What's So Weird About Madonna in the Rock Hall of Fame?

She's been through as much blood, sweat, and sex with Dennis Rodman as anyone else in there.

Like other animals, humans have a funny need to keep a pecking order within their species. The need for competition and hierarchy gives us a sense of where we are, what the fruits of our life's labors mean, and what we can aspire to. Sometimes, it's an objective matter; to determine the greatest athletes among us, one need only turn to mounds of statistics to examine their performances. But the sub-breed of human known as the musician has a funny way of keeping track. Album sales surely count for something, but what about peer recognition? When I told my mother that Madonna was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week, she—always more of a Led Zeppelin woman—pursed her lips and rolled her eyes. "Well, now they're just going to start letting Britney into the mix sometime soon." Her initial response was disgust that pop music, synthetic and thin to her ears, would dare be intertwined with the likes of Pink Floyd and the Beatles: substantive groups decrying lost hopes, defining generations. They weren't just making people dance, they were inciting revolutions. As weird as Madonna's inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems, and as weird as I wanted it to seem, the more I thought about my objections, the less they made sense. For starters, rock and roll was initially about making people dance, taking the meat of R&B and repeating its rhythms. Little Richard and Elvis Presley shook their hips. James Brown wasn't opposed to dancing. It seems that my mother's objection is based on the definition of rock and roll (a precursor to "independent" music and "alternative" before that) as the antithesis of popular music because it was built on the premise of widespread rebellion and youthful energy. The Beatles spoke of social rebellion. Madonna, one of the most successful female recording artists of all time, seems to have made a career of catering to the popular vote. She's garnered the same kind of idolatry as others whose inclusion into the Hall of Fame is indisputable (Jimi Hendrix); the Recording Industry Association of America named Madonna the best-selling female rock artist of the 20th century. So why not put her into the Popular Music Hall of Fame instead? There isn't one. Her constant reinvention has allowed her image to remain at a junction critical for style mavens: different enough to be innovative, but not so different from the zeitgeist as to appear uselessly bizarre. So, how is that different from the Beatles? The formula for constant artistic success, as outlined in movies like Basquiat, is to find a unique niche within one's given artistic medium and then repeat the success, varying it slightly, appealing to the brain's dual desires for novelty and similarity. Madonna's genius has been to make entertainment and trends themselves the medium. Her music has largely dealt with similarly rebellious themes. In the beginning, this was more obvious: She was rebelling against her Catholic upbringing. The fact that she is seen as the first female artist with complete control over her image, rebelling against (while playing to) gender roles, is now so ingrained that we forget how significant it really is. This control, as characterized by her $120 million deal with LiveNation last year, may be too far behind the scenes to fully appreciate. The sound and manner of rebellion (and change itself) changes from generation to generation. Rock music has always incorporated genres as disparate as folk and country, blues and jazz. Aretha Franklin, the Supremes, and the Shirelles are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though their style of music is arguably closer to rhythm and blues; rock music based on electronica and dance was always on the horizon, though it's just now getting recognition within a more historical context. Her transformations are no different than those of Prince or Elton John—two solo singer-songwriters whose music has always been inexorably tied to similar images of glamour, hedonism, and personal reinvention. Why did her induction cause more of an upheaval than the 2006 induction of Blondie? It seems that the Material Girl—who turns 50 this year—is just too young. Even more damning is the fact that she's still going. Nostalgia usually takes a few years of something being absent to really sink in; when we're habituated to constant exposure, it's impossible to get a sense of the historical perspective of a body of work. But that doesn't make it any less revolutionary. music@seattleweekly.com

 
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