A Thorough Undressing of a Pop Icon : Magazines: Madonna can't act or sing well, but she masterfully creates the image of mega-star, according to a New Republic portrayal.


Ten years from now, when Saddam Hussein has disappeared into the darkest archives of the world's collective memory banks, will Madonna remain a universally omnipresent cultural icon?

Not if Luc Sante can help it. As Sante portrays her in the Aug. 20-27 issue of New Republic, Madonna's blond ambitions make mere territorial imperialism seem small time.

"Madonna," he writes, "wants to conquer the unconscious, to become indelible."

Before launching a preemptive strike against Madonna's alleged attempts at mind control, Sante recounts Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone's well-known rise from Michigan nobody to mega-star: "She invented herself as a mutable being, a container for a multiplicity of images . . . while she had a small talent as a pop singer, as an image strategist she possessed something approaching genius."

Of late, Madonna has taken to telling the detractors she so carefully eggs on to "lighten up." Sante, however, is having none of that. Rolling up his sleeves and knitting his brow, he plunges ahead with a blow-by-blow deconstruction of the Virgin-turned-Material Girl-turned-Breathless Mahoney.

Madonna, he writes, is "a magpie with a flair for highlighting the critical elements of the styles she appropriates." Her "Material Girl" album "was crass, vulgar, obvious, charmless, and virtually definitive of the grasping zeitgeist of 1984." Her new album, "I'm Breathless," is "disfigured by an excess of cute fillips, the sort of fripperies that at one time were restricted to novelty records."

Madonna's vocal equipment, he adds, "is inadequate to the task at hand."

And she isn't even sexy, Sante contends. "What she exudes is more like will, iron self-discipline . . . "

Finally, Sante stops pulling his punches and informs readers that Madonna is "a bad actress, a barely adequate singer, a graceless dancer, a boring interview subject, a workmanlike but uninspired (co-) songwriter, and a dynamo of hard work and ferocious ambition."

Yet Sante is unconvincing in his assertion that Madonna's unlikely success at captivating the collective unconscious will soon fade. His icon-as-blank-slate analysis aside, Sante offers no insight into why the world allows Madonna to impose herself upon it--or why the media so eagerly co-conspire with her silly megalomania.

Sante will probably feel vindicated to learn that the Aug. 13 People is devoted not to another mug of the Dick Tracy tramp but to "the biggest sensation since the Beatles"--the New Kids on the Block.


* Novelists, most readers suspect, reveal everything there is to reveal about themselves in their fiction. But the Aug. 6 and Aug. 13 issues of the New Yorker feature long excerpts from the journals of novelist John Cheever, and the revelations, with the veil of fiction removed, are engaging. The items trace Cheever through middle age--as he approaches his 40th birthday feeling like a failure, through a long struggle with alcohol, in quiet moments fishing with his children, and coping with the strains of a tattered marriage, melancholy, and an underlying concern about growing older.

"It seems to me that in the United States the contest between youth and age or between youth and un-youth, between those men whose hash has been settled and those who are still in the throes of a grueling search is exacerbated to the point of sexuality and sometimes brutality," he writes in one passage that almost sounds like a description of the author's struggles with himself.

* Kennebunkport, Me., used to be a restrained and upscale tourist resort. Then George Bush got elected President. Now the "Kennebushport" shops sell Bush T-shirts, coffee mugs, golf hats, Christmas ornaments, dish towels, trivets and masks. "Kennebunkport's commercial set has worried that kitsch, the embarrassing poor cousin of elegance, would wreck their good thing, that the droves of President-seekers with thin wallets would scare off the old guard," Mark Kramer writes in an engaging essay in the August New England Monthly. But the presidential presence hasn't ruined the neighborhood after all, he concludes.


* With magazines going belly up at a sickening pace, the make-over has become a major survival tool. Details, which lifted off in the '80s as a fashion book of sorts, unnotable for a black-and-white-and-brooding look reminiscent of those dopey Obsession ads, reappears as a bright and rather cheery men's style magazine.

Don't judge the new magazine by its hideous cover (all primary colors and exclamation points!). From the oddball comic strips at the back, to the full page blurbs in the front, Details promises to assert itself in the amorphous men's magazine market with a strong editorial voice that will transcend the fashion spreads.

The feature writing is uniformly strong and straightforward. A study of Southern California's rock climbing underground; a profile of a pilots who fly for Project Light Hawk, "the environmental air force;" an investigative report on the documents seized by U.S. agencies from Manuel Noriega. One of the best is a piece on what became of some of the young Wall Street moguls of the '80s, the decade that was, for some, one long, junk-bond drunk "frat party."

Still, the magazine's image of itself is not entirely clear. And a lot hinges on that. For instance, the editors' decision to run a full-page color photograph of executed killer Jesse Joseph Tafero's head, which was burned by a malfunctioning Florida electric chair, accompanied by a graphic description of the sickening fiasco, may have been courageous or disgusting, depending on how the magazine sees itself.

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