Valerio Mannucci

from NERO n.11 october/november 2006

He says that Madonna, Veronica Louise Ciccone, is not just an icon. And I agree, but when I ask him why, he replies that Madonna has also done a lot on an artistic and musical level. I’m not sure what he’s getting at and I ask him to be more precise. He says there are two fundamental aspects that we should keep in mind, the first concerns music, the second, everything else. He says that the most important things when speaking about Madonna are: the men, women, MTV, sex, art, the photographs taken of her, her 1984 performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, cinema, her kiss with Britney Spears in 2003. Thanks to these things, he maintains, the life of Madonna traces the evolution of the relationship between music and television, and between live music and music videos. I’m not sure how important this kind of discourse can be so I ask for more information. He explains that first of all, there’s the music, but he would prefer not to talk about this. He’s silent, then takes out a sheet of paper and, reading from it, tells me that Ciccone has sold more than 280 million records. No other woman has sold as many. But to me, this doesn’t seem to be the main point.
He says if musicians originally worked with two dimensions while on stage, a third dimension has been added with Madonna. Previously, a singer went on stage to do two things: to sing the song and to perform the theatrical act of singing the song. He gives the example of Jim Morrison who sang and clutched the microphone at the same time. So I ask what’s the third dimension of Madonna. He replies that I have to think of television. Madonna, he adds, was the first to make music with television.
Then, all of a sudden, he changes the subject and tells me to think about her private life. He says that to understand Madonna I have to mythologize her. Then he asks me if I know everything that Madonna did before she was Madonna. I tell him that all that I know about her is connected to her activity as a soloist. He mentions a few groups that she founded: “Breakfast Club”, “Modern Dance”, “Emmenon”, “The Millionaires”, “Emmy & The Emmies”. I’ve never heard of them.
He tells me the myth of a very poor young girl who worked at all kinds of jobs. He says that Madonna was not naive but, on the contrary, attentive; that besides her strictly musical activity she also studied modern dance with Martha Graham and performed with various companies. He emphasises that while this aspect is important, it’s only when she begins to write and produce dance pieces that the record world notices her. Then, after a brief pause, he says that MTV is involved, that the creation of musical Madonna strangely coincides with the creation of MTV.
He continues, saying that in the beginning of her career, in the early 1980s, Madonna was distributed by Warner Bros., who also controlled a large portion of MTV in that same period. And he adds that her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1984 marked a fundamental phase in the history of “live” music. I ask him why and he sighs before replying.
He says that the matter of Madonna’s greatness is all here. All in the relationship with television. Put like that, the matter frightens me a little.
First of all, he says, I have to keep in mind that there have been very precise eras in music: in the first phase one played the music and that was it. The concepts of playing, reproduction and recording didn’t exist. Everything was tied to the fact that music could be listened to only when someone was actually playing it. He tells me to think of tribal or popular music. In the second phase a new component, recording, appeared. Music was liberated from the necessity of having to be played in order for it to be listened to. However, he emphasises, one still recorded for the pure need to document. After this phase followed a third in which recording got the upper hand. One played in the studio in order to record, and one played live to promote the cut record. He tells me that this phase is the most historically deep-rooted, the one that still continues to lay down the law today. But, he adds, now there’s even a fourth phase in action in which all these aspects (playing, recording, composing, reproducing) are thought of in reverse order, from back to front, as if they were things to use for a purpose, television for example.
It all makes sense but we’ve returned to television without any real answers. He understands my perplexity and adds that in this fourth phase, one always sought to make music videos seem like a recorded live set and not what they really are: namely, short film clips with a soundtrack.
He looks at me expectantly, as if he anticipates a question, but I remain silent. He begins again saying that in most videos, above all in rock and pop culture, there’s a continual search for devices directed towards this aim. That in every video it’s possible to trace the reference to stereotypes that certify the authenticity of a musical performance. He gives the examples of the live presence of the musicians who pretend to play an instrument in playback, of lip-synching (the lips moving in sync with the audio), of the fake public. I understand what he means, but I ask what Madonna’s got to do with it.
He now responds in a lapidary way. Madonna never wanted, nor needed, to simulate her musical authenticity. If, previously, the concern of almost all musicians was to claim the authenticity of a musical performance executed for a television programme, with Madonna all this became superfluous. The significant authenticity for Madonna was not that of the stage, but of the “televisual”…
I ask him if he means to say that Madonna is only a televisual personality. He smiles at me, as if he only half agreed. He corrects me, explaining that he meant that Madonna is a lot more, but that she never tried to fake being a musician simply filmed by the television cameras. He insists on the fact that televisable pop is none other than a show of television personalities who perform two acts in addition to being personalities: the act of singing a song and the act of showing the song being sung. He continues, saying that there were even attempts by television itself to recuperate the musical authenticity, but despite everything, he says, since Madonna we travel in a triple dimension. The thing seems to make sense; I convince myself that deep down he’s right. I’m silent for a while as I try to put all the pieces together. He repeats that there was a shift in musical and media-related dynamics over the years and, for various reasons, Madonna found herself at this crossroads and knew how to move better than others.
I would like to understand how she did this. He responds that the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York was one of the first cases, certainly the most striking, of a lip-synched live performance created for a (live) television event. The first example in which the recorded song had to seem live and the live performance to be thought of as a future video. He emphasises that this was the most intelligent move made by MTV and Madonna, that it made her a craftsman. Then he asks me if I remember the video. I remember Madonna coming out of an enormous cake in a wedding dress and then improvising a striptease. He insists that this is the literal and folkloric aspect of it all. That Madonna’s true greatness is her extraordinary capacity to be televisual and musical at the same time, without being as “ televisual as she is musical”. I find the discourse hard to follow and he clarifies the concept by explaining that the performance by Madonna became an actual video because it already was a video from the live performance and not because it was musically significant. Madonna’s capacity to interpret the medium, he sustains, is equal to very few other artists worldwide.
Perhaps he doesn’t feel like going on; he remains silent. He only adds that in order to succeed in this act of historic mutation, the image also played an important role.
As soon as he begins to talk about the media-related aspect, he notices that I back away a little. He tells me to relax because Madonna herself never kept it a secret. He cites the examples of the photo album “Sex” and the record “Erotica”, both forms of self-exposure. He understands that I was expecting this type of discourse and adjusts the aim, reminding me that he’s the first to not consider Madonna simply a living icon.
I slide away, almost as if I don’t want to hear anymore, but he presses on with the issue of the women. He says that Madonna, besides being sexy and maternal, was also lesbian; and the “also” would be to say that she’s bisexual, I think. I wouldn’t be surprised if he said she’s bisexual in order not to disappoint any of her public.
I would like to ask him why he’s telling me all this but he replies that he has to leave.