“Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna.” – Joan Cusack in Mike Nichols’s Working Girl (1988)
Madonna doesn’t need much of an introduction. Lest we forget, she reminded us last year with the song “Bitch I’m Madonna.” Wikipedia lists her specifically as “Madonna (entertainer),” as opposed to the representation of Mary, mother of Jesus, but I’m not sure it’s necessary; Madonna as Mary doesn’t even show up on the first five pages of a simple Google search. Suffice it to say, Madonna (entertainer) is the more instantly recognizable mother figure in American culture: the mother of pop. She continues to be a singer, dancer, actress, and one of the biggest cultural icons of this century.
I should note that my early fascination with Madonna was a direct result of my sister, who I idolized arguably as much as she idolized Madge. Born in 1982, my sister’s coming of age was closely correlated with Madonna’s career trajectory. Four Halloweens of fingerless lace gloves and strings of pearls, set to the soundtrack of “Lucky Star” and “Holiday”—the early 1990s at their best.
I recently rewatched the film Truth or Dare (originally released as Truth or Dare: In Bed with Madonna in 1991), this time not on VHS, and without the explicit goal of learning how to “vogue”—as Madge so gracefully demonstrates in her belted, black-spandex one-piece. (If you’d like to attempt to vogue now, I highly recommend checking out some of the Flashmob tutorials currently listed on YouTube.)
Truth or Dare is a documentary that follows Madonna’s famed Blond Ambition World Tour of 1990. Comprised of 57 shows across the globe, the tour showcased her album Like a Prayer and the soundtrack to I’m Breathless, including such megahits as “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself.” It was during this time that she introduced the Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra and her bleach-blonde ponytail hairpiece to the world. The tour was touted as the “Greatest Concert of the 1990s” by Rolling Stone magazine thanks to its perfect cocktail of singing, dance, fashion, theater, and performance art. The tour also quickly became infamous for its open portrayal of sexuality onstage and clear invocations of Catholicism. Pope John Paul II urged the public not to attend the concert, and Madonna canceled one of three shows in Italy.From her first moments onstage, Madonna makes it clear that she is there to present contradictions for her audience to grapple with: she appears onstage in a silk corset worn over men’s suit pants. Much of the rest of the tour features her subverting gender norms, knowingly embodying Freud’s Madonna–whore complex. The concept outlined two mutually exclusive ways to construct a sexual identity, and has been personified by two of Madonna’s biggest influences: the ever feminine Marilyn Monroe and the gender-subversive Marlene Dietrich.
The film works to emphasize these dualities both stylistically—the live performances are shot in color and any behind-the-scenes shots are in black and white—and in its presentation of its star. Truth or Dare tracks between Madonna as a performer and Madonna as a person, between the caring and doting mother to her dancers and staff, and the difficult narcissist who demands perfection. During an interview in the beginning of the film, Madonna admits to seeking “emotionally crippled” dancers so that she can more fully act the matron.
These dualities hit on a fundamental aspect of not only human psychology, but of art and creativity. Carl Jung, in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, writes, “Every creative person is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory aptitudes.” Truth or Dare reminds me of so much of the modern and contemporary art we talk about today. I’m reminded of other artworks that deal with unlikely contradictions, like Robert Ryman’s white canvases or John Cage’s 4:33.
Madonna references these dualities in a statement she put out following the Vatican’s dismissal of her tour:
My show is not a conventional rock show but a theatrical presentation of my music. And, like theater it asks questions, provokes thoughts and takes you on an emotional journey portraying good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow, redemption and salvation. I do not endorse a way of life but describe one and the audience is left to make its own decisions and judgments.
In other words…Bitch, I’m Madonna.
On Wednesday, August 24, MoMA presents a special 25th anniversary Film Plus screening of Madonna: Truth or Dare, followed by a conversation with director Alek Keshishian, Blond Ambition Tour choreographer Vincent Paterson, and dancers Jose Gutierez and Salim Gauwloos, moderated by Joe Berger. Become a Film Plus member to attend.