I honestly wouldn’t recognize Madonna’s singing and am not sure I’ve ever heard any of her songs, but a newspaper reader — a reader of even the staidest, snobbiest newspaper like the New York Times used to be — will learn a lot about her over the years. I’m sure she’s very good at what she does, but judging only from what she says about her work, gosh, she’s boring.
You have a woman who wears less on stage than female singers have worn before and brought the techniques of the strip club out of those dodgy-looking places by the side of the road into the big arenas and theaters. She makes herself a sex object, though she also makes sure everyone sees her winking at them as she does so. She sings about sex directly, without the traditional indirection and euphemism.
She’s been doing this for a very long time, and is nearly sixty, but people will like it, especially if the performer is as gifted as Ms. Madonna is said to be. That should be enough for an entertainer, but Madonna has to have an idea behind her provocations. She’s about to appear in a new show, titled “Rebel Heart,” which she’s advertised with trailers that include, according to Entertainment Weekly’s puff piece, “dancing nuns on stripper poles.” The dancing nuns reportedly (I will not watch the trailers) wear bikini bottoms and revealing habits.
Nuns. Strippers. Stripper’s poles. Wow, that’s just so . . .
Stupid. Strippers in nun outfits. Really? I mean, let’s be serious, who today thinks that’s cool or clever or transgressive or edgy? It’s sooooo 1980s. It’s like someone saying a formerly rude word on late-night television and expecting the network’s phones to light up with protests from church ladies in Iowa.
Madonna’s not just being naughty, she wants you to know. She has a reason for the stripper nuns. She explained to Entertainment Weekly: “I just like the juxtaposition. I’m very immersed in deconstructing the concept of sexuality and religion and how it’s not supposed to go together, but in my world it goes together.”
It must sound impressive to some, what she says about juxtapositions and deconstructionism. On one side: nuns. On the other: strippers. Nuns: religious, godly, holy, establishmentarian. Strippers: not religious, godly, holy, or establishmentarian. White, black. Or in Madonna’s world, perhaps, black, white.
And maybe, as I suspect is often the case with Madonna’s fans: Nuns: your parents’ world. Strippers: Not your parents’ world. Take that mom and dad!
As Madonna would have it, take nuns and strippers and put them together. That juxtaposition will deconstruct religion and sexuality in a way that reveals . . . what I don’t know, and I’m fairly sure Madonna doesn’t either. It tells us nothing. It deconstructs nothing. It’s just a gimmick, even if the singer, or her p.r. agency, remembers some fancy terms from freshman English she can use to impress the rubes.
You know what juxtaposition is really deconstructive? Marriage and death. Particularly the good marriage and the early death. You have people who’ve built a life together, raised a family, sacrificed for each other, forgiven each other, grown dependent on each other, shaped a life that requires both of them, and suddenly they’re divided, the survivor cut off from the other for as long as he lives.
Think of the wife sitting by her husband’s bedside when her husband’s heart-monitor stops beeping. Think of the husband standing by the graveside as his wife’s coffin is lowered into the grave. That’s a juxtaposition for you. Those are two things that should go together even less than nuns and stripper poles.
That juxtaposition deconstructs a lot. It reveals how false and foolish are the happily-ever-after stories our culture has told about marriage. The romantic, sentimental stories that treat marriage as an easy way to happiness and self-fulfillment, as part of the good life to which we have a right. It also reveals how false and foolish are our culture’s anti-happily-ever-after stories. The stories, just as romantic and sentimental as the first, that treat marriage as a restriction, as something that binds and limits, and which you enter, if you do, only because you can exit it if you need to.
What, by deconstructing the false stories, does the juxtaposition of marriage and death tell us? It tells us that marriage requires change and sacrifice, that it does not guarantee happiness, that it is always a risk and a gamble that might well end in a broken heart — and yet that we can find the life joyous and the broken heart a reasonable price to pay for the life lived together. It tells us that the restrictions don’t bind and limit but guide and direct us to a place we can only reach if we accept them, a place almost infinitely better than the one we will reach on our own.
Young women in bikini bottoms and revealing habits, dancing on stripper poles — it’s too banal to get upset about, even if the performer dresses it up with pseudo-intellectual language. But the widow and widower, they’re a far more interesting sign of contradiction. They’re worth watching.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.