Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Madonna

Material Girls

I feel for Madonna, I really do. Not exactly young and spritely, it isn’t easy jockeying for attention with theatrical pop princesses like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. It can’t be good when even the gays have stopped talking about you. So, to the perennial question ‘Can she act?’ (short answer: no) Madge is about to add ‘Can she direct?’ when her first feature film is released early next year.

Awkwardly titled ‘W.E’, the movie tells the story of Edward VIII, who was King of England for a few months in the mid-thirties before giving it up for the woman he loved, a twice-divorced American named Wallis Simpson.

Abandoning the throne to his stuttering younger brother Albert (father of the current Queen), Edward and Wallis were free to marry. Wallis became a Duchess by default, but was denied the title Her Royal Highness and would never be officially accepted by the family. To make up for this, her husband gave her a lot of jewelry.

It will be a tad too easy for critics to draw a connection between the would-be Queen and the Queen of Pop: Madonna, another ambitious American divorcee who’s had her morals questioned on more than one occasion, knows a thing or two about gate-crashing Buckingham Palace. Indeed, in the last decade she has pilfered from the moribund world of the British aristocracy in the way she used to from inner city black drag queens, trading black lace for tweed and Vogue-ing for curtsies.

Somewhat embarrassingly, in some interviews she has gone so far as to adopt the clipped English sounds of the tongue of Rupert Everett.

“It was easy to get swept up in the historical relevance and epic romance of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII,” Madonna told Vanity Fair. “The fact that they were also the fashion icons of their day added to their allure for me.”   The film’s costume designer turned to Dior, Cartier and Dunhill for Wallis’s 60 outfit changes, and remarks that “Wallis and the Duke both made a lifestyle out of presentation.”

But the glamorous couple comprise only half the film, as the plot also concerns a young woman called Wally Winthrop (a contemporary New Yorker, despite the Dickensian name) who becomes obsessed with the Duchess after a Sotheby’s auction of her belongings (presumably, a lot of jewelry). A little ‘Julie & Julia’, yes, and also very meta: Madonna being inspired by Wallis for a movie about a young woman who is inspired by Wallis.

And while I won’t scoff at the idea of identifying with cultural figures and relating them to your own life (that is one of the themes of this very blog) I can’t help but think there’s a better story to tell about Edward and Mrs. Simpson.

For instance, they were probably Nazis.

Not long after their wedding in 1937, (Wallis wore a cinched-waist Mainboucher dress in light blue, to match her eyes) the lovebirds went on a trip to Obersalzberg, Germany, to meet Adolf Hitler at his mountain retreat. During the visit the Duke, who earlier had been in favour of an alliance between Great Britain and the Third Reich, gave the full Nazi salute.

No less of an insider than Albert Speer, the designer of Hitler’s monumental, imposing architecture, a very good metaphor for Fascism’s rejection of the individual human life, said of Edward, “I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.” Decades after the full extent of the Holocaust came to light, the Duke reportedly remarked to a friend, “I never thought Hitler was such a bad chap.”

Two years later, war was declared and the British government, worried that they could be used as spies, sent the couple down to the Bahamas, where Edward was installed as Governor. He won some praise for attempting to fight poverty, while still making patronizing, racist remarks about the country’s people. In 1945, the war ended, the Duke resigned and never held another official position.

To supplement his stipend from Buckingham Palace, he wrote articles and a few books, mostly about his sense of style and his family’s history. (Wallis’s bejeweled brooches didn’t grow on trees, after all.) The couple, who bounced between Paris and New York, were regulars on the dinner party circuit, although Gore Vidal once described the “vacuity” of their conversation.

Just as the recent allegation that Coco Chanel was a Fascist spy during Paris’s occupation undermines the heroic romance of the French resistance, remembering the Duke and Duchess’s unsavory ties is a useful reminder that, for all the Churchillian resolve of some British leaders, others were not convinced Hitler was altogether such a bad chap.

Madonna’s largest filmic contribution up to this point was ‘Evita’ (1996), playing yet another glamorous and controversial official’s wife, one who also has been accused of being Nazi-sympathetic (probably unfairly).

One hopes that this time around the Material Girl has done her research and recognizes that the most truthful retelling is, in this case, also the most interesting. But with her preoccupation with tweeds and jewelry, I suspect her film will be a vacuous as the couple’s conversation.

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Just go for it!

Sometimes a kiss isn’t just a kiss.

Sometimes it can change the world.

When singer Adam Lambert makes out with male members of his band during his concerts it is a part of his Boy George retro-kitsch glam-rock theatricality, an act of defiance against sometime-blatantly homophobic jeers the ‘American Idol’ contestant has endured.

On Tuesday, he announced that he would heed the Malaysian government’s wishes and not kiss anyone onstage during his concert in Kuala Lumpur. He said that his “main goal was to keep people entertained, not make them uncomfortable.”  “It’s a tough decision to make, but there are so many amazing fans in Malaysia that it’s more important for me to be able to come and do my show there for them and entertain them and thank them for supporting me.”

I’m not Adam Lambert (actually, I can’t name one of his songs) but if it was me up on that stage, I would have a full-on, no-holds-barred, snog with a guy. I would kiss a boy and, yes, I would like it.

First of all, the government restrictions, which ban kissing, stripping and jumping (?!) on stage during concerts are gender-neutral and therefore not connected to Malayasia’s horrendous homosexuality laws, so I would imagine the punishment would be less harsh than twenty years in prison for sodomy. Malaysia has the unfortunate combination of priggish colonial laws along with fundamentalist Islamic groups all too willing to use homophobia to gain political power. For instance, while cross-dressing is not technically a crime, transgendered Muslims can be charged under Syariah law for “impersonating women.”

While prosecution for gay sex is relatively rare, for groups like the “People’s Anti-Homosexual Voluntary Movement” (which lobbies for stricter anti-gay laws) and, one fears, the Malaysian government itself (which banned gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people from appearing in the state controlled media in 1994) it is all about appearances and to keep queer sexuality hidden and shameful.

Which is why Adam Lambert should kiss a guy on stage. I assume there’d be a fine, or they would ban him from performing in the country again. Are they really going to arrest an American celebrity? And if they do, they have instantaneously brought the attention of the world onto the state of LGBT rights in Malaysia.

In the 1991 documentary ‘Truth or Dare’ about Madonna’s ‘Blonde Ambition’  tour, when she is about to perform at (what was then still called) the Skydome, a couple of Toronto police officers arrive to warn Madge that if she performs ‘Like a Virgin’ as she has during the rest of the tour she could be arrested. The cops’ problem is her “simulating masturbation” which they claim goes against Toronto the Good’s decency laws (“So what’s considered masturbation?” Madonna asks. “When you stick your hand on your crotch,” her brother replies.)

Discussing it with her managers, she is adamant that she does not want to change her show, that she is an “artist” with “artistic integrity” and that, as a further bonus, if the officers arrest her after the show, she will be in every newspaper in the world the next day (no one could ever accuse Madonna of avoiding attention). After mocking the “fascist state of Toronto” during her dancers’ prayer circle, she performs the song as she always did, grabbing her “crotch” and humping a bed on stage. The police do nothing. Perhaps they thought a warning would suffice in order to protect delicate Toronto eyes?

Later in the film, while in bed with her back-up singers, Madonna remarkably admits that she sometimes is haunted by “who do you think you are” doubts. She knows she is not the best singer, nor the best dancer, but she explains that her interest is in pushing boundaries and exploring new ideas. Considering ‘Truth or Dare’ era alone, her ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour brought a black-latino-queer world of ‘Vogueing’ and pansexuality into the mainstream. Even if you believe it’s all self-centred careerism (as one critic put it, “one long hussle”), you have to admit Madonna has a knack for pushing society’s buttons.

If Adam Lambert really cares about his Malaysian fans, and not just continuing to do concerts there and in the rest of Asia, he should consider his queer fans in the audience. They have never seen a gay person on TV, let alone a kiss. The fearlessness of it would inspire them to be unashamed of who they are, and if it was followed by an arrest they would see clearly what needed to be changed in their country. In this complacent era of facebook ’causes’, where redemption misleadingly seems a click away, it’s worth remembering that sometimes you have to risk something in order to change anything.

If Adam Lambert is thankful for the support of his Malaysian fans he should consider supporting them.