Like a biography

Making it through the wilderness of two new Madonna books.


by Barbara Victor (HarperCollins, $26)


by Andrew Morton (St. Martin's Press, $24.95)

SO YOU thought you knew everything about the Material Girl? You do, if the two most recent biographies about that phenom born Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone are any indication; there isn't much in either book that a simple backpedal through the pages of People couldn't provide.

Despite the years of research that supposedly went into Goddess (subtitled Inside Madonna without any noticeable trace of irony), author Barbara Victor has written the book like a tired collegian tossing off a nagging term paper, trying to disguise her disinterest with puffed-up psychology and desperate Composition 101- style transitions (moving through a wank about lapsed-Catholic art, she smoothly segues, "J.K. Huysmans is another example of a major 19th-century figure of literary decadence.").

Victor is shamefully dependent on material regurgitated from the piles of glossy print the diva has already generated. She spends the first 40-odd pages treating Evita like it had the significance Vogue gave it, and the book would crumble in its wrappings if left without familiar references to Madonna's obsession with the death of her mother.

Victor also pads the book with embarrassing commentary from folks left in the wake of Madonna's gold dust, quoting their straight-faced avowals without flinching. Patrick Hernandez, who had a smash disco single in the '70s with "Born to Be Alive" and briefly hired Madonna as a backup performer for a French stint, is taken at his word to have been vital to her later world domination:

"When Madonna saw the attention that Hernandez received and the life of luxury he led because of his one hit record, she began to be less rigid about her refusal to become a singing star. [For a while, the young Madonna was concentrating solely on dance.] 'At the time I was the number one star worldwide,' Hernandez explains. 'I'm still convinced that because of me . . . she decided to grab it all and go as far and as fast as possible.'"

This from a one-hit wonder whose song no one under 30 is likely to remember (there's a bigger howl when he claims to have encouraged Madonna by telling her she could sing "even better" than Linda McCartney).

ANDREW MORTON is at least keeping it real, after a manner. His simply titled Madonna comes in a pink or green slipcover that features La Ciccone looking back at us like she's been caught in the act. She hasn't, really, although Morton does occasionally noodle off into reveries about her proclivities ("Madonna is a woman who expects her man to take control, more of a kitten than a tigress in the bedroom."). But the author, who's previously frolicked in kitsch biography territory with cultural signposts Princess Di and Monica Lewinsky, takes surprising care to present his latest subject as a complex human being (well, as complex as you can get in a book that talks about "the moist, strident messiness of life"). For whatever else it does poorly, his book sees its heroine as a woman driven by both narcissism and an admirable creative spirit, rescuing her from the litany of dismissals labeling her "a sexual grotesque."

Madonna far outstrips Goddess by talking to the right people. Morton has a sense of humor when peers of the star justifiably roll their eyes at her chutzpah, and he's visited with informative compadres from her lean years like musician Dan Gilroy (a member of '80s group the Breakfast Club and former boyfriend who saw both the drive and the innocence).

But the book is cursory fluff at best. Tellingly, its fascinating collection of early photographs, showing the future icon in palpably hungry, fresh-faced focus, says more than anything else here. Like Goddess, it's too reliant on everything we've read before, and is not the result of someone who has an instinctive feeling for what he's talking about and can run with it. Hallmarks of Madonna's career—i.e., the pop revelations that are many of her singles—are given scant paragraphs. Even juicy stuff doesn't have any heft: Romps with John F. Kennedy Jr. and an early career lunch with Barbra Streisand have received better coverage in Vanity Fair.

Anyone who has even mildly followed Madonna's artistic output will be providing their own interior addendums to Morton's perfunctory reflections. After a passage recalling that the grieving young girl was stunned by the sight of her embalmed mother's sewn-up lips, he notes, "That final image of her mother, at once peaceful yet grotesque, is one she carries with her to this day"; he neglects to mention that—no kidding, Sherlock—that exact image makes a jarring appearance in her later video lament to "Oh, Father."

Love her or hate her, Madonna's enduring preeminence in the world of pop music is reason to ponder her story. The most famous woman in the world certainly has a tale to tell, but we won't be hearing any of it until the proper person cares to listen.

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