“This robot is so not a ‘dick in drag'”, Entry 1: Madonna
Precisely because she extols the liberatory power of hetero sex, Madonna remains firmly within the humanism that Lee Edelman identifies as “reproductive futurism.” In spite of all the love she gets from 80s white feminists and from gay men, Madonna’s oeuvre consistently reaffirms the redemptive power of reproductive love. This theme is borne out even in her most controversial work. Take, for example, the “Like a Prayer” video. Burning crosses and black Jesus aside, the video’s narrative focuses on the mutual redemption of Madonna and the wrongly-accused stranger she exculpates. The music leads us to major-key gospel choir uplift, and the lyrics speak of the redemptive power of the child (“like a child, you whisper softly to me…when you call my name, it’s like a little prayer…in the midnight hour, I can feel your power…etc. etc. etc.). This song is all about the Child (capital “C”, which Edelman identifies as the sine qua non of heteronormative humanism). bell hooks couldn’t have been more right: Madonna is a “dick in drag,” a representative and enforcer of white heteropatriarchy.
Madonna’s humanism is most evident when her work deals explicitly with technology. I want to examine two such examples: (1) the “Express Yourself” video, which refers to and reworks Lang’s Metropolis, and (2) “Future Lovers,” which is based on what may be the first electronic dance track ever, Summer and Moroder’s “I Feel Love.”
First, “Express Yourself”:
The video is clearly a take on Lang’s Metropolis: the Deco Gotham-esque city, the “steampunk” factory scene, the eagle on which Madonna sits remind us of interwar Germany. Sure, there’s the “Manhole” homoeroticism in the dancers/factory workers, but this gayness (not, notably, queerness, b/c it’s still within binary gender) is appropriated by Madonna to prove her white heteropatriarchial cred. There’s Madonna, the pretty blond in the role of Maria, and the two scheming men in the roles of the Master and Freder. Once Madonna slips into “something more comfortable,” she performs a very stereotypical white hetero feminine sexuality. Sure, some may say it was “bold” at that time to see a white woman act like that, but Madonna had already been expressing her “shocking” sexuality for quite a while. Ultimately, up till 1:59 in the video we have nothing outside of binary, mainly hetero, gender.
At the 2:00 mark, Madonna drags things up a bit, appearing on the factory floor in a man’s suit and a butchy haircut. The choreographed crotch-grabbing and bicep-pumping reinforce her masculine identity, as does her position as the object of the (implicitly gay) workers’ gaze. In fact, a lot of the choreography (the crotch-grabbing and footwork that shows white socks with dark shoes) is reminiscent of Michael Jackson, the king of pop. This is the key moment that distinguishes Madonna’s take on Metropolis from Gaga’s and Beyonce’s. Where Madonna’s revolutionary action consists in transforming herself into a white man, Bey and Gaga transform themselves into robots (which, as I have argued elsewhere, are coded as black women).* Madonna’s blonde ambition is to accede to privilege and its trappings; her “insurrection” does not de-center any norms, but adopt them. By juxtaposing the hetero love scene with the workers’ uprising in the factory, the end of the video posits that heterosexuality—not, notably, either Madge in drag or factory man-on-factory-man sex—is salvational and redemptive. Here, then, by refusing the robot, Madonna reaffirms white heteropatriarchial humanism. As I will argue in subsequent posts in this series, Bey’s and Gaga’s choice to adopt the identity of Metropolis’s famous robot is a dis-identification with white heteropatriarchial humanism.
On to “Future Lovers,” as performed in Madonna’s Confessions tour:
First, despite all the supposedly shocking allusions to pony-play, this performance proves bell hooks’ take on Madonna continues to be correct. Notice that Madonna always remains in a position of dominance over the non-white, non-straight, or even somewhat kinky straight “people” represented by her dancers. The track’s humanism is much clearer when you compare its lyrics to those of the song it reworks, “I Feel Love.” So, “Future Lovers” is, like “Express Yourself,” about the redemptive power of (reproductive) love. Love is the future, even: “lovers shine in eternity/in a world that’s free.” The song even attempts to “warm up” the bare repetitiveness of Moroder’s original instrumentation by adding sustained chords over the synths and drum machines (Moroder does this only in the intro and the break, when there are no vocals). Summer’s “I Feel Love,” however, speaks of nothing but indulgence and sensuality: she says only “I fell love” and “It’s so good”. The love that Summer feels is ateleological and nonredemptive.
So, in spite of all her supposedly “radical” posturing, Madonna’s work consistently reinforces the redemptive power of hetero (reproductive) sex. She also reinforces humanist values by refusing to adopt posthuman identities, and by trying to “warm up” too-cold electro tracks.
Next, I’ll talk about Beyonce’s Afrofuturist posthumanism. This will mainly be a summary of the article cited below, with some further considerations of the queerness of Beyonce’s Afrofuturist posthumanism (which is the subject of an article I’m currently working on).
* See James, Robin, “Robo-Diva R&B” in The Journal of Popular Music Studies Volume 20, Issue 4, Pages 402–423.