It’s a generally understood notion that songs are meaningless and trite, and that if one wants to be a productive member of society, avoiding music is a prudent choice. Songs are traps, or so goes this common wisdom, filled with, at best, fantasy notions and, at worst, dangerous and destructive ideas; even worse are artists, who attempt to peddle their songs as a means of stringing them together into a narrative arc which, by using a nice beat and/or a catchy melody, can fool an innocent passerby into conflating their own emotions with that of the artist. The master artists, the ones who amass fortunes with multi-decade careers, are experts at this storytelling, creating a proxy persona through the proliferation of recorded songs — often resulting in the creation of a phantom deity, plastered on t-shirts and advertisements and music videos, that speaks to society and culture conveying ambiguous messages within a framework of relatability and emotional resonance. The artist’s perceived drama becomes real within the psychic æther of our shared mental space, our aspirations and fears and fantasies.
Although music is a powerful tool of persuasion, this artist-as-locus-point-of-psychic-power phenomenon is a relative rarity; only a few individuals have managed to punch through the noise of our current electronic lifestyle to overlay their own emotional map onto the waiting cortex of society as a whole. One of the most powerful of these musical artists has entranced, globally, at least three distinct generations of susceptible media consumers: her name is Madonna Louise Ciccone, and she is not just a master musician but a grand wizard able to spin gold out of the dross that is the raw emotional flotsam burbling violently beneath the surface of her haughty persona.
Madonna honored the City of Boston with her presence on Saturday night, September 26, arriving with an intimidating crew of dancers and musicians to a staged piece of formal pageantry fitting to an artist who is a full two-and-a-half decades into the regal phase of her career. Where she was once a scrappy street urchin, a failed ballet student gnawing at the table scraps of late-’70s NYC post-punk culture, by the end of the ’80s she ached to be more than an ephemeral pop presence competing with the likes of Cyndi Lauper or Pat Benatar. Her first taste of fame on the heels of hits like “Everybody” and “Holiday” were narcotic for the budding star — asked at the end of 1983 by Dick Clark what she hoped to achieve in the years ahead, she giggled “To rule the world!” The perversity of our pop culture world, the way that our celebrity machine occasionally lets dream actualization occur through will-to-power, allowed this wish to come true.
On Saturday night, to the opening whump of “Iconic”, amidst a squadron of dancers decked out in samurai-or-is-it-warrior-from-300 uniforms, Madonna, in a cage made of enormous metal spears, was lowered from the rafters. “If you try and fail, get up again/Destiny will choose you in the end,” she lustily intoned, chopping the air with flailing limbs emerging from her red kimono-slash-warrior-outfit. As the first line of the show, it was also the first lie of the evening, sending the audience the message that not only was her ascent to stardom a preordained result of her lengthy incubation period of struggle, but that the obstacles she continues to face as the most popular female musical artist of all time can all be bested by dogged determination.
If this is understood to be at the very least a kind untruth, it is also a bedrock moral foundation of American popular culture — Madonna’s strength as a force and a brand can be conferred to her following if they just allow themselves to be touched by the mental persuasion of determination as a weapon for personal triumph. When an artist such as Madonna is seen as an ’80s artist, it fundamentally has to do with that artist’s adherence to this maxim — if the existence of the cesspool of culture that is the 1990s has taught us anything, it is that basing cultural mores on failure and dispirited ennui tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The lie of determination is the fist in the air that allows musical art to infiltrate our minds and poison our reason, if only by deluding us that we are masters of our own destiny.
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