Is the point of topping the charts prestige or profit?
Madonna outsold Lionel Richie for the top spot on Billboard's album charts this week past. Only she didn't. By letting her album "MDNA" (a play on the medical acronym for the club drug ecstasy) tag along with ticket sales to her live concerts, the Material Girl created the illusion that she had the bestselling album in America. But Richie's "Tuskegee" actually sold more copies.
Even the business of show business is largely a show. In more primitive times, record companies would simply bribe disc jockeys. Now they give away music to top the charts. One wonders if the neo-payola is a symptom or cause of the recording industry's financial woes. Certainly two acts that peaked more than a quarter-century ago vying for chart supremacy is both. What performers hot in 1958 topped the charts in 1985?
The dodgy marketing gimmick might be best seen as a metaphor for Madonna's career. She has a talent for getting by without it. What Singing in the Rain's Cosmo says about Lina applies: "She can't act. She can't sing. She can't dance." That's not quite fair. The former ballerina can move. Madonna, despite such challenges, somehow manages to remain a pop-culture force (farce?) three decades after we first met her.
She is a creation of the video-music era, when the beautiful people rebelled against the talented people. The visual conquered the aural. Madonna may have deluded her legions of fans into believing her a vocal great. But she hasn't fooled herself. Why, other than a realization of the limits of her talents, would she have lip-synched a "live" performance at this year's Super Bowl?
What she lacks in substance she makes up for in style. Anybody strolling into a shopping mall circa 1985 witnessed her influence in armies of adolescent girls in naked-navel mesh shirts with arms bedizened in jelly-rubber bracelets and skirts strangely atop capris. More perniciously, she eventually swayed not just what they wore but what they did. Whenever her career seemed to be on life support, Madonna could be counted on to release a sex book, make out with Britney Spears, or adopt an African baby. In one video, she sings alongside burning crosses, displays stigmata, and takes one of the Church's saints as a love interest.
Madonna is the businesswoman impersonating the artist. Her brilliance comes from understanding that selling music isn't about making music. It's about making publicity. So thoroughly have marketing gurus captured the music industry that one of their number scored hit after hit. Thus did a marketing genius get confused for a musical genius.
Lionel Richie might be thought of as the anti-Madonna. He can sing. But he has the charisma of Gerald Ford after a bad night's sleep. Despite scoring thirteen consecutive top-ten hits between 1981 and 1987, Richie appeared with the same $10 haircut and the mustache that he had stolen from Dave Winfield. Alas, stylistic reinvention wasn't his strong suit. But the balladeer's music seamlessly transitioned from R&B to funk to calypso to first-dance wedding numbers to, in his latest release, even country. While Madonna played virgin, dominatrix, dance-club diva, and other outlandish characters, Lionel Richie played, well, Lionel Richie.
Roger Friedman, who broke the scandal at Forbes, writes: "I do think that all the people involved in the Madonna ticket-CD deal should apologize to Richie for denying him his rightful place at number 1, starting with Billboard and SoundScan." That's unlikely. But Richie at least has the satisfaction of knowing that in week two "Tuskegee" moved more than double the number of copies as "MDNA," which experienced the greatest second-week drop in chart history.
Friedman, who has been viciously attacked by Madonna zealots online (gleefully?), wondered what went wrong as the MP3 of "MDNA" plunged to $5 on Amazon. "The audience wasn't interested in vituperative songs with the 'f' word scattered through them liberally," he theorized. "Instead of dancing, Madonna was cursing. And what does she have to curse about? She's a gazillionaire."
Foul-mouthed, filthy-rich fiftysomethings just don't keep it real. But that's how Michiganders with aristocratic English accents roll.