Our Diva President Donald Madonna
I am still endeavoring to understand our new President Donald Trump, and his appeal to the voters and supporters in his camp. To put the election in weird Seventies-centric terms (didn't the Bill Clinton Presidency use a Fleetwood Mac song to do that?), it's as if Meatloaf’s biker character Eddie in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" defeated today's 68-year-old Debby Harry. Sort of. Isn’t it?
A rereading of Madonna’s biography makes one realize how various behaviors evinced by Trump—the candidate, then President-elect, and now President—might be explained via the female entertainer’s psychology and personas. His motivations, tendencies and weaknesses compare to those of the entertainer Madonna Ciccone, born a dozen years later. I sought evidence in Andrew Morton's biography Madonna (2001, New York, St. Martin's Press), though a decade ago one of her Bay City uncles, on her mother's side of the family, was one of my Art students and said his family enjoyed counting the multiple factual errors in this book’s story of Madonna's early days in Michigan.
One could easily make jokes comparing Trump's promised Mexican wall to Madonna’s song "Borderline", frame the boasting billionaire as a "Material Girl", and his public persona to a "Vogue". Rather than parse Madonna's songs, we turn to highlights her cinematic work, whose first screen appearance, in a Super 8 mm movie as a kid in 1972, featured an egg was fried upon her belly. The director, title and run-time of this first fllm credit is unknown. In 1980 Madonna appeared in Stephen Jon Lewicki's hour-long film "A Certain Sacrifice", as Bruna the dominatrix, a role that involved nudity and a rape scene. Like Elvis Presley, boomer David Bowie or her near-contemporary (and, briefly, lover) Prince, Madonna conceives of herself as essentially a cinema artist, where her visuals, mise-en-scene and sequence as important as the music and lyrics. Trump may be consciously doing the same, with new variations. Several of Madonna’s movies, and her self-constructed characters within them, parallel tendencies that otherwise seem unprecedented aggregated in a national political figure.
As her profile as a pop music singer rose, the nation first became of Madonna on the screen in "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985), where she played a club kid much like herself, much as Mick Jagger made his film debut in "Performance" or David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth". Madonna's 1987 "Who's That Girl" involved a Manhattan yuppie whom her antics bedeviled. Though Donald Trump was a decade older than the era's bright young thing on the move, a Woodstock-era boomer (like Hillary Clinton) rather than a Punk-era one, the city was Trump's oyster, and in the 1980s he knew how to make money roll in from real estate.
Biographer Morton points out how much Madonna's first husband Sean Penn resembled her own father. Her mother's died when Madonna was five, and her father's remarriage a few years later deeply troubled her with feelings of loss of love, of security. With actor Penn, Madonna made the movie "Shanghai Surprise" in 1986, hoping that they would become their generation's Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, or Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Morton attributed the failure of the marriage (and cinematic partnership) to Penn's volatile personality and anger management issues. Donald Trump's father got him started in the real estate business, "the art of the deal" of which he brags, and when pushed by an interviewer to name a hero, father was named. Is Trump still trying to please Daddy, to show the stern old man that no one is pushing Donald around? The obsessive vindictiveness, the punching back via 3 a.m. on Twitter, seems to indicate so.
How does Trump's sexuality mesh with Madonna's? He has had several elegant wives and subsequent divorces, but horrified many women with his "locker room" braggadocio of groping and grabbing. Morton notes Madonna's romantic liaisons 1978-2000 with Mark Dolengowski, Dan Giroy, Vanilla Ice, Warren Beatty, Norris Burroughs, Steve Bray, bodyguard Jimmy Alright, Eric Morris, Mike Monahan (apparently not the successful Ann Arbor fishmonger), Mick Kamins, Steve Compton, Jellybean Benitez, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sean Penn, Prince, Tony Ward, Sandra Bernhard, John Enos, Dennis Rodman, Carlos Leon, then Guy Ritchie (to whom she was married when Morton's book appeared in 2001), basically serial monogamy of about one new lover a year. Her role as Breathless Mahoney in the movie "Dick Tracy" (1990) puts her in the caricatured role of a femme fatale. Madonna’s French kissing of Drake, exactly half her age, at Coachella early in 2016 released a collective Eeuuww around the world, evoking the Buck Brown cartoons in 1970s Playboy magazines of a voracious granny (though Madonna’s daughter Lourdes, a student enrolled in the University of Michigan, is childless).
As I write this, stories are swirling about Trump's involvement in frolics in Russian hotels with prostitutes performing "golden showers". While Madonna's movie "Body of Evidence" (1993) embroils an investigative lawyer in an intense sadomasochistic sexual relationship, her 1990 rock video "Justify My Love" make use of transgressive couplings glimpsed through open hotel doors.
Nude photos of Trump's current wife Melania circulate widely. Madonna's photo book Sex (1992) poses her unclad body in various sexual and dreamlike settings. Madonna emphasized her breasts by sporting a Jean-Paul Gultier bustier with cones on the 1990 "Blond Ambition" tour. Donald Trump made jokes about his opponent’s small hands, euphemism for penis size, in GOP debate, a weird and unprecedented turn in American political discourse. In the 1978 movie "American Hot Wax", a 1950s record producer trying to enliven a track summons the black janitor to provide hand claps, "You've got big hands, get in here!", and Prince supposedly praised Pres. Reagan's "balls" s opposed to former President Carter's lack of them (Greil Marcus, Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music 1977-92. 1993, NYC, Doubleday.) The painter Illma Gore depicted corpulent trump with small penis in a painting exhibited at the Maddox Gallery, earning her both legal threats and a punch in the face from a Trump supporter.
In mind-2016, several copies a life-sized but genitals-less nude statue of Trump suddenly appeared in Union Square in New York, on Castro Street in San Francisco, and in Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Seattle. Comparable to Ilma Gore’s painting, some male radicals I expected to approve heartily saw it as rooted in fat-shaming, always unacceptable.
I like to think (OK, brag) that I ran into Madonna at a party at Ann Arbor's only artists' loft in 1978, shortly before she left the University of Michigan for New York City; I passed in the hallway an alluring dark-haired girl and our eyes met. A couple years ago I liked the authenticity of Madonna's aging face in a video of a performance I saw, yet most recently in Carpool Karaoke with James Corden, her face looks stretched, unnaturally smoothed by plastic surgery, unpleasantly reminiscent of 1930s movie star Mae West about forty years later in "Myra Breckenridge" and stage performances surrounded by muscular beefcake men. Trump's opponent Hillary Clinton sports an authentic, expressive face of a woman her age, and it's reassuring and welcome. Hillary Clinton's face shows her age, comfortably. Opponents might sneer: it's the most honest thing about her.
Greil Marcus fulminated, in a January 1987 Artforum piece called "Born Dead", "MTV is the pornography of semiotics. Available around the clock, a closed system where nothing outside its frame of reference is ever allowed to intrude, it most closely resembles the lowest porn commodity, the loop: a continuous, circular repetition of signs whose meanings have been frozen long in advance." But I very much like music videos, enjoyed MTV when it was all music (and especially before it ran commercials), and Madonna’s were masterful. Yet Donald Trump's January press conference seems to fit Marcus' definition of an airless feedback loop even better than the music video cablecast at its most venal.
Madonna’s "Truth of Dare" (1991) tour documentary depicts the hard work practicing song and dance that she and her dancers endure before performing. Like Trump's tweets that “speak his mind”, consequences be damned, the entertainer seeks (though may not have found) authenticity in her own relationships as well as her projected image. In "Swept Away" (2002), Madonna played a wealthy selfish woman tamed by the patriarchal love of a strong man. Morton's biography shows her craving to be loved, to be the center of attention. The new POTUS, a proven prima donna, is proving to be a primo Madonna.
On January 1, 1994 the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) passed. Twenty-two years later, on November 7, 2016, Donald Trump won the Presidency of the United States, claiming to have thus ended the Clinton years' vaunted treaty and the de-industrialization of the nation that it helped further. Long ago, Madonna's fellow one-year University of Michigan attendee Iggy Pop sang "Now I'm gonna be 22, I say Oh my and a boo hoo." Many Americans said boo hoo after the Election.
Yet it was during outgoing President Obama's Farewell Address in January 2017, recounting accomplishments proudly while maintaining a temper of humility, that it dawned on me: how Senator Hillary Clinton might have defeated Donald Trump in the debates. Since Trump's victory has proven a victory for the Republican party—even if Trump's new cabinet are second-string, peripheral Republicans, they are still largely towing a Koch brothers, ALEC and Tea Party line—imagine if Clinton had never addressed Donald Trump by name, but only spoke of "Paul Ryan policies", "McConnell and Republican Senators' stinginess", etc.
The great egotist Trump might have been speechless, for he thus would have been rendered invisible and irrelevant by being ignored. For in the debate one can imagine a deflated Trump vulnerable as "Evita" (1996), a movie about political power and love in the Argentine dictatorship, where in the role of Mrs. Juan Peron, Madonna sang:
Frightened you'll slip away
You must love me
You must love me.