Woman with no agenda

Madonna: queen of the world

Douglas Thompson <em>John Blake Publishing, 290pp, £16.99</em>


The problem with a truly bad biography is that it tells you more about the author than it does about the subject. I now have a great insight into Douglas Thompson - he is sloppy, unintelligent and coy in a way that speaks of the most decrepit misogyny; he lacks imagination and he can't spell. He should have known he was in trouble when the best quote he had in 290 pages was this, from the pop star's ex-husband, Sean Penn: "I am no better an expert on her than anyone else. I was drunk most of the time."

About Madonna, I could tell you very little more than I knew already: that she got her tits out; that she put them back in again; that she dressed them up in warlike shapes; that, on occasion, her buttocks got involved; that she now favours the modest two-piece, although her wardrobe also contains some T-shirts.

There is very little to fascinate in the business of modern celebrity - some people can sing and dance. Of those people, perhaps 1 per cent will achieve some notoriety in doing so. Of those, some will get bored and stop, some will die, some will fall from grace and some will keep on going. Those who stop will be instantly replaced. They will follow the same diets and, as a consequence, their bodies will look the same. They will observe the fashions of the day and follow them - certain agencies of the media will hail this as a "reinvention" whereas, in fact, everybody changes their wardrobe now and then (except my father, and no doubt yours), and this has no discernible impact on their nature.

Madge stands out with her sexual daring. This first manifested itself in her convent days, when she took her top off and chased a boy around the playground. She went on to wear skimpy clothing at surprising moments, mime masturbation on stage, kick men out of bed for being insufficient, sing about the joys of spanking, toy with lesbianism (though only as a joke) and, oh, have sex with people. This is frequently dressed up as feminism, whereas her most famous songs - "Material Girl", "Papa Don't Preach" - actually set feminism back four or five decades, by setting up gold- digging as some kind of distaff ideal and precipitating the steepest rise in teen pregnancies since some wag came up with the myth that you couldn't get up the duff if you had sex standing on a telephone directory. The woman has done nothing whatsoever for female emancipation. The exhibitionism has no agenda. It is just a quirk.

Madonna has also been hailed as some kind of iconoclast for her sexy video frolics with the apparatus of the Catholic Church. This, again, is complete moonshine. Her true attitude to faith is that she "likes to partake in all religions", which, considering most of them have some variation on "There is only one true God" as their ideological centrepiece, suggests that she hasn't partaken of any of them beyond walking past a church/synagogue/mosque saying: "Gee, that looks cool! Shall we take a look inside?"

It neither surprises nor particularly matters that this pop star has yet to address any questions that aren't "What shall I wear?", "Who shall I have sex with?" and "What shall I spend all this wonga on?". You'd probably get the same kind of catechism from Monroe or Garland - had they not endured deep-seated psychic pain, and consequently encountered problems with drugs, food and anything else the human form can ingest, and died horrible, lonely deaths. That's what being famous requires: complete surrender, and ultimate martyrdom, to the gory public imagination. If you're just going to go after what you can get, plonk it in a high-interest account, get married and sprogged-up, and skip the hard part, then that's your choice. But don't expect to be interesting.

The only truly diverting thing Madonna has ever done was to give an interview to Blikk magazine, in which the questions were asked in English, translated into and written in Hungarian, then translated back to English.

Blikk: Madonna, let's cut toward the hunt. Are you a bold hussy-woman that feasts on men who are tops?

Madonna: Yes. In America it is not considered to be mentally ill when a woman advances on her prey in a discotheque setting with hardy cocktails present. And there is a more normal attitude toward leather play-toys that also makes my day.

Blikk: OK, here's a question from left space. What was your book Slut about?

Madonna: It was called Sex, my book.

Blikk: Not in Hungary. Here it was called Slut. How did it come to publish? Were you lovemaking with an about-town printer?

Perhaps this book could be improved by translating it into Icelandic and back again. Somehow, I doubt it.

Zoe Williams is a columnist on the London Evening Standard

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?