Madonna throughout her career has reached a status that few celebrities young, old and dead have been able to achieve. In 2006, Guinness Book of Records named her ‘the worlds highest earning female singer on earth’(Daily Mail 2006) couple this with 1 262 243 fans on Facebook, 39 655 followers on Twitter, 523 909 friends on Myspace, 17 634 news results (and counting) on Google news and her own channel on YouTube, Madonna is a force to be reckoned with. Showing her versatility Madonna has dabbled in children’s books, books on sex, politics and religion, stage and screen acting, business ventures and many other facets on top of her musical career. By easily reinventing herself each album release or to match the current social climate Madonna has successfully marketed herself as more of an Icon rather than a celebrity and a highly sought after commodity. By focusing on this commodification, this essay will explore Madonna’s career by comparing her initial rise to fame that began in the 80’s to early 90’s to her current celebrity/iconic status. This essay will first explore what a commodity is and how objects and people, in particular celebrities become commodities. With this knowledge this essay will then compare Madonna’s two time periods, focussing on her public and stage personas, her use of religion and her manipulation of herself and the media. Finally to conclude this essay will discuss the future of celebrity as a commodity and summarise how Madonna’s career epitomises this commodification.
In business the term commodity refers to a good that is bought and sold in relation to the fluctuation of the market. Karl Marx built on this concept by indicating that a commodity is a good but can also be a group such as human labour (Blunden 2009). Commodification occurs when something that was in the past not a commodity becomes one, this commodification can be an idea or a person, for a person to become a commodity, the goods that they’re offering needs to become something that can be bought and sold rather than available to anyone who wants it. Currently the commodification of celebrity has become an interesting topic of conversation for many academics and media representatives alike, as many are asking ‘Is celebrity a product commodity that can be manufactured through publicity, not by building an audience but by building the perception that one already exists?’ (Gamson 1994 p.3-4). Another academic has noted that; ‘….fame has become the most valuable (and also the most perishable) of commodities and that celebrity will be the greatest growth industry in the nineties…’ (Sudjic 1990).
Further academics have recognised that like most products, celebrity is now something that can be exchanged and bargained with, therefore it is now commodified (Marshall 1997 p.6) Celebrities such as Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan are perhaps perfect examples of how a celebrity becomes a commodity, as neither is particularly talented or known for one specific thing but they happen to appear most frequently in tabloid magazines for things ranging from love triangles, appearances at premieres to going out to get coffee. However there are other celebrities who have engineered their status as a commodity after initially building their fame on talent, as most know that talent alone does not cement your status in the hall of fame. One of the original material girls (not counting Marilyn Munroe) was Madonna who knew how to make her mark stick on the celebrity world.
In Author/izing the celebrity: Publicity rights, postmodern politics, and unauthorized genders (1991), Coombe discusses Madonna and whether the ownership of a celebrity’s persona and publicity should go to the celebrity or to the public - whether the stars investment into their celebrity status is worth it (Coombe 1991). For Madonna this investment is strong, as she draws from what Coombe calls previous ‘sex goddesses and ice queens’ (Coombe 1991 p.371) to give her a voice that speaks to numerous audiences and the ability to connect to them in a way other celebrities were unable to. Coombe also argues that although a celebrity’s image like Madonnas is reproduced over and over, her actions and general day to day existence doesn’t become irrelevant just because she is seen everywhere but rather the celebrity continues to be separate from those reproductions and therefore continues to rise in status (Coombe 1991).
For Madonna this separation is achieved through her many incarnations over the years, each persona marks a new beginning, a new audience and a new way for her old fans to love her. The first song that Madonna released was Like a Virgin in 1984 which sparked controversy over the lyrics and imagery of a lion throughout the clip (Wenner 2004). Later that year she released Material Girl which in her film clip she embodied Marilyn Monroe and appeared to ‘favour cash over credibility’ (Cains 2009 p.7). Even though she received strong success from her first couple of singles, critics themselves remained unconvinced of her talent but they were convinced she had the determination to succeed (Halasa 1991). After gaining interest from around the world from her music she embarked on her second and possibly most remembered tour, The Blonde Ambition Tour (Wenner 2004).
From the beginning the tour was rife with controversy with many cities picketing her shows and in Canada was nearly arrested for simulating masturbation on stage. However some of this controversy may have gone unnoticed if the media hadn’t been led by Madonna each step of the way. The Blond Ambition tour is also a good example of Madonna’s use of religion in her music, with many of her songs and choreography touching on religious themes and actions. Later in her career Madonna has said that her true attitude to religion is that she prefers to view it as a whole, taking parts from each religion and creating a universal view (Williams 2001).
From this period of Madonna’s career it would appear that although commercial success helped cement her fame, after that it had very little to do with it, her sex book was a critical failure and her acting talent left more to be desired yet she remained successful through her actions in her private life (which try as she may is very public). Perhaps why she has been this successful is that she has never tried to hide her true motives, she has called her music complete commercialism, indicating that she wanted to make art more accessible by turning a commodity into art (Halasa 1991).One reporter commented that for a person who is meant to embody mainstream music and lifestyle, she appears to have a rather progressive agenda (Meltzer 2000). She has also noted that she wants to push people’s buttons, to keep everyone on their toes and to keep them guessing which could indicate a lack of authenticity on Madonna’s part. This leaves the question, are her views controversial because she believes in what she’s saying and is not afraid to say it or is it just because those views are controversial? (Dominatrix of discourse 1991)
By the time Madonna got to 2000 she already had a slew of albums and had married Guy Ritchie a British film director and with this marriage came children. She had already gathered more controversy with her single, What it feels like for a girl with the music video for the song depicting her driving around robbing, murdering and driving into people, the video being so violent that MTV and VH1 banned the showing of it, which in true Madonna style didn’t stop it reaching number 1 on the US dance charts (Wenner 2004). Although critics were citing her Music album at the time her most edgiest ever, with her marriage and children Madonna was projecting an image to the press of a ‘homely british’ (Meltzer 2000 p.45) women who loves nothing more than to hang around her house and later head off to the pub with Guy (Meltzer 2000). In another move to expand her empire, Madonna wrote a children’s book which has now continued into a series. This next step in her career was met with cynicism as shortly before the book release she has just returned from kissing both Britney and Christina at the MTV awards (Cairns 2009). More recently in her Sticky and Sweet tour she sings Like a prayer with flashing images of the Bible, Qur’an, Torah and Talmud behind her and in another act which was sure to spark further controversy on her Hard Candy tour she was crucified on a bejewelled cross.
Then when touring in Romania earlier this year she called to equality for gypsies (a much discriminated culture there) where she was booed on stage, this act was covered by all major networks and magazines putting the discrimination in the spotlight (Associated Press 2009), with Madonna twittering later, ‘I feel I was misunderstood in Romania….’ (Madonna 2009) but acting the victim is perhaps the only face that Madonna cannot pull off comfortably and this essay believes that she knew exactly what would happen when she called for equality.
In one of her most recent interviews before the reporter even arrived conditions were imposed with a ban on topics about adoption, her most recent divorce, current love life and religion with the only topic on the table being her music, this censorship is a far cry from her original roots but also quite fitting for a icon of her stature (Cairns 2009). The interview goes onto suggest that although Madonna hasn’t given the public a classic since the nineties this is of little consequence to her or her fans, that its possible that Madonna herself has succumbed to ‘the froth of celebrity’(Cairns 2009 p. 6) and forgotten how hard she worked to get there. As previously mentioned the concept of celebrity has become more than ever a commodity, with more and more women and men becoming famous not for singing, acting or writing but for just being there. This essay believes that the commodification of Madonna which to a large extent she herself orchestrated is one of the best examples of a celebrity who originally became famous because of her music and is now famous for being famous with her music just becoming something she does (Turner 2005).
As the years progress this essay believes that the commodification of celebrity will increase to perhaps an unprecedented excess. With stars like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Clint Eastwood becoming few and far between, the new guard is now stepping up. This new guard headed with Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus are now dolls in toy stores, coverings on tweens books instead of a celebrity who inspires and shapes our existence but rather just passes the time until they get a little older and a new idol appears. For Madonna, this commodification is exactly what she set out to do, whether consciously or not but it was clear to many even back in nineties that Madonna will continue not matter what to find a way to remain relevant to her fan base and project an image that will epitomise her as a star (Sochen 1999). To conclude, the main difference between the commodification of Madonna and the commodification of other celebrities (Lohan, Gaga etc) is that like Elvis and Michael Jackson, Madonna has become so well-known that certain moves are known as a Madonna move and a conical bra will always be hers no matter who wears it, therefore she has achieved exactly what she set out to do and that is to be a very expensive commodity.
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