In his breezy review of Madonna’s career in Fame in the 20th Century, Clive James captures Madonna’s genius for self-reinvention.

She “was called Madonna Louise Ciccone, but in her burning ambition for universal fame she didn’t want to rule out the large section of her potential audience that might have trouble remembering more than one name. Another good reason for calling herself Madonna was that she too was engaged in the miracle of virgin birth, although in her case the miraculous human being she was giving birth to was herself.”

He real expertise was in making and keeping herself famous. She realized that “someone famous was essentially a mystery everyone knew about,” and so “she combined rarity value with total market saturation by always making her videos more risqué than ordinary TV could carry. She earned extra publicity for being censored and so constantly added to her first fame as the biggest pop star in the world. Her concerts were just the confirmation, a source for more Madonna stories.”

Another trick was to incorporate other celebrities into her own fame: “Madonna wasn’t content to be famous for what she could do. She wanted to be famous for what other people had done as well. In rapid succession she transformed herself into all the other famous women of the century, incorporating their images into her own. She was a one-woman hall of fame, a walking museum, her only originality to borrow the originality of others. Critics who said she didn’t belong with Garbo or Dietrich or Monroe were just showing their age. They were remembering the past. Madonna was taking it over on behalf of those who didn’t remember it.”

Above all, she succeeded because “With her, fame was the only reality. No revelation about her private life could embarrass her because she made all the revelations herself. She had no private life. It was all public. It went straight to video.”

At least Madonna did stuff to get famous. In a 2004 speech, James claimed that “Andy Warhol understated the case. He should have said that in the future everyone will not be famous for fifteen minutes, they will be famous all the time. And indeed fame is by now not only what almost everybody wants, it is what almost anybody can get. If you want to be famous, urinate on the shoe of someone who is already famous. You will be given your own television series.”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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