Don’t Tell Me
In the year 2000, the Great Appropriator Madonna took s/m, bondage, Catholicism, geishas, Victorian ballrooms, porn, Latin America, wedding dresses, bullfighting, yoga, burlesque, Buddhism, underground queer club culture, and tossed them into the ditch by a long country road. Dressed in blue jeans and flannel, not to mention dirty-blonde locks that might have been construed as her “natural” hair color, she managed to tie (and later surpass) The Beatles’ record for most Gold-certified singles. How did she do it? It certainly wasn’t by being “herself”. Instead, Madonna did what she does best even better, managing to appropriate the symbols America has long equated with authenticity and turn them into one big drag show.
The video for the second single off her hit album Music, like Madonna’s greatest work, immediately announces itself as a fraud. The song begins with a lone acoustic guitar riff, normally equated with the “authentic” singer-songwriter genre, jarringly cut off in a way that is clearly performed not by the player but by the producer in the recording studio. Matching the subverted authenticity of the soundtrack, Madonna walks down an all-American country road, but when the guitar is interrupted by abrupt silence, her movement halts as the background keeps receding, an effect that could only be created through chroma keying (green screen).
The deconstruction of the green screen, an MTV trope which was ubiquitous but still somewhat novel at the time, provides an effective visual gag for an otherwise straightforward video concept. Were it not for the constant attention being drawn to the artifice of the green screen, the video would be positively minimalist by MTV standards – there’s only two sets of costumes, by gosh! But more importantly, as the video’s first shot tracks out and we see the receding road framed within a video production studio, with Madonna walking on a floor treadmill, Madonna has exposed Americana as a staged performance. The video makes such gratuitous and artificial use of the green screen that Madge even performs several choreography bits alongside back-up dancers who are clearly absent from the studio – relegated instead to the green screen dream of Americana. In the video’s most surprising moment, the dancers jump out of the green screen frame and into the “real” diegesis of the production studio. In entering the diegetic reality, ironically, they lose their costume of authenticity, instantaneously changing from cowboy garb to all-black MTV dancer wardrobe.
Making a supposedly genuine country video that’s actually a stylized pop video is nothing new; in fact, it’s the norm for country stars. Madonna, however, is not a country star. Her music, though flirting at times with R&B and electronica, has always remained strictly pop. The glossy MTV choreography makes use of country dance stylization in a way that complements the bluesy danceability of the song without looking anything like a real country dance. Likewise, Madonna appears in the video as a tourist eager to try some of this much-lauded American authenticity. Like her country-pop counterparts, she’s not the real thing. Unlike her country-pop counterparts, she’s never claimed to be.
Taken even further, the mere presence of a symbol for heterosexual appropriation of queerness and sex-radicalism would have been enough to subvert the country video facade. Having such a symbol inhabit the role of the country star herself, cowboy hat and all, is certainly enough to distinguish “Don’t Tell Me” from anything on CTV. Madonna was born in the U.S., of course, but it’s difficult to even think of her as American despite her enormous camp-italist earning power and corporate business-acumen (neither of which we associate with traditional Americana, anyway). Whatever aspects of Madonna’s actual identity make their way into her perceived public image, they all conflate into the role of Madonna as the Great Appropriator. Here, dressed as a model of authenticity, Madonna proved that she can be as real as she wants to be. Still, she’d rather be a wannabe.