Consuming pop culture is one of my favorite introvert activities. In Problematica, I’ll explore the political implications of a specific pop culture piece — a song, a character from a film or book, a TV episode, etc. — that I love, regardless of how good, bad, or mixed its politics may be.
Released 35 years ago this month, Madonna’s “Material Girl” is easily my favorite song from her ‘80s catalog. I’ve always loved its bubblegum poppy swing, that catchy chorus, and especially the music video in which she reenacts Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. 7 year-old me considered this song an instant classic and 42 year-old me will gladly belt it at karaoke, with the proper bourbon lubricant.
I’ve never related to the lyrics at all, cheeky and funny though they are. When I later became a Cole Porter fan, I realized “Material Girl” was very much in the vein of songs like “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” or “Always True to You in My Fashion” – stories told from the perspective of hot, fashionable young women who only put out for men that can afford their taste for finer things. In the “Material Girl” video, Madonna/Marilyn dances with a throng of tuxedoed men who ply her with jewels, as she sings lines like, “Some boys try and some boys lie but I don’t let them play / Only boys who save their pennies make my rainy day.”
This concept of sleeping with men for cash, gems, and designer gowns has always felt profoundly un-me. Between my prudish Catholic upbringing, my complete disinterest in Fancy Stuff like diamonds, sports cars, or furs, and my deeply romantic nature that shrinks at the notion of transactional sex, I’ve never related to this sort of vamp or what she wants from men. For me, the super hot part of the “Material Girl” music video is the backstage love story that seems to contradict everything Madonna claims to be about.
At the start of the video, we seen an intense, bearded, Hollywood producer type watching footage of our heroine dancing with her tuxedoed entourage. Transfixed by her sexy star quality, he tells his assistant he wants to meet her ASAP. But when he drops by Madonna’s dressing room with a shiny, wrapped box, he overhears her telling a girlfriend about an admirer giving her a diamond necklace (which she has inexplicably set upon a bowl of popcorn). “He thinks he can impress me by giving me expensive gifts. It’s nice, though. You want it?” Crestfallen, the Beardo tosses his fancy present in the trash.
The rest of the video is mostly Madonna playing up her materialistic Marilyn act for the cameras — pulling diamonds out of men’s pockets, fondling a mink stole, bopping a guy in the face with lacy fan just for her own amusement. But then we see a couple other shots of down-to-earth backstage Madonna looking totally bored with the flashy playboys who try to woo her with baubles. Meanwhile Beardo longs for her on the sidelines, and, through his keen powers of observation, ultimately figures out what she really wants — a humble daisy bouquet and a dream ride in an old-timey truck he buys off some random farmer… who’s hanging out by the studio soundstage where they work? 7 year-old me didn’t ask too many questions about these details and 42 year-old me still believes this is, indeed, a pretty hot date. Anyway, Madonna and Beardo end up making out in the truck in the rain, which I consider a delightful ending to this simple love story.
But in the back of my head I always wondered, who is the real Madonna in this scenario? When you think of the song and the video, you probably imagine her draped in diamonds and fur. For years she was often referred to as “the material girl” (at least until the “Madge” years, when she married Guy Ritchie and pretended to be British). Wanton sexuality has always been a big part of her schtick; as late as 2016, she promised to give blow jobs to any Madison Square Garden concert-goers who’d vote for Hillary Clinton. But I could also see how, at least in 1985, this Italian-American chick from Metro Detroit would truly dig this beardo in an old truck who isn’t totally stuffy or pretentious. After all, this was the same woman who popularized cut-off crop tops and cheap jelly bracelets. In the mid-80s, Madonna was our working class fashion icon!
Then it occurred to me, if you emulate the final verse from “Material Girl,” you really don’t have to choose one Madonna over the other. Consider these lyrics:
“Boys may come and boys may go
And that’s all right you see
Experience has made me rich
And now they’re after me”
The point is if you’re a woman who has her own money, you can sleep with whomever you like and buy your own jewelry. Or daisy bouquet. Or jelly bracelets. Or whatever you want! I’m old enough now to understand capitalism complicates all of our relationships, and that there’s nothing morally incorrect about trading sex for stuff (also that it’s none of my business if other people choose to do so). But wouldn’t it be cool if every one of us had money to cover all our needs and wants without relying on sexual partners to help foot those bills? Wouldn’t it radically change how we mate? You could collect gemstones in a bowl of popcorn AND hook up with Beardo in the old-timey truck. You wouldn’t even have to choose between those two things.