video: Rihanna performing for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. (?!) Below, Madonna's "Hung Up" and the trailer for Rize.
I'm listening to Rihanna's "SOS" with that mash-up-style "Tainted Love" sample, and her "Don't Stop The Music" which includes a little synthesizer riff that echoes another woebegone 80s hit "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night". And while appreciating the latest in trashy but quite satisfying pure pop, I finally remembered to download the single "Hung Up" from Madonna's last album, even as her new album is about to come out. It's got a bore-into-your-body catchiness, with its roots sunk deeply into the dance floor. Absurd though Madonna may be in many ways, you have to give her credit: she knows how to make a pop song.
Let me say for the record that in college I wrote a fairly serious 35 page paper about the semiotics of dance in Madonna's videos. To put this in historical context, this was during the same semester that a group of women students at my college put on an equally serious forum and discussion entitled "Is Madonna a Feminist?" (Though I think it has always been clear that the answer to that question must be given in three parts: yes, no, and who cares?)
Madonna is a genius of pop music, whose calculating intelligence about the genre has allowed her to outlast just about every other pop star of her original era. She is no longer the center of pop music, and she will never be the startling new thing. Now that she is the age of the mothers of the most ardent pop music consumers (teenage girls), her place in the pop world is as a commenter as much as a practitioner.
This music video is one example: it's a little visual review essay about the dance trends of the time it was made. Those trends, and the kids who create them, are juxtaposed against Madonna wearing the kind of clothes and haircut she likely wore when she was their age.
Madonna, like anyone serious about pop music, knows that pop music and dance are always being born and reborn again and again in poor neighborhoods and gay clubs. So, at the end of this video, you have a group of kids from South Central LA taking a taxicab which ends up at a club in London. In reality, the only link between Madonna's world in London and these kids is probably a DVD of the documentary Rize, about krumping. But I don't think Madonna is asking us to believe that she is from the South Central LA world of krumping, or even that she understands it. Just that she celebrates it, along with Dance Dance Revolution (the dance video game seen at the end), the French acrobatic street stunts of parkour, and some kind of crazy disco dance with a fish in an Asian restaurant which for all I know represents some other kind of trend.
Now that this video has become dated, its underlying idea is actually more clear. It's about the enthusiasms of youth, which always date themselves in their details, but are also timeless in their general outlines: combinations of dance, desire, doubt, determination. It's about a woman who's now much older, remembering that time and that way of living, the time in her life when she was driven to make her mark but had not yet made it. Dance songs then were about "You don't appreciate me so I'm going to go on without you" (Gloria Gaynor was playing on the club speakers singing "I Will Survive" when Madonna came to New York) and this dance anthem is yet another variation on that eternal club anthem theme.
As for me, I remember the nerdy earnestness of the teenage record store guy who spent hours listening over and over again to a jazz record and then more hours listening over and over again to a 12" club remix of a pop song; then goes to a college and writes a paper about Madonna; goes to San Francisco and gets caught up in AIDS with the same nerdy earnestness; and then becomes a doctor, which in fact is the ultimate culmination of nerdy earnestness. Which I think makes this post the equivalent of Madonna's pink late-disco-era leotard, my memory of who I was when I was young.