“Madonna once would come in dreams to cheer
My slumbers with angelical delight;
But now she brings foreboding in the night,
Nor can I drive away my grief and fear.
And in her phantom-face I see appear
Her own hurt mixed with pity for my plight,
And I hear words that cry above my fright
That the final term of joy and hope is near.
“Does our last evening not return to you?”
She says, “Your eyes were wet and shining when
For the lateness of the hour I had to flee.
I could not, nor I would not, tell you then,
But now I tell you, it is proved and true;
Never again on Earth you’ll look on me.”
—Petrarch, Sonnet 212, from The Canzoniere
Madonna never came to me in a dream. But Joni Mitchell did, and in the dream, Joni encouraged me to stay on my path. That dream was about a hundred years ago and I suppose I am still on my path. I mean, whose path could I possibly be on but my own? That seems obvious, but when Joni said “stay on your path” I thought that meant get onto her path, and follow it straight to genius, greatness, fame. Follow the path that takes you to Madonna, that makes you Madonna. That path.
Years later, after dragging my guitar around the East Village for a while, I picked up a book about the best “female singer/songwriters” (this was circa 2000) and I was surprised to see Madonna featured alongside artists like Joni Mitchell and Carole King. I‘m a proud Madonna fan when it’s appropriate, but I never thought of her as a singer/songwriter. It just didn’t seem to be the right label for her. The book immediately convinced me that I was wrong, mostly because I have a hard time holding onto my opinions. Madonna’s songs may depend on synth sounds, samples, and mechanical drum beats, but they are still songs. She is technically a songwriter, and she is also very much a singer. So she qualifies for the book, which is no doubt out of print, because who really wants to read a book about Sarah Mclachlan, etc? We still hear the songs on the radio, so, enough already.
If you have ever worked with a male music producer, recording engineer, or any male musician you know that they often have very strong opinions about recording artists and where they land on the ladder of musical genius. So I was surprised when a producer/engineer I worked with, whose opinion I respected, admitted that he was a loyal Madonna fan, and said he owned everything she had ever released. He said he followed her quite closely, because she always seeks out the most current, cutting-edge, respected DJ/producer before she commences work on an album. She hires producers who are just ahead of the trend, whether it’s dub, electronica, ambient, whatever. And my understanding is that she collaborates on the songwriting–she may come into the studio with a concept but in my imagination, they sit down with a beat or a sample and build out the song from there. I don’t how she works, what her creative songwriting process is. I looked into it, and checked out a couple of online interviews. Apart from discovering that she has a feigned English accent, all I learned was that she sometimes misses being married and she has several personal chefs. And she is most certainly playing the risky game of cosmetic surgery.
When I visualize Joni Mitchell, I picture her on the cover of For the Roses; she is crouching in the woods in buckskin and velvet with her long blonde hair brushed out neatly. I think there is also a picture of her naked, from behind, standing by a lake. It’s more hippy than sexy, unless you think Birkenstocks are sexy.
When I picture Madonna, a thousand images come to mind. I have to sift through them in my brain. I usually land on the shot of her that was the cover of her record Music. She is wearing glammed-up cowboy clothes and I am pretty sure she is pregnant. I like that. She was pregnant, and sexed herself up for a photo shoot.
Madonna would have us believe she is a free spirit whose artistry dictates all her choices. She just wants to express herself. But she is also such a marketplace commodity, or she was, and she is ever a businessman. I respect and love her for being a businessman. But I don’t know how free a person can be as an artist, within those constraints. I don’t know if any best-selling pop star can really call his or her self an artist. Not by the definition I have in my head.
I will gladly give that title to Joni Mitchell. Maybe because she sounds so ornery and rejecting in all of her songs. Or maybe because she also paints, and smokes, and seems like she might be living on the last of her funds right now. She didn’t become a magnate.
Artist/magnate. How can that be?