As the most widely discussed, analyzed, and debated pop star to emerge since the 1960s, Madonna is a hard person to say much new about. Unfortunately, this is something far too many of the contributors to the new anthology Madonna & Me: Women Writers On The Queen Of Pop prove, over and over, on its pages. Many of the writers in Madonna & Me come from the feminist-blog salt mines, and it’s clear that many of them simply haven’t been pushed all that hard, or that frequently, to clarify ideas, get rid of clichés, fine-tune sentences, and exercise the first person judiciously. Sure, the details are specific to their authors. But there’s little sense of pace here, and many of the essays are so similar in outline—young women who overtly worship/secretly like Madonna as kids, wrestle with her persona as they get older and discover feminism, and finally see her fondly to some degree or other—that it’s hard not to think of Mad Libs.
Some of the writing is simply painful. Jessica Valenti’s foreword quotes bell hooks and Camille Paglia at length only to arrive at this riveting conclusion: “When it comes to Madonna, there’s nary a woman who lacks for an opinion.” Kate Harding’s six pages fall on the repeated refrain, “I don’t know. Shrug,” a tone its other paragraphs match. (As a rule, writing about one’s indifference to an icon doesn’t generate many sparks.) J. Victoria Sanders compares the Material Girl with Oprah Winfrey by calling them “both unlikely trendsetters. Oprah became an almost accidental arbiter of literary taste while Madonna made adopting African children chic for hot celebrity white women.”
It’s telling that one of the book’s sharpest pieces, by Susan Shapiro, effectively lampoons much of what surrounds it: “Although she’s size-3 petite and I’m an 8 1/2 on a good day, and she’s now a multizillionaire megastar whose books sold 350,000 copies the first hour and I’m in the middle of a ten-year poetry book in progress, we’re uncannily connected.” Only two pieces here match it. One is Lisa Crystal Carver’s gleeful attack, “Count Madonnicula”: “Sexy boxer stroking herself. Sexy powdered-wig lady stroking herself. Sexy guitar-humper. Sexy pole-humper. ‘Quit masturbating, Madonna!’ I want to yell.” The other is Emily Nussbaum’s “Justify My Love,” a freewheeling essay about what Madonna’s return to living in New York might mean that was reprinted from New York magazine. It’s available on their website. Read it there.