholarship to pursue a career as a dancer with Alvin Ailey; after the weathering of the apartments was so clumsy that a friend was afraid to touch the walls; After absorbing the poetry of Anne Sexton, the power of Frida Kahlo, the fervor of Blondie and the Pretenders, and practicing the drums “endlessly” to Elvis Costello records, she wrote her first song. She called it “Tell the Truth.”

This first foray into songwriting, in a rented Queens studio in the basement of an abandoned synagogue dubbed “Gog,” was, as Madonna put it, a “religious experience.” She performed with a new wave band called the Acme Band (which eventually became the Breakfast Club) at places like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, where punk was still a door ajar. When she formed her own band, Emmy—”crazy punk with minimal funk,” as she described it—Madonna fully developed her anarchic sensibility and sometimes screamed instead of singing.

In the decades that followed, millions of adoring fans shouted back.

As Mary Gabriel illuminates in her new biography, Madonna: A Rebel Life, the Madonna we know—the mother of modern pop spectacle, the strange ally, the art-pop Joan of Arc, always striving for the boundaries of culture—grew from these troubled origins. . In the book’s early chapters, Madonna’s wild existence becomes the lens of the city’s downtown core, from CB to Paradise Garage to her favorite restaurant, the Roxy, where punk and club culture converged. Madonna became Andy Warhol’s child. One day she looked into Martha Graham’s eyes. She snakes around Lower Manhattan with her boyfriend, graffiti artist Futura 2000, branding herself a “BOY TOY.” She was known for making eye contact with everyone and being prone to statements like, “I will become the most famous woman in the world.”

She was born the same year as Prince and Michael Jackson, the perfect age to hitchhike to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour stop in Detroit, and as Gabrielle says, Madonna has always been brazen and iron-willed. She suffered – she lost her mother at age 5; in New York she stole food to survive; she was kidnapped at knifepoint – and she insisted that her art would exist without compromise. Switching her sound to high-octane dance-pop, she stopped by IT club Danceteria and strategically chose the exact moment to approach well-connected disc jockey Mark Kamins and mention her demo. When Kamins helped her secure a deal with Sire Records, label head Seymour Stein negotiated the contract from his hospital bed and even called Madonna his “Florence Nightingale.”

Spanning pop music, performance, dance, activism, fashion, film, photography and theatre, Madonna’s career was by design unstoppable. Clocking in at more than 800 pages, Madonna: A Rebel Life has the weight of the Bible, perhaps befitting an artist who has appropriated Catholic imagery to such an extent that Pope John Paul II called her Blond Ambition tour “one of the most satanic events.” shows the history of mankind.” But Gabriel approaches this task with the rigor and ambition that rivals Madonna. She gets to the heart of every album, tour, video, acting role and collaborator – among them Nile Rodgers, Jean-Paul Gaultier and David Fincher – not only during Madonna’s zenith of the 80s and 90s, but also in the present, illustrating her late… The innovations of the 90s and early 2000s and her continued refusal to bow to the status quo expectations placed on middle-aged female artists.

It’s a daunting task that suits Gabriel, who has chronicled the lives of boundary-breaking women in previous books such as The Women of Ninth Street: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Artists and the Movement. changed modern art” and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Love and Capital” about the marriage of Karl Marx. Thus, she is well placed to understand Madonna’s radical plans. Contextualizing this seismic star—at least from Gabriel’s perspective—is tantamount to extensively documenting history since 1958.

What the book lacks in musical analysis it makes up for with enlightening connections to politics and art history. Madonna wrote her first album surrounded by paintings by her then-boyfriend Jean-Michel Basquiat; she presented material from her second album, Like a Virgin, surrounded by the work of her friend Keith Haring. Describing Madonna and Haring as postmodernists, Gabriel writes: “They rejected modernist notions of purity in art, solemnity in art, elitism in art, and strict artistic genres, replacing them with street art, verbal art, graphics, and the Self as art.” With this brash, boundless spirit, Gabriel finds the genius of Madonna’s early performances in the way she “approached the audience the way club DJs did. She didn’t perform V their; she transported them. This euphoric unity and uncanny coolness gave birth to one of the greatest phenomena in music.

In this titanic biography, Madonna begins to lose many of her closest friends and associates to AIDS very early on. Among them was her first dance teacher and mentor, Christopher Flynn, whose classes in suburban Michigan helped the teenage Madonna realize that “I could turn myself into something else.” In the absence of government action, Madonna launched her own crusade. She distributed AIDS pamphlets at her concerts a year before the government issued its own. She held charity shows in support of AIDS research, filmed commercials, and demonstrated the words “SAFE SEX” behind her on stage. Dejected as she recorded “Like a Prayer,” her fourth album but the first for which she wrote all the lyrics herself, she often wore sunglasses in the studio. She included an “AIDS Facts” insert in each CD, turning her art into sex education and a destigmatizing force. As her friends died, she said, “Everything I do should be some kind of celebration of life.”

Gabrielle said in an interview that she didn’t have strong feelings about Madonna until 2016, when she decided to become her most comprehensive biographer. But for now, she was looking for an object and an avatar to understand whether the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s were changes – to create a kind of “sequel”, in her words, to The Women of Ninth Street, which was set in the 40s. s and 50s—Madonna’s powerful speech at the Billboard Woman of the Year Awards was an awakening. Gabriel now clearly loves Madonna. She details the controversies and controversies synonymous with Madonna, but every page of this book serves to correct any prevailing misogynistic ideas that remain of her as a “stupid exhibitionist and sexual maniac” rather than a serious artist.

Another of this fall’s most anticipated music books is Sonic Life, a memoir by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, which makes for a fascinating pairing for those interested in Madonna’s early underground years. Then Moore and his fellow art-rockers watched Madonna at Danceteria as she became “an illuminated presence on the floor… her sparkling eyes,” a “striking figure among the cool crowd.” After Madonna’s popularity soared, Sonic Youth challenged the anti-mainstream virtues of their no-wave peers and embraced it without irony, releasing a deliciously warped cover of “Into the Groove” under the guise of Ciccone Youth and wearing bootleg Madonna T-shirts. “Some people have criticized us for giving her a certain amount of underground authority,” Moore once said. “But from my point of view, she was already trusted; she was already part of the downtown scene.”

Today, Madonna’s legacy abounds, and the best sections of Gabriel’s biography serve as reminders of it. It would be hard not to be drawn in by the chapters chronicling the early waves of Madonna mania, as the outspoken young woman from Michigan fought her way to becoming the first female artist ever to headline a stadium tour. (Opening for the Beastie Boys; Warhol held a Madonna look-alike contest at Macy’s before the first of five New York concerts.) For her enthusiastic young fans, known as “copycats” because they imitated her crop tops, piles of bracelets and wild hair – Music Madonna equated self-expression with self-respect. lived liberation,” writes Gabriel. They saw themselves.

Madonna paved the way for the blockbusters of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé and helped shape a world that celebrates the unapologetic sexual bravado of artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Ice Spice. While Gabriel’s book doesn’t contain original interviews with the icon herself, her investigation into Madonna’s archive takes us into the psyche of a woman who was never afraid to make people feel uncomfortable, capable of starring in a top-rated film like The League of ‘Em. Own”, while exploring sadomasochism in his “Sex”. photobook.

“Madonna: A Rebel Life” it is a deeply committed, but often hurried, invitation to revisit the “Immaculate Collection.” and her film Truth or Dare and everything that followed, with a deeper understanding of Madonna’s mastery of irony and humor, sex as power, and how her consciousness expanded culture. “Who is this girl? Who is this girl?” Madonna sang alone on stage at the end of her 1987 tour. Here is evidence of a world that has caught up.

Jenn Pelley is a freelance writer and the author of Raincoats. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Pitchfork, where she is a contributing editor.

Little, Brown. 880 pp. US$38

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