When I was in elementary school, there were two dominant female pop singers: Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. I didn’t have MTV so everything I knew about these two women was based on what my friends told me, and somehow I got the idea that you could like one or the other but not both. So I chose Cyndi Lauper, because everyone else seemed to worship Madonna and I’ve always been a contrarian like that.
I’m still more a fan of Cyndi than Madonna, but reading the wonderful anthology Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop has given me a new appreciation not just for Madonna’s influence on music and popular culture, but the impact that she’s had on multiple generations of women. Not all of the thirty-nine essays in this collection are flattering to the erstwhile Material Girl; some of them are downright nasty. But whether the writer has come to praise or bury Madonna Louise Ciccone, she does it with intelligence and passion. The icon is the lens through which a whole range of issues, including religion, sexuality, feminism, body image, race, and socioeconomic status are explored, and it’s interesting to see such a diverse range of reactions and viewpoints that all have the same catalyst in common.
Though it must be said that reading about the same person in thirty-nine essays does occasionally become repetitive. I lost count of how many authors discussed Madonna’s videos for “Like a Prayer” and “Justify My Love,” and the song “Vogue” was dissected under a slew of microscopes. And while I appreciate that editor Laura Barcella included pieces from writers that didn’t like Madonna, several of those essays seemed gratuitously cruel. Much can be said about the trajectory of Madonna’s career and her business choices; attempting to read meaning into her personal decisions seems forced and unnecessary.
Yet many of these essays pull off the difficult trick of being both critical and loving, gracious and sharp. For me, the standouts were Maria Gagliano’s essay “Madonna vs. the Virgin Mary,” Wendy Shanker’s “Mad Mensch,” “A Borderline History of My Relationship with Madonna” by Erin Bradley, and Barcella’s own contribution, “My Pocket Madonna.” These essays and other standouts manage to reveal just as much about the writer as the subject, and in doing so they make it clear where the real power of Madonna and Me lies: in the lives that Madonna touched through her music and movies and even her relentless casting off of images and personas. We’re all so familiar with her biography and greatest hits and performances that it’s a real treat to read these more personal, quieter reflections on what she meant to a teenager in the Pacific Northwest or a girl in New Jersey. Madonna and Me is entertaining, thought-provoking, and most of all, real – it’s a great tribute not just to the artist herself, but to her fans.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.