Sunday, September 08, 2013

Bowie v. Madonna

I admit right off the bat that I am about to make a useless, unfair comparison.  Apples to oranges, in a sense, but I don’t care.  This is a blog, goddamn it, not a scholarly journal.

I read recently that Madonna asked a crowd of whoever the fuck goes to a Madonna concert these days if anyone had seen Molly.  She was referencing the latest club drug, which is, apparently, ecstasy purified.  Or something.  But it’s all the rage with the electronic dance music kids, or so I’m told.  God knows I was never one of those, having two left feet and a functioning ability to discern art from trash.  Anyway, I look ridiculous when lit by glow stick. 

I mentioned this to Cassandra, who is something of a Madonna fan, yet not of the die-hard variety (she admires her for the way Madonna has helped bring gender politics into the wider public discussion).  I summed up Madonna’s question about Molly as another attempt to seem hip, as if Madge knows all about Molly and other fashionable drugs.  And she may for all I know, but it smacked as a far worse stab at relevance than the twerking of the former Hannah Montana. 

Cassandra turned my accusation on me; if it were David Bowie who’d said that to an audience, she argued, wouldn’t I think that was cool?  Ah… she got me there.  I mean, I give Bowie a pass all too often.  But I stuck to my guns.  No.  Bowie asking a crowd such a question would be silly, but Bowie wouldn’t do that.  Bowie does not need to make casual references to faddish drugs.  He’s done faddish drugs.  He’s sunk deep into their abyss.  Madonna can only imagine such a state.  So Bowie, clean for some time now, would likely not ask such a stupid question.  He’d write a song about addiction instead.  Or he’d keep quiet, as evidenced by his decade long silence only recently broken. 

But I got to thinking about these two very iconic artists.  Why do I give Bowie credit for having continually reinvented himself while I tend to poke fun at Madonna for her shape shifting, which I often see as desperate and sad?  My instinct is to write that Bowie is a real artist with vision and a healthy sense of experimentation whereas Madonna is simply an empty pop star.  But that's maybe too dismissive of the cultural impact of Madonna.  Anyway, both have dabbled in fads and tried new things to varying degrees of success.  In a way, both were mirrors that reflected the times more than the trend setters people hold them up to be (or have been).  But fuck it: Bowie rules.  Madonna drools. 

Here’s why:

Bowie’s reinventions have always contained more philosophic underpinnings.  Madonna, at her peak, was the sexy, taboo shattering material girl, a perfect symbol of the decadent 1980s culture of greed.  Good for her.  Then she dyed her hair and delved into Catholic imagery.  And dyed it again and told women to respect themselves and not go for second best.  All good messages.  Then she sang a tribute to fashion and striking a pose.  Okay.  Bowie sang about alienation as the late 60s turned into the 70s, the hippie ideals decaying in his space oddities, and the rise of the homo superior.  He sank in the existential quicksand of his thought.  And from that he rose to space again and came back as the glam icon, Ziggy Stardust.  And he killed his creation, as he would again and again, moving into new territory and confusing casual fans while recruiting a cadre of loyalists.  Madge just kept seeming less important as the 80s became the 90s.  Conversely, there may be no other streak of brilliance like Bowie’s in the 70s (lasting well into the 80s).  

And Bowie's song about fashion is so much better.  

Let me admit that yes, Bowie made some missteps.  Even in his decade of dominance, he made Young Americans, which has never been my favorite of his records, mostly as it tries very hard to be funk, and Pin Ups, a collection of not very great covers.  But he was willing to see ideas to their end, even when they were half-baked.  And they led to his best work, which, if you ask me, is his eleventh record, Low.

Let’s consider that for a second.  Low is his best record.  Now, many might disagree (most will claim The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars as his best… which is just wrong), but for a second let’s just all agree that Low is his acme, just for the sake of argument, okay?  Thanks.  That album is his eleventh.  ELEVENTH!  Madonna’s eleventh record was Hard Candy.  Not that I can truly claim to know this, but I am assuming no one has ever called Hard Candy indispensible or, as one critic called Low, the best record of the decade.  And guess what?  Low was the first of a trilogy of records that saw Bowie explore new ideas (with the help of Brian Eno and Tony Visconti) and mostly knock them out of the park.  Next album: Heroes, considered another of his best, it boasts the excellent title track, a song most musicians wish they could write, which Bowie recorded on his twelfth goddamn record.  Madonna’s twelfth?  MDNA.  Yawn…

What’s that?  Bowie hasn’t made a good record since Scary Monsters?  Aside from that being very debatable, I might venture that he doesn’t have to.  Even if he would have decided to stay in retirement and not make The Next Day, his legacy would have been more than secure.  But he dropped another record, which is hardly brilliant but does contain a few good songs, one of them very beautiful.  Yes, he’s way past his prime, but his prime lasted a long time.  Madonna’s?  I’d say about five years. 

And yes, Bowie plundered electronic music in the 90s and early 21st century, just like Madonna, but where she made some decent but forgettable pop songs, she also wrote “New York.  Every other city makes me feel like a dork.”  Bowie?  He was experimenting with soundscapes and his brand of cryptic lyrics.  Point: Bowie. 

And yes, Bowie plundered black music.  The before mentioned attempt to be funky is not my favorite of his many personas, but it produced a cross over hit, “Fame”, which he preformed on Soul Train (the first white guy ever on the show, by the way).  How did Madonna emulate a largely African-American art form?  She rapped. 

Yes, Madge rapped.  “American Dream” features Missy Elliot, whose presence hardly excuses Madonna’s dismal rhymes:

“I'm drinking a Soy latte / I get a double shoté / It goes right through my body / And you know I'm satisfied. / I drive my Mini Cooper / And I'm feeling super-dooper / Yo they tell me I'm a trooper / And you know I'm satisfied / I do yoga and pilates / And the room is full of hotties / So I'm checking out the bodies…” 

All this before discussing her agent, chef, nannies (three of them), money, cars, and other shit.  She’s living the American dream, you see, until she realizes “that nothing is what it seems.”  Deep as a soup spoon, Madge. 

Bowie has done some ridiculous things as well, but even his lowest moments (a painful duet and video with Mick Jagger, the whole Glass Spiders thing) aren’t as horrid as “American Dream” the absolute nadir of a career that peaked early, managed to stay afloat for longer than it should have, and now refuses to die. 

Whew… that felt good.  Thanks for letting me kill time before Breaking Bad.