Madonna: You don’t see her anymore

imgres-9Vivid memories of Madonna in the 1983 Mtv video for “Lucky Star.” Like Tracy rushing home to watch The Corny Collins Show in Hairspray , I’d rush home after school to watch Mtv, and my first memory of Madonna was in the Lucky Star video. (In the early years, Mtv had veejays, such as Martha Quinn, who hosted the videos and did peppy preps before playing the video. It was completely stupid television and absolutely riveting for this midwestern girl.)

I loved loved loved everything about the video for Lucky Star, except the song. But the clothes! the style! the awkward dance! Madonna really had me at the clothes: the black ribbon in her hair, the mesh overlay, the cheap blank tank and stretch shorts, the inexpensive bracelets, the cheap vinyl belt, the black socks — and even I could imitate her dance moves in a simplistic fashion. Even the “yeah” to the camera was a teen girl singing to her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Go ahead, click on the video and have a soundtrack to your reading.

Madonna’s styling at the time was tomboyish, street-kid, a little bit punk, a little bit rock, a little bit gamine. Easy to forget in the ensuing hyper-sexualization and overt feminization of her look in the 1990s and 2000s, but in the beginning – when Madonna-wannabees frightened middle-class mothers —  her look was not sexy or mature; it was boyish and casual. She looked like a girl who, rather than meeting challenges on her own terms, was trying to figure out a way to hold onto childhood while exercising the rights of womanhood. An ideal look for many a teen girl.

The screen shot below is about 16 seconds into the video, just after the reference to Lolita when the camera closes up on Madonna’s face as she slides her RayBans on. So this “lucky star” is a kid and a grown woman. Her outfit was wonderfully easy to imitate: black on black, layers of mesh and metal, accessories practically bought off racks at Claires (founded in 1961 and the haunt of many a 1980s mall rat). The big black ribbon bow in the hair brought in the Lolita/1920s gamine image quite effectively.

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The tomboy street kid look was one that Madonna had worn for a few years. In 1979 Madonna was in a band, Breakfast Club, and her look was a kind of early 1990s Grunge; she was 15 years ahead of her time. Loose-fitting flowered dresses worn with ankle socks and red heels, or, those same red heels show up on the same white anklets under baggy jeans and a lacy white blouse. While her look here is feminine, it’s not overwrought: there’s no glam lipstick, or major makeup, or even an emphasis on her looks. The band played a mix of rock and ska, and Madonna played bass, drums, and sang.

Another early photograph, just before Lucky Star hit. She’s added the armful of rubber bracelets but other markers of the early 1980s Madonna aren’t in place yet: for one thing, she’s wearing color. The hair isn’t pure Madonna.

In 1981 the pop charts featured a few solo women, including as seen below and from Billboard’s Top 100 hits list — Diana Ross, Sheena Easton, Pat Benatar, Kim Carnes. Other female acts of that year were Heart, Blondie, and Juice Newton. Carnes, Blondie, Easton all have the polished career woman look of the 1980s: tall, slim, white, non-street. Benatar and Ross are channeling a grittier feel, although Ross’s diva instincts will always override the marketers’ desires to package her as a gal of the people: her style is fur coats, diva heels and full-on hair. The tshirt, jeans, and slicked back hair are gorgeous (especially given that the album has the uber-gay-anthem I’m Coming Out on it) but not remotely Diana Ross in style. Those high arched penciled brows are more like it, really.

In contrast to these women, here is Madonna during Lucky Star, Borderline and her big break of an album in 1983. This is pure, unadulterated Madonna — the style teen girls fell head-over-heels with. She’s wearing a costume, and a costume that rejects those gestures towards conformative, performative femininity. When I look at the album covers, and think about those women who dominated the pop hit charts, I fully understand why I bought Madonna’s albums, and ignored nearly every other top hit female singer (aside from Lauper). Madonna was a Girl, a Real Girl, with Real Style. She wasn’t selling out in terms of growing up.

It’s not especially easy in 2016 to see Madonna as having accessible, street-smart style but she did have it in 1983. Each outfit is not only utterly, beautifully easy to imitate, it’s body-accessible. A girl or boy didn’t have to be skinny, or female, or rich, white — baggy jeans, multiple studded belts, white or black tee, arms of cheap rubber bracelets (perhaps one of the first examples of the flood of made-outside-the-U.S. fashion that would dominate the American market from about 1985 on to the present). Flats, tennis shoes, combat boots. A jean jacket, or a man’s blazer. And I’ll point out, her styling was gender neutral: a boy could pull these looks off as easily as a girl, and in my recollection, a few boys made a go of it, at least in private at house parties. Skinny jeans, huge men’s blazer, and daring of all, some eyeliner and a bow on the top of the head.

I grew up in the 1970s, and vividly recall the matching clothing, the pressure to, for example, have “special outfits” that coordinated. A blue-and-tan plaid skirt needed a tan sweater, brown boots, a gold necklace that fell just so. And you needed a brown leather purse to coordinate with those boots. These images from 1982 illustrate the stifling feel of fashion in these years. In many ways, aside from the pants, the outfits were the same as the 1950s co-ed look of skirt/sweater/socks and loafers. Madonna is photographed the same year as JCPenneys’ models. Imagine, being a teen girl: which would you rather? I had my fitful attempts at conformity in dress, and would spend hours gazing upon the dreamy barbie-doll models in the Penneys and Sears Fall catalogs, and dreamed of a time I would look leggy in pants, which never did come true. But Madonna’s look I could manage, at least in parts. What I remember is the freedom to combine disparate elements: she managed girly and boyish, tough with parent-acceptable sweet. For many a teen girl, and many a teen boy, it really was love at first sight.

 

 

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