In England, ‘Madge’ Is Ultimate People’s Queen

British national pride, humbled by another loss at

Wimbledon, the collapse of the once-proud railroad system and near-catastrophic

breakdowns in the Tube, has rebounded. They may have lost the empire; they may

have lost tennis, rugby and cricket; they may even have lost Minnie Driver-but

by God, they have Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone Ritchie, in her latest

incarnation as True Brit. As one British journalist kvelled: “Simply through

her presence, she has made London glamorous again.”

When Madonna called upon the deity to spare the royalty

during her Fourth of July concert at London’s massive Earl’s Court arena, one

had to wonder which queen she wanted Him to save. If Madonna’s residence in

London and her posh new English accent have done a lot for British self-esteem,

it could also be said that the new persona of “Madge” (the nickname

affectionately bestowed upon her by the local media) has done a lot for pop’s

ruling figure. At 42, still an absolutely fabulous, terrifyingly athletic and

inventive performer, Madonna has nonetheless gone through more sexual personae

than all her rivals put together. Now, as both Lady Madonna, the gracious

doyenne of the castle, and Madge, the down-to-earth British mum, she is

starting the new millennium with more respectable, and possibly more durable,

roles than material girl and dominatrix.

Why does London love Madonna? Post-Diana, the city has been

starved of celebrities to populate its tabloids and flesh out its fantasies.

Since Oasis is between albums and Tom and Nicole broke up, who could be counted

on for a decent photo op or to upgrade a cultural event? London has been

struggling along with D-list “stars”-footballers, D.J.’s, models, remote

royalty, hat designers, politicians, artists, and assorted climbers and drunks.

These pseudo-celebs  gamely do their

best, but their antics are becoming repetitive, not to mention hard to sustain

from detox or jail. But Madonna is the real McCoy, a genuine superstar who

dresses her babies in Versace and buys £5 million houses.

Moreover, she follows local fashion. Her music recycles

Europop and techno. Her famously morphing hair is now long, blond and straight

like all the It Girls in the society

pages of Tatler . She expresses a fondness for going down to the pub. She had her

son Rocco christened at Dornoch Cathedral in Scotland, and later married

British filmmaker Guy Ritchie in nearby

Skibo Castle. It’s rumored that she plans to send daughter Lourdes to

upper-crusty Cheltenham Ladies’ College. And both Lourdes and Rocco fit well in

a country where today’s rich kids are named Tarquin, Dido and Merlin. She has

found friends in a chic crowd of rock royalty, including Stella McCartney, who

designed her wedding dress, and Trudie Styler, wife of Sting, who introduced

her to Mr. Ritchie.

The British are thrilled that she wants to be one of them;

all is forgiven, even her amateur guitar-playing and her slurs on the national

health system (she returned to California for Rocco’s birth, claiming the

London hospitals were “old and Victorian”). As Alexis Petridis wrote in The Guardian after the July 4 show, “If

Madonna loves England, the feeling is clearly mutual. No matter what she does,

her British audience-last night featuring everyone from posing über-trendy to

suburban secretary plus London’s gay male population-steadfastly refuses to be

alienated.” Madonna lost some of her American following in the mid-90’s, after

her heavy-handed sexual exhibitionism and her appearance as a manipulative diva

in the documentary Truth or Dare . But

“in Britain, every transgression is pardoned: her acting, her doltish

collaborations with husband Guy Ritchie, even the £85 tickets for last night’s


In Ms. Petridis’ view, what impresses the British audience

is neither Madonna’s glamour, nor her flattering adoption of local customs, nor

her shameless sucking up to the British public. (“What I really think,” she has

announced, “is that even the most stupid Englishman is about 10 times smarter

than the most stupid American.”) No, what the British admire in Madonna,

according to Ms. Petridis, is her commitment to “irony and experimentation.”

For decades, the Brits have cherished the notion that not only are they the

world’s most ironic nation, but that Americans are peculiarly deficient in this

sophisticated kind of wit. They enjoy celebrating Madonna as an exception, an

expatriate whose doltish countrymen cannot appreciate her avant-garde


On the other hand, Madonna has also said that “you can start

all over again in England.” And-in an irony the British should appreciate-she

is starting again by dismantling her postmodern image, her iconic status as a

creature of masks and guises, eternally reinventing a “self” that is no more

than an illusion of conventional beliefs about gender, power, nationality and

race. Rather than reinvent herself again, Madonna claims that in England she is

discovering a self beneath and beyond all the pretense and role-playing: “I’d

rather think that I’m slowly revealing myself, my true nature. It feels to me

like I’m just getting closer to the core of who I am.”

Postmodernists deny the very idea of a core identity, but

they may discover that in the security of her new home, Madonna will unveil a

self both tantalizing and familiar to students of American culture. Her story

certainly has some parallels to the stories of Henry James and Edith

Wharton-the dynamic American heroine storms the Old World. Here is J. Randy

Tamborelli (the new Henry James?) describing the wedding in his best-selling

biography of Madonna: “She had come so far that her middle-class youth in Bay

City, Michigan must have seemed light years in the past as 42-year-old Madonna

Louise Ciccone gazed down at her guests, her manner composed, her demeanor

regal. As she stood at the top of a majestic staircase, its balustrade laced

with ivy and white orchids, she was resplendent in the supernatural light of

the great old castle.” 

In some sense, Madonna

has become the people’s queen without having to suffer, to sacrifice, to humble

herself, to show compassion. The woman who is about to get the full Princess

Diana treatment from biographer Andrew Morton didn’t even bother to show up at

a recent London charity event she had allegedly sponsored. Mr. Tamborelli tells

a story of her Michigan dance teacher explaining that women like Judy Garland

and Marilyn Monroe achieved the status of gay icons because they were tragic.

“Well then, forget it,” Madonna replied. “I will never be tragic. If it takes

being tragic to have gay fans, then fuck it.”

Madonna’s core self-composed of drive, focus and toughness,

and resulting in a series of unqualified and unapologetic successes-may be

exactly what makes her such a favorite in Britain now. In a country still timid

and embarrassed about overt ambition and the desire for power in men, let alone

women, Madonna is the perfect object of fantasy, projection and adoration-at

least for now (for royalty in exile is always precarious). Let Britain’s other

female stars hide their light-let 18-year-old singer Billie Piper give up her

career to push supermarket carts full of booze for her yobbish husband, disc

jockey Chris Evans; let Emma Thompson go to Africa to help the needy and Mary

Archer defend her swindling, philandering husband in court-Madonna is carrying

the flag for self-assertion, the pleasure principle and having it all. What

could be more timely-and, ultimately, more American?

God save both queens. In England, ‘Madge’ Is Ultimate People’s Queen