Sunday, September 13, 2009

One Good Reason to Watch the VMAs.

Tonight, MTV takes its yearly stab at relevance and airs its annual MTV Video Music Awards. (Seriously, does anyone else think it's weird that MTV continues to stage this award show even though it really doesn't show music videos anymore?)

I once looked forward to the VMAs. This was back when I was in middle school, back when alternative radio existed, and back when there was tolerable music being played on mainstream stations and channels. Back then pop music was way less homogenized; it was possible to have a tribute to Tupac and Biggie Smalls, an announcement from the Foo Fighters, a performance from The Spice Girls, and Fiona Apple's unforgettable acceptance speech all in the same broadcast. (Which actually happened one year. First person to respond in the comment with the right year gets a FREE subscription to Rock and the Single Girl!)

Perhaps more to the point, you used to see all different kinds of women at the VMAs. Rappers like Eve and Lil Kim, singer-songwriters like Jewel and Apple, 'rockers' like Courtney Love and Dolores O'Riordan, divas like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey -- there was this feeling that there was something for everyone, a feeling that I don't get from anything on MTV anymore.

MTV owes whatever relevance it might have enjoyed, especially in terms of changing ideas about sexuality and gender roles, to its association with Madonna. There are a lot of things I really can't stand about Madonna and her recent work, but her VMA performances always delivered. My favorite moment from VMA history, which I only really saw many years after it was originally aired, is Madonna's 1990 performance of "Vogue", decked out in full Marie Antoinette drag:

This might just seem like typical Madonna-scale spectacle, nothing more than big hair and big skirts and big boobs spilling out of tiny corsets. I bet the sheer excess was a big part of why Madonna wanted to do this type of performance. But what if there's more to it than that?

It turns out that Marie Antoinette was more than the ultimate fashion victim. In the end her opponents were able to use her sartorial choices against her, but Marie Antoinette's choices were about more than style or appearance. Marie Antoinette used fashion in order to enhance her prestige, in an attempt to assure her tenuous position in the French monarchy. Insecure as a young woman, young wife, and monarch, Marie Antoinette indulged in fashion in order to try and fake confidence in herself.

Because as a woman and 'foreigner' in Versailles, Marie Antoinette actually didn't have much power. She used clothes to try and change that. She went so far as to wear and refashion men's clothing in order to project an image of masculine and royal strength and entitlement, and she was subject to rumors about her sexuality as a result. Even in 18th century France, it seems that 'dyke-baiting' was one of the major ways to punish a woman who stepped out of line.

Did Madonna know all of this about Marie Antoinette? Did Madonna mean to invoke all of these generally unknown issues from Marie Antoinette's life? It's hard to say. Madonna is a savvy woman, but I can't picture her as a French history buff. Either way, the parallels are pretty amazing; Madonna's only made her entire career on altering her appearance, unapologetically wearing lavish and provocative costumes, and fearlessly challenging ideas about women, power, and sexuality.

Madonna's 1990 performance of "Vogue" represents a momentary juncture between U.S. American pop culture and the 'high culture' of European history. Whether she meant to or not, Madonna opened up a possibility for dialogue about gender, appearance, and power. Because of her, I watch the VMAs every year, in the hope that we'll get another good moment like this. It doesn't seem likely, but one can hope.

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