Monday, April 11, 2016

Madonna and the Return of the White Negro

In her analysis of the films Truth or Dare and Paris is Burning, Ann Cvetkovich notes that Madonna's image is largely reliant upon her privileged economic position and her willingness to submit herself to the "demands consumer culture makes of women" (160). Reinvention and image transformation are relatively easy (discounting the enormous amount of time it takes to physically apply make-up, hair stylings, and elaborate costumes) when you're the biggest pop star in the world. Madonna's appropriation of black and queer identities, with their focus on personal expression and collective empowerment, works magic for her own image, raking in millions in ticket and album sales, while not really doing much for the people she supposedly aligns herself with. In this way, Madonna is able to have her cake and eat it too, cherry-picking "edgy" identity expressions (which usually involve her dancing alongside a black performer) while still proving to be white enough for mainstream success. This phenomenon is nothing new, American popular music has relied on black rhythm, voices, and skin for inspiration and plagiarism since the days of minstrel shows and blackface. While many of the early appropriations of blackness are often seen as mocking and derogatory (and they are), the white performers' relationship with blackness is far more complex. Blackness is seen as a liberating force in the 1927 Warner Bros. talkie The Jazz Singer. Al Jolson plays the son of a Jewish cantor who is obsessed with the popular music of his time, jazz. Jazz represents for Jolson's character a liberation from his conservative family's traditions and blackface performance becomes the means through which he can fully express himself as a performer. The film endows blackness (or at least the imitation of blackness) with a level of authenticity unattainable by the stodgy traditions of the Old World. It is this sensibility, the youthful drive to differentiate oneself from one's parents that drove many white students in New York to black jazz clubs in Harlem in a phenomenon documented by Norman Mailer in his 1957 essay "The White Negro". His description of the "hipster", the product of a menage-a-trois between the bohemian, the juvenile delinquent, and the Negro, describes this new breed of white kid as "urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts". Mailer's essay is crucial to understanding the white performer's relationship to black culture. The white performer, be they a jazz singer, a rock-and-roller, or Madonna, is quick to announce their indebtedness to black culture but typically is not as quick to step aside and let a black person succeed like they have. In the case of Madonna, this attitude manifests itself as her maternalistic relationship with the queer folks of color with whom she identifies. As bell hooks notes in her essay "Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?", Madonna aligns herself with black culture in "ways that mock and undermine"; the image presented by a video like "Like a Prayer" show that Madonna's sexual agency is found by "breaking the ties that bind her as a white girl to white patriarchy, and establishing ties with black men" (161). Madonna's image is one of transformation, reinvention, and liberation but at what price? She may seem to espouse an inclusive message of personal expression and freedom but her own relationships with her queer dancers as shown in Truth or Dare are highly controlled and uncomfortably problematic. She frequently refers to her dancers as her "children" and their experience and pain seem second-place to her own preoccupations. Ultimately, Madonna harnesses the transformative power of the "Negroes" of her era, the drag performances of gay and trans people of color, in a way that subordinates their identity to her success.

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