I never understood the fuss over Madonna, since she is hardly the first woman to try and rip off Marilyn Monroe.

But I have to hand it to her. She has turned the American public into the world’s biggest sap.

First she films an erotic music video. Then MTV refuses to show it. So Madonna goes on ABC’s “Nightline” to protest censorship. As part of the program, the entire video is shown.

And now it sets a record for copies shipped. Fans can’t wait to buy it.

It’s the first page in the Hype Handbook: Get folks upset about it, and your product will sell. What makes me laugh is that there are some fools out there who actually think this is an issue about art and censorship.

Let me point out something here: Madonna is no artist. She is a creation
— her own — designed to shock and make money, usually in that order. She is the record industry’s answer to the ferris wheel, where the operator spins you upside down and while you’re screaming he picks up the loose change that falls from your pockets.

Which is why I laughed when I saw Madonna on “Nightline” defending her video “Justify My Love,” which features bisexuality, mild sadomasochism, men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and Madonna, in her underwear, squeezing herself the way you might squeeze a tomato in a supermarket.

You know, the kind of thing you want as a stocking stuffer for the kids.

Always the opportunist

And here was Madonna, wailing against MTV’s censorship: “These fantasies exist in all people,” she said. So do a few others. I’m not sure I’d put them on TV either.

But what makes the whole thing funny is this: Madonna doesn’t want the video shown on MTV. Are you kidding? Then it would be like all the other videos, and maybe only earn her enough to buy a small foreign country. But by banning it? Holy Jackpots! MTV couldn’t have given Madonna a better Christmas present.

This was proven last week, when more than 500,000 copies of “Justify My Love” were shipped by Warner Reprise Video. (Anything over 50,000 in video sales is considered a major seller.)

No wonder, when the announcer on “Nightline” asked Madonna if she wasn’t going to profit from all this fuss, she smirked and said: “Lucky me.”

In truth there is very little luck involved. Madonna’s career is as calculated as the Manhattan Project. She began raking in the cash about the same time she started performing in her underwear. When that got old, she made money off the abortion issue by releasing a song about an unwed girl who wanted to keep her baby. When those flames died down, she found new fuel in a manufactured relationship with Warren Beatty, which boosted sales of the film
“Dick Tracy.” Finished with that, she did a concert tour filled with just enough semi- lewd dances to get mothers to gasp, religious leaders to scream and cash registers to ring.

Shock ’em. Take their money. This summer, while I was in London, Madonna came to do two concerts. Knowing London is a tabloid newspaper city, she purposely went jogging through a public park with a half-dozen bodyguards. They knocked people over, created a disturbance, all so Madonna, who didn’t bother to wear a disguise (why ruin the photos?), could get some publicity.

The next night the BBC was to air her concert live. Having seen it, they politely asked if she could cut down on the obscenities for that one show, since children would be listening. Madonna’s response? She cursed more than usual. Not because she doesn’t like kids. Because she knew people would talk about it. Opportunity knocks.

Don’t be a chump

What is disturbing about all this is that people keep rushing out and giving Madonna exactly what she wants, which is 1) attention and 2) money. Why? Once you realize someone’s toying with you, do you normally continue to pay them?

And what about art? For years before I became a journalist I worked as a musician. I met a lot of real artists. Most of them were broke. I remember having breakfast once with Red Garland, the brilliant jazz pianist who played with legends like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He was staying in a dumpy hotel in New York. We ate in a greasy diner. This man — who could play any Madonna song with one finger — asked if maybe I could buy him a beer.

And here is Madonna, on “Nightline,” saying “Lucky me.”

Something is wrong with this picture. The talented go unrewarded. And the hyped get richer. Think about it as you rush out to buy Madonna’s new video. Picture her in some mansion, laughing at what a chump you are.

Lucky her?

Or stupid us?

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