Esquire Magazine: Madonna at Halftime, Home at Last
She is the kind of superstar a game like the Super Bowl deserves. The Super Bowl halftime show is America's penitential stage. It is the biggest gig in the world, with the biggest audience, and it draws the biggest acts. But in many ways it's like the game itself: deracinated from any real fan base, given over to corporate excess, spectacular only in the sense that it offers spectacle, loud and overblown, subordinate to the products being hawked on the commercials. The game, however, often rises above the Christians-versus-lions atmosphere of excess because, after all, it's football — those really are Christians and lions, they're tearing each other apart, and despite all the artificiality they really do bleed. The halftime show never does. We watch Tom Brady and Eli Manning to see how good they might be; we watch The Who or The Stones or even Bruce to see how bad. Performers don't get to sing at the Super Bowl halftime unless they're among the very best in the world; and yet we watch them for the same reason we watch the first round of American Idol. They're old. They're irrelevant. They can't sing. They can't dance. They're sellouts. Their wardrobes malfunction. And, of course, they're old. The Super Bowl halftime show is at once an apotheosis and a reckoning, and the only performer who survived with his dignity intact was a performer who has for the last 20 years already subjected his dignity to the whims of his eccentricity — and even Prince did a medley of greatest hits and warhorse covers instead of new material.
Next up is Madonna, who on Sunday in Indianapolis is scheduled to sing four old songs and one new one, and apparently the reckoning is already at hand, at least on the Internet. The woman is 54 years old. She never was much of a singer, and only slightly more gifted as a dancer. She affects an English accent, and at her last televised appearance, at the Golden Globes, she came off as both imperious and needy, with her arms worked out into strips of jerky. She's like a mother who embarrasses her children with her desperation to stay hot and current, and the moniker she's been given by the gossip industry — the disingenuously familiar "Madge," apparently short for "Her Majesty" — was last worn in public by the lady in the old Palmolive ad. What she really wants to do is direct... so how the hell is she going to survive the pitiless eminence of the Super Bowl?
Here's how: She's Madonna. She's not better than The Stones or The Who, but she's bigger. Indeed, of four big acts that defined the Eighties — Michael Jackson, Prince, and Bruce being the others — she is the biggest, and the Eighties, for better and for worse, have defined everything that's followed. Her songs, arguably, have held up better than all but a few of Jacko's or Prince's, but what has made her so influential is not any of her songs but rather the way she has dwarfed her songs, the way she has made even the best of them almost afterthoughts, subservient to the larger spectacle of her career. No, she's not a great singer or dancer, but she never had to be, because she invented a new kind of stardom — stardom by way of Warhol's irony, by way of disco divahood, by way of New Wave dressup, by way of Reagan-era ambition. She was never Madonna, but Madonna was many things, and at a time when pop music was bitterly divided between notions of authenticity and artifice, she put a decisive finger on the scales. She invented not only herself but a relentlessly fungible idea of the self; she made us care not only about what she was doing but what she was doing next; and she imbued pop music with the values not only of MTV but also of Vegas. It wasn't that she was inauthentic, exactly, or artificial; it was that she knew that ambition trumped both, and that she could admit to striking a pose as long as she had another pose in her pocket, lined up and ready to go.
Sure, the debate about authenticity in pop music drags on; witness the endless explication of Lana Del Rey (guilty as charged). But there wouldn't have been a Lana Del Rey without a Madonna Louise Ciccone; nor a Britney Spears; nor a Ke$ha; nor, obviously, a Lady Gaga. Nearly 30 years ago, Madonna invented pop stardom as we know it today, whether we happen to listen to Cat Power or Bjork, Nikki Minaj or M.I.A. — both of whom guest on our new single, by the way, and might very well appear beside her at the Super Bowl. So don't worry about how "Madge" is going to navigate the treacherous spectacle of the Super Bowl halftime show. The game will begin with warplanes splitting the sky; it will end with confetti raining down; and halfway in between, there she will be, at home in the most appalling extravagance. She gave birth to it, after all. Which is why she got away with calling herself Madonna.