Madonna rose to become one of the world’s most famous icons in the early 1980’s at a time when image was becoming a big issue, influencing a whole generation of popular culture and becoming one of the most controversial of music artists to date. In his article ‘Madonna, fashion, and image’ Douglas Kellner (Media Culture 1995) asserts that “Madonna’ is a site of genuine contradiction”, arguing that she “pushes the most sensitive buttons of sexuality, gender, race and class, offering challenging and provocative images …as well as ones that reinforce dominant conventions”. Kellner’s article, then, points to a Gramscian approach to the Madonna phenomenon in respect to hegemony and the method “by which a dominant class wins the willing consent of the subordinate classes to the system that ensures their subordination” (Fiske 1987), putting forward the argument that Madonna takes a counter-hegemonic stance in areas including racial issues, sexuality, gender control and bourgeois ideology.Kellner proposes that through the employment of fashion and image Madonna brings attention to issues of social domination that are then globally disseminated through television and video as well as in concert thereby enabling her work to be decoded, allowing the receivers of her message to develop personal views on what is being presented. This is summed up by Cathy Schwichtenberg in her book ‘The Madonna Connections’ (1993) writing that “Madonna’s success may be due less to her artistic talent and more to her ability to tap into and disturb established hierarchies of gender and sexuality”.
Others, then, would argue against Madonna being a revolutionary transgressor but instead is a success pop star who uses subcultures to elicit a strong interest in her work and further her own ambitions and greed. [ALW1] Madonna rose to fame in the early 1980’s through her video ‘Lucky Star’ which depicted her according to Annalee Newitiz in her article ‘Madonna’s Revenge’, as “young ‘post-punk’ woman dressed in several rosaries, bangles, black mesh, a wrap-around mini skirt, and, most memorably, a bare belly” (www. eserver. org/bs/09/Newitz.html); prior to the release of the video Madonna had had very little success with this song, indicating that her image had more impact then her music.
Though this video was somewhat controversial, it was her ‘Borderline’ (1983) video in which Madonna could be seen to be confronting social issues, whilst at the same time contradicting herself. The video offers two narratives, one of Madonna in a relationship with a Hispanic youth where she is dressed in a ‘tarty’, openly sexual manner with the scenes taking place in full colour.The second narrative portrays Madonna as a model for a white fashion photographer against a background of high art which is filmed in black and white, with her being beautifully dressed as an alluring blonde.
Initially, Madonna’s character rejects the Hispanic youth in favour of the photographer, then rejecting him also, she finally returns to the Hispanic character. Kellner interprets this as Madonna intending the meaning to be that women can enjoy interracial relationships on their own terms, and are free to do so without being influenced by wealth.This theme is carried through with the ‘Material Girl’ video in 1984 in which Madonna depicts herself as a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like enjoying the trappings of wealth in the form of haute couture and diamonds, and who is courted and won over by what appears to be a poor workman, although he turns out to be a rich studio owner. The contradiction arises from the opposing interpretation of these two videos, particularly ‘Material Girl’, which is that Madonna is in fact endorsing materialism, something for which she was originally criticised for doing by the media.