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Madonna: Like an Icon, By Lucy O'Brien

Surely there is nothing left to be said about this iconic and seemingly confessional pop star...

Reviewed by Paul Burston

There are currently 18 Madonna biographies listed on Amazon. That's in addition to the hundreds of picture books, style books, academic studies with titles such as Deconstructing Madonna and The Madonna Connection, and novelty books such as I Dream of Madonna and The I Hate Madonna Handbook.

Is there anything left to be said? Haven't we heard it all before? Motherless child, material girl, post-feminist icon, sexual adventurer turned Kabbalah crusader and lady of the manor – Madonna's career has lasted for more than 20 years, and for much of that time she's been the most famous and photographed woman in the world. She has given hundreds of interviews, made regular "confessions" on stage and CD, and revealed all in her Sex book and documentaries In Bed with Madonna and I Want to Tell You a Secret. Short of exploring her internal organs, what more can there possibly be to add?

The truth is, we actually know very little about the real Madonna. She gives little away in interviews. Her music is not known for its intimacy. The documentaries were largely staged, and the infamous Sex book opened with a disclaimer insisting: "Nothing in this book is true. I made it all up". Then there are the alter-egos. At various times she has channelled Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Dita Parlo – often to the point of becoming a kind of female impersonator. As Lucy O'Brien makes clear in this biography, part of Madonna's skill at being a pop star is the sense of ironic detachment she brings to each reinvention. Hence the subtitle "Like an Icon", which echoes Madonna's earlier song titles and slippery take on authenticity – "Like a Virgin", "Like a Prayer", and my own personal favourite, "Like a Lesbian" (otherwise known as "Erotica").

Getting a grip on the "real" Madonna can be tricky. Andrew Morton had a go, but didn't deliver any great revelations the way he did with his Diana biography a few years earlier. Similarly, there are no great revelations in this biography. Mainly it's a question of interpretation. O'Brien has a reputation as an authority on female artists, and her book is pitched almost as a corrective to The I Hate Madonna Handbook – not quite "The I Love Madonna Handbook", but "The I Feel Madonna Handbook". Much is made of the author's empathy with her subject. A founding member of the feminist punk band The Catholic Girls, O'Brien sees many parallels between Madonna's life and her own. Both were lapsed Catholics fired by feminism. Both became mothers in their 40s. This may be stretching it a bit (there's no mention of O'Brien's millions or marriage to a Mockney film director) and it does sometimes cloud the author's judgement, making her far softer on her subject than she ought to be. Commenting on Madonna's limited abilities in the acting department, she says brightly: "She would have been a dynamic silent movie actress".

She's far sharper when it comes to the music, and is right to point out that much of the antagonism towards Madonna contains a certain amount of sexism. She gives a clear account of the early days and the evolution of a gaudy, brash boy-toy into an artist of considerable talent, first witnessed on her most confessional album, Like A Prayer. Where I disagree with O'Brien is in her assessment of Madonna's commitment to certain causes, and "the way she championed alternative cultures". For "championed" read "plundered". It's hardly a secret that Madonna forges many of her boldest mass-media representations from the effects of black, gay, urban subcultures, "Vogue" being the prime example. What I fail to see is how this can be construed as representing anything other than her own interests. It's worth remembering that in the roll-call of icons namechecked in "Vogue", not a single one is black.

There's a comparison to be made here with David Bowie, and Peter York makes it. O'Brien quotes him comparing Madonna's "self-actualising and reinventing" with the many changes Bowie went through in the 1970s. But there's more to it than that. There's also the bisexuality (real or play-acted), the blending of high art and pop culture, the accusations of plagiarism and a coldness that can seem shocking. So we have the tale of Madonna copying another girl's hairstyle during her early days at New York's Danceteria, followed by further examples of her borrowing other people's ideas – including, most famously, the song "Justify My Love" originally written and recorded by one Ingrid Chavez with her then-lover Prince.

Even less dignifying is the scene from In Bed With Madonna where the singer learns that her makeup artist Sharon has been raped and lets out a nasty laugh. "What the scene really showed was Madonna's discomfort with people who are victims", claims O'Brien. What the scene showed me is that Madonna isn't quite the caring maternal figure she claimed to be in that documentary. (Later, O'Brien tells us that Madonna snubbed Sharon at a Kabbalah meeting – and by this time she was supposed to have matured into the enlightened earth mother of Ray of Light).

The author attempts to make sense of this behaviour by emphasising the fact that Madonna was also raped. As a struggling dancer in New York, she was dragged up an alleyway and forced to perform fellatio at knifepoint. Madonna drew on this episode in the 1993 film Dangerous Game, when her character describes a similar thing happening to her. But for O'Brien the impact of the rape is, in fact, the motivating factor behind everything Madonna has done, more important even than the death of her mother: "It's not so much grief at her mother's death that drives her, as the sense of abandonment that left her unprotected. She encountered her own worst possible scenario, becoming a victim of male violence, and thereafter turned that full-tilt into her work, reversing the equation at every opportunity."

O'Brien identifies "a journey of revelation" in Madonna's output from In Bed With Madonna in 1990 to the Sex book in 1992, and one which ultimately ends in a "curious act of self-destruction". She describes Madonna's Sex as "the book that was to be her nemesis", and reminds us that the singer herself divides her career into two halves, before and after Sex.

It's after Sex that the joy drained out of Madonna. It's written in the leotard and that grim expression she wears. It's written in the book too. O'Brien takes us through the singer's marriage to Guy Ritchie and the sinking of both their film careers with Swept Away. She tackles Kabbalah and Madonna's championing of a religion which "echoes the fundamentals of Old Testament Christianity and its polarising of men and women". Finally she turns her attention to Malawi and Madonna's controversial adoption of baby David. "In her desire to save Malawi", O'Brien writes, "[Madonna] is moving beyond the pop world to take on the role of spiritual mother". Whether it's a role she's really suited to, this book leaves you in some doubt.

Paul Burston's novel 'Star People' (Sphere £7.99) is out now.


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