In one of my rare bouts of television viewing, last night I ran across the video for Madonna's 1989 song "Like a Prayer". I am familiar with the song both from my own childhood, and from the incessant plays it got as a cute retro song at parties and bars during my college years and thereafter. The facile, repetitive lyrics might be considered blasphemous by some, but I think in the end they validly explore the similarities between the exhilaration of romantic or sexual love and worship of the divine.
But the video is offensive in a predictable, provocative way. Basically Madonna is in a church, and a saint statue comes to life. Madonna then kisses the saint, and there are long, voyeuristic takes on --gasp-- a white woman kissing a black man. Really bold stuff a mere 25 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed!
Then Madonna inexplicably acquires stigmata, the marks of Christ's crucifixion on the hands, feet, and side that Catholics believe are indicative of exceptional sanctity in a person. It is a flouting of things that are sacred to lots of people--perhaps today as a fervent converted Jew (or at least the self-absorbed, Hollywood Kabbalah version thereof) Madonna can understand that throwing around special symbols is in no way constructive. It just hurts and offends.
Next we're treated to shots of Madonna dancing in front of burning crosses. Again, it's provocation for the sake of provocation, which is to say mediocre shit. If I make a trivial pop song about something like my favorite flavor of ice cream, and then I show footage of a mangled Emmett Till or the Auschwitz liberation, it's not groundbreaking. It's frivolous junk overlaying serious images that we'd be better off treating with awe and not merely playing with in order to shock.
Perhaps the most offensive aspect of the video is Madonna's awful, jerky, awkward 80s dancing. She squirms around like Elaine Benes in that Seinfeld episode. All the while she has a (Protestant-style) black gospel choir singing in a Catholic church. With this Madonna adds herself to the ranks of silly pop musicians who try to add currency or gravitas to their fare simply by grafting on black gospel singers, a la Billy Joel in "In the Middle of the Night" or U2 in "Still haven't found what I'm looking for" (though in all fairness, U2 sang the gospel vocals themselves, and it's a pretty decent song). We know Madonna is in solidarity with black folks, a regular, bona fide soul sister, because in the video she testifies in favor of a black man unjustly accused of murder. Madonna is the savior of black people!
When art provokes as a corollary to its artistic or moral message, it's not a bad thing. There are things that must be said even though they may offend. But when an artist sets out to offend, and there is no message or craft aside from the offense (or what little message there is is simplistic and obvious, like, "Black folks get a raw deal in the US legal structure"), it's just crap.
In the end I guess it's fitting that Madonna is now a caricature of herself. A self-absorbed celebrity, following a commodified version of religion that's even more laughable than the Catholicism she spent years ridiculing. Today Madonna, in her luxurious perch in the UK as an Artistic Expat, is presumably in no more solidarity with downtrodden US black people than black folks are with her latest vacuous, tinny electronic music. Whatever message she thought was so important to send in 1989 with "Like a Prayer" doesn't seem that important anymore, neither to her or her erstwhile listeners.
Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, these men offended as they artfully delivered an important message. Surely they must have had laughable personal foibles, but that isn't what endures in our memory of them. Madonna, on the other hand, has reaped the fruits of her labor. Her shallow, provocative songs no longer even seem that provocative, and most of them won't endure beyond my generation's nostalgic reminiscences. What remains is a goofy has-been, not standing for anything worthwhile, and still taking herself too seriously.