August 31, 2007

Why I haven't blown up the world yet

It's true: part of the role of woman is to civilize man. Perhaps not directly, as in telling him how to dress -- you should generally not trust girls' advice here -- but indirectly, as in sending the signal that she will not date or marry men who act out violently or behave like barbarians in general. Of course, this assumes that we're not talking about a group where thugs have to fight off eager women with a stick. Among the Yanomamo, for example, the best killers tend to have greater reproductive success. The situation is obviously better in Western continental Europe, where even mild brutishness of the aggressive used car salesman or high school jock type is frowned upon.

We all get the urge to flush the human scum down the toilet, and on those occasions, it's worth having that reminder to keep us from doing so, the woman who would be horrified by a violent rampage. I have two: both Spanish (though one is technically White Mexican-American), introverted, a bit on the weepy side, fragile, songbirds with low voices, and who are rail-thin. The phrase "Madonna-Whore dichotomy" exaggerates the real pattern of male thinking, but these two are on the Madonna side, for lack of a better term.

First is Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, and who's also recorded a solo album with back-up band The Warm Inventions. She's now 41 and is the perfect antithesis of the self-debasing skanks of pop music who I've written about lately. She's very pretty and had a hit single when she was 27, so if she wanted to, she could have gone the way of Mariah Carey. Instead, she has always kept her sexuality rather private, and she has aged very well because of that. I've written a gagillion posts about her so far, so I'll just include one new video link: "Disappear".

The other is Vega, a Spanish pop star who became really famous the first summer I spent in Barcelona. She has the same graceful qualities that Hope Sandoval does. In particular, she is gorgeous and had a megahit when she was 23, and yet she's never slutted up her lyrics or stage performances in the least. I've posted a lot about her before, but why not fill up the main page here with some of her videos?

The first is a look-back at her time on the show Operacion Triunfo, which is like a mix between American Idol and Big Brother, I guess. It's not subtitled, but you get the idea of what's happening. She says she's weepy and sensitive, a mentor tells her to believe in herself, and so on. It's odd that halfway decent stuff could result from such a show, but here she is:



Next, her performing the brooding stalker's anthem "Every Breath You Take" on the show:



And her megahit "Grita!" (Shout!):



Followed by my favorite, "Una vida contigo" (A life with you):



Here is an acoustic, live version of the above.

"Y llueve" (And it's raining):



She also recorded a cover of Frank Sinatra's "That's Life". Great Spanish accent, and what a lovely laugh!

Urge to kill... fading...

August 19, 2007

Fussell's category X and conspicuous ignorance

In the comments on the cleaning up your nerdy appearance post, someone recommended that I read Paul Fussell's Class, which I did. I thought I had read some of the passages before, and as it turns out, I'd already read a review of it. While most of the book takes a fairly accurate and humorous look at the American class system,* there are two chapters that missed the mark, one only somewhat, but the other completely.

In the chapter on language as a class-marker, there are the predictable worries about the decline of language caused by not following some grammatical rule** or not honoring some obscure etymology. But there's also a more technical problem: he doesn't know linguistics. He claims that a prole would pronounce "corned beef" as "corm beef." This is a basic (not base) linguistic process, the same that often turns "handbag" into "hambag." The cluster of consonants "ndb" don't really get along well, so the "d" is elided, making "nb". But since "n" uses the tongue against the teeth, while the following "b" uses both lips together, a more fluid pronunciation changes "n" to "m", which also uses both lips together.

There couldn't be a more pervasive cross-linguistic pattern than this (phonological "assimilation"), and as far as I know, the upper classes are not immune to it. Certainly Fussell provides no hard evidence, a rather typical case when doomsayers discourse on technical aspects of language.

Putting this minor concern aside, the final chapter on "Category X" is not only clueless but celebrates what a Veblenite might call "conspicuous ignorance." The Udolpho review linked to above provides some key quotes that define X (basically, self-styled non-conformists and Bohemians). Fussell sees X as a non-class, a group that's managed to find a way out of the class hierarchy, and so a group to be emulated by those who are smart and curious enough to be able to adopt Bohemian ways.

First off, we already see the primary marker of X's class insecurity and envy: thinking of oneself as Plato's prisoner who's escaped the cave and who is in a sense chosen to lead the benighted from their world of illusions. The bestseller version of this allegory, The Matrix, became an instant hit among ambitionless geeks by selling them the dream of social importance, in much the same way that "Go Yankees" caps sell well among proles by letting them identify with something powerful and important. Thus, pace Fussell's claim that X is the one group among whom the religion of buying and selling has been dethroned, X-ers are easily manipulated by marketing teams. Their blind allegiance to "organic" food also shows this, since aside from the very hardcore, most Bo-Bos shop at Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and other corporate chain stores that target the middle class.

The worldview of X therefore combines envy and resentment of the upper classes that's not unlike what you see among other middle-class groups: "Well, if the game doesn't reward intelligence and curiosity, then to hell with its fouled up priorities. I just won't enter in the first place!"

Indeed, in the brief final chapter, the words "intelligence" and "curiosity" are so frequently name-dropped that we are lead to conclude that they are markers of insecurity -- those who truly rest atop the apex of intelligence and curiosity don't feel it necessary to incessantly throw these words in people's faces to convince them. They serve the same purpose that "good taste" does in Fussell's mocking presentation of middle-class values. And they show that X-ers are not drawn from proles, who are more likely to hate middle-class know-it-alls than the elegant patricians who they rarely come into contact with.

Now, I don't deny that many X-ers are smart and curious people, even if they're not the unrecognized geniuses they think themselves to be. What's really appauling about them is that they have wasted their high levels of IQ and Openness to Experience by pursuing things that are, on an intellectual level, utterly frivolous. They are not contributing to our understanding of how the world works, since Fussell describes them as inveterate "verbal people" -- in short, those adapted to bullshitting, hoodwinking, and pranksterism. They are not creating valuable art, literature, or music either, although they may play an instrument or regard themselves as writers.***

What accounts for X's disdain for doing anything worthwhile, preferring faux contrarian behavior? A cynic would say this group is merely flaunting its intelligence and curiosity by investing them in perfectly pointless pursuits. And I don't mean "pointless" in the way that number theory has few real-world applications, but in the sense of "let's psychoanalyze the Transformers cartoon" or "let's make an AdBusters design." Or perhaps "let's maintain a weblog." The intended social signal is, "I've got so much IQ and curiosity to spare that I can afford to fritter a lot of it away on this useless crap." For example, Kant was reknowned for his appetite for arcane knowledge of obscure cultures. However, he was a highly disciplined, productive, and original thinker.

Unfortunately, though, the outcome for X-ers is as if a prole wore jeans and a t-shirt to ape the "understated chic" style of the upper class. First of all, the prole's jeans and t-shirt are poorly constructed, ill-fitting, and visually unappealing, just as X's actual output tends to be unimpressive. And if prodded for further proof, the prole would have no way to show he was upper class, while the true upper class can point to their houses. Similarly, X-ers cannot, when questioned, point to their Nobel Prizes, nor even to early work tending in that direction, or great works of art they've created. By contrast, if Robert Oppenheimer talked your ear off about Indian spirituality, leading you to suspect he was a halfwit, he could always have scores of eminent physicists vouch for his smarts and originality.

An apologist for Bo-Bos would claim that Fussell's final chapter is simply a subtle, ironic "deconstruction" of X's behaviors and motives. But his tone is too enthusiastic, and the other markers of class insecurity and envy too naked, to conclude anything other than that the chapter is a failed attempt at conspicuous ignorance. In reality, X-ers are just a particularly dopey subset of the middle class.

* My favorite finding of his is an ad in The New Yorker, most of which reads (original format):

"Dr and Mrs Jeffrey Logan Brandon
request the pleasure of your company for
[at this point the higher classes might say cocktails, or, if thoroughly secure, drinks. But here, "Dr." and Mrs. Brandon are inviting you to consume specifically]
Champagne and Caviar
on Friday, etc., etc."

** Throughout, Fussell adheres to the rule "never to split one's infinitives," even though this prescription is a perfect example of inorganic, rule-by-committee abominations that he derides elsewhere.

*** By the way, thank god the sexiness of "writers" has thoroughly evaporated -- imagine how difficult it would be today to adopt the earlier Woody Allen convention that cool intellectuals almost invariably aspire to be writers or architects. Hopefully, this will mean that only the serious will write for a living.

August 16, 2007

Younger babes, and dance nostalgia

Tonight on the metro, a solid 8.5 girl all but started doing cartwheels down the aisle to get my attention. I know because the car was nearly empty, the only males being me, an ugly high school dork, and an equally ugly IT geek, so she wasn't looking at someone behind me. She was in a group of four, and they were all about 19-20 (probably college students or interns).

Younger girls' flirtation is not effortless -- that's the wrong word, and assumes that they're trying but just make it look easy. Rather, they are not in control of their thoughts at all. Their behavior lacks the self-conscious calculation that a woman in her mid-late 20s would show. Aside from eye-contact and smiling, she wasn't just pushing around her hair a bit, but tossing her tresses madly about as though she were on an LSD trip -- I've never seen a girl stroke, tousle, and throw her hair so nervously. She also kept involuntarily touching her chest with her hand when laughing or giggling, and not in that pretentious seductress way. (It was the end of the workday, and I saw her walk evenly into the metro, so she was not drunk.) Nor were there gestures of skankdom: no forced pouty lips, conspicuous leaning over to reveal her underwear above low-rise jeans, etc.

Older women, when flirting heavily, give off the air of seduction, every subtle move planned out to manipulate you to where she wants you to go. Younger girls don't have the experience and cynicism to plan out such a thing: their more showy displays are meant to signal that their minds have been possessed. In them burns the flame of uncontrollable irrationality.

Some evolutionary psychologists suggest that this is adaptive, in the sense that it shows she won't just dump your ass for someone else.* If only your superficial qualities attracted her, she would leave you for someone who scored a bit higher on these, and her thought process would be: "Hmmm, let's look around... ah, that's a nice one. I believe I'll choose him for tonight." But if her reaction is "Omigod, who's that guy?!" and she gets butterflies in the stomach, then you can rest assured that, whatever qualities she finds attractive, she's been struck by Cupid's arrow and won't eyeball others who happen to score as highly or more highly than you do.

A cynic would respond that I only value girls when they lose control of their minds and can't think straight, as opposed to those who are rational and cunning. But -- and the few female readers I have can correct me on this -- for both sexes, it just feels more dignifying for the person who's flirting with you to appear "head-over-heels" rather than manipulating you for their own ends. Note that I haven't given in to the dark side and joined the players' club or whatever it's called: not in my nature. I've got a couple months before I turn 27, and I have a youthful face,** so maybe I'll have another try at the "young and in love" thing before it's too late.

Well, not with this particular girl -- I didn't do anything to approach her, other than flirt back a little, as I'm heading off to another part of the country tomorrow for graduate school, about the 34856994762nd time I've had to move. Being thrown about so often tends to make you more susceptible to nostalgia, and the last time I remember a 19-20 year old babe trying to get my attention was in Barcelonan nightclubs. (And come to think of it, this girl was very Mediterranean-looking, though I'd guess she was also 1/4 Irish or something.)

I've been to a club here or there in DC, but they just reek compared to even the mediocre ones in Barna -- the people here are on average more self-serious, they go out more "to be seen" than to cut loose and have fun, and the music will rarely include anything really danceable.*** It's a damn shame that the dance craze died so quickly in the US after disco's sputtering out. In The Last Days of Disco, we hear Ryan Paris' "La Dolce Vita," even though this song came out too late to be played when disco existed. I read this use of poetic license as a reminder that, despite the small role it played in the US, dance music would continue to draw legions of Europeans to nightclubs. With that, let's remember some of the better Italo Disco songs:

"La Dolce Vita" by Ryan Paris

"Tarzan Boy" by Baltimora

"Boys" by Sabrina Salerno (semi-not-safe due to nipple exposures)

OK, so the last performer is a total bimbo in the video. The music's still great for dancing. Her Wikipedia bio says she became more serious later on, so maybe she's the converse of Shakira and Mariah Carey: she is 19 in that video, so a fairly slutty start may have exhausted her early and made her do decent work in her late 20s and afterward. Vanity became a born-again, didn't she?

* Steven Pinker reviews some of this lit on romantic love in How the Mind Works.

** This got me carded for R-rated movies until I was 20, I'd guess.

*** And please don't tell me that Thievery Corporation, some of the more danceable of current club music, stacks up to Chic.

August 14, 2007

Clothing and class

Over at GNXP, I wrote a brief guide to cleaning up your nerdy appearance, emphasizing professionalism and making the place look nice, more than looking hot to get girls (though that's a good reason too). One thing I should've mentioned, but which was beside the main point there, is that it's a mistake to believe that putting more effort into our dress is bad because it might stoke class tensions, so why don't we all dress really down and be happy in our equality.

On the contrary, the downward spiral of casualness only increases the variance -- or as it's fashionable to say, it exacerbates the gap between the rich and poor. When even those at the bottom rungs of the white collar ladder dress more formally, and when (for example) waiters and waitresses are provided with stunning formal uniforms by their employers, both public and even private life has a much more polished look. Differences remain, but the contrast between a low-level white collar guy and a CEO is not night-and-day.

Once the more formal standards are abandoned, the very richest retain their impeccable attire -- Wall St. bankers will never adopt cargo shorts and polo shirts for work -- while everyone else tumbles into slobdom. The middle falls out, and now the differences between a CEO and an office worker look like something out of a muckraking cartoon from the Robber Baron era. Except, as Donald from 2blowhards pointed out, it is voluntary nowadays to look unkempt. As such, it could easily change if the will were there.

And when people are not in their "work-gear," these differences become downright embarrassing. The discrepancy between the suit of a low-level white collar worker and that of a CEO is noticeable, but it takes some investigation, and many naive people could be forgiven if they didn't see much of a contrast in the first place. However, look at the Wall St. banker in his t-shirt and jeans next to an office assistant in his t-shirt and jeans. Unlike a jacket and tie, the t-shirt and jeans look is pretty difficult to make look impressive. You could easily be mistaken for an unemployed or homeless person, but not so with a jacket and tie.

Sporty looks can be done right -- for a hefty price. While a jacket and tie from a low-level department store at least stands a fighting chance as a replacement for a $2000 suit, t-shirt and jeans from the same store would be hopeless to replace the $250 jeans and $150 t-shirt that would be required to pull off the relaxed look with some dignity and style. It's bad enough that a more casual approach results in less impressive items, but sub-CEO people are not merely wearing sporty designer sweaters and sleek jeans. The combination of these two effects really hollows out a large chunk of the public who would otherwise look pretty good.

Since the result is to push middle-class people to compete in an area where they are absolutely doomed -- casual sportswear -- let's ask Lenin's famous "who? whom?" question. Have the countercultural class warriors created the "less formal" trend in order to brutalize the appearance and self-confidence of the working and middle classes, exaggerating the most easily visible differences between them and the upper classes, all to fan the flames of inter-class hatred? "Guh, look at that pig in his yuppie suit!" etc., from a person who not long ago might have worn a jacket and tie himself.

Given that most of those who champion this credo harbor a more intense hatred of those above than a love of those below, this interpretation may not be as crazy as it sounds. Of course, I haven't read any of the popular (let alone, er, "scholarly") books on this subject, so this could have already been suggested, debated, and defeated. It's just hard to see who else benefits -- well, the upper classes themselves, but they can't control how those below them dress... without a mole to do their work from the inside. Those would be the celebrities -- from sub-elite backgrounds but who connote "high class" in the minds of the populace, and who enjoy dragging standards down, often into the gutter. But celebrities are for another time.

August 10, 2007

Eric Rohmer's Lady and the Duke

"Those Enlightenment philosophers should open their eyes!"

I've been meaning to give this movie a proper review -- see the trailer here -- but it's a historical movie and I don't know much more about the French Revolution than I learned in AP European History nearly ten years ago. Nor do I have time to read history now. So much for providing value-added insight into the history, then! The movie is an account of the Revolution leading up to and including some of the Reign of Terror, based on first-hand details from the diary of Lady Grace Elliott, a Scottish noblewoman who made France her adopted country.

The greatest aspect of the movie is that it humanizes the aristocracy. I can't say how the upper classes are portrayed in mainstream French movies and TV shows, but you only need to look at Law & Order and Titanic to see how vilely caricatured they are in the US. The heroine of the title is by far the most virtuous of the characters. She remains in France despite the danger posed by unruly mobs, she upholds the standards of civility during a time of mass chaos, and she even risks her own welfare to aid the escape of a reactionary polemicist who she does not care for but who has been condemned to death.

The original title, L'Anglaise et le duc, reads "The Englishwoman" rather than just "The Lady." This highlights Elliott's virtuousness all the more, as she has made a conscious choice to contribute to French culture, and it reminds the viewer that she could easily flee to her homeland. Sometimes it is the Outsider convert who most champions the ideals of a group, much as in the case of Tom Townsend in Metropolitan, perhaps because they are more aware of what life would be like in the absence of rarefied standards. Edmund Burke, in his Reflections, located the roots of English manners in earlier French traditions and is outraged that the latter may become extinguished:

In England we are said to learn manners at second-hand from your side of the water, and that we dress our behaviour in the frippery of France. If so, we are still in the old cut; and have not so far conformed to the new Parisian mode of good breeding, as [...] to say, to the most humiliated creature that crawls upon the earth, that great public benefits are derived from the murder of his servants, the attempted assassination of himself and of his wife, and the mortification, disgrace, and degradation, that he has personally suffered.

Although some critics complained that the movie was "too talky" and lacked action, * that only heightens the tension. Imagine how difficult it must be to force yourself to carry on as if there weren't a "swinish multitude" out on the prowl looking to make an example of someone like you. For someone raised on crude satires of "Let them eat cake" aristos, ** a movie like this makes an impact similar to that of a story like The Diary of Anne Frank for viewers conditioned to expect beady-eyed Jews sucking the blood of the Folk masses. And I don't remember anyone referring to a movie about Anne Frank as an "arty snoozer." What a clueless schmuck.

In both cases, the caricatures may have started off with a kernel of truth based on particular aristocrats or Jewish bankers, but once the herd runs with it, it spirals out of control. Also in both cases, the slandered group enjoys a higher social station than the swarm of malcontents, so that once the envy and wrath of individuals aggregate and are amplified by the envy and wrath of the rest of the horde, it is only a matter of time before they act to knock their superiors off their pedastal -- not by trying and dispassionately judging individual defendants but by a broad-brush "take no prisoners" assault on the group as a whole.

Moreover, the two groups had to fear both calculated apprehension by an organized military or police, as well as spontaneous bloodshed at the hands of the mob (such as in a pogrom). And in the specific cases of Frank and Elliott, the crowd's xenophobia toward their ethnic group makes their security all the more fragile. (Antipathy toward Marie Antoinette's Austrian background also features in The Lady and the Duke.)

The other title character, the Duke of Orleans, shows how idealistic individuals who encourage a revolution may become consumed by the very group they supported. That could be due to lack of sufficient zeal or to the fact that once the worst offenders are taken care of, frivolous charges must be trumped up in order to keep the nation's purifiers in business. Although Lady Elliott implores the Duke to take a firm stand and vote against the execution of his cousin the King, he responds that he agrees with her reasoning but that he is caught up in the advancing stampede (or some similar metaphor).

I don't read his defense as a self-serving rationalization: it seems that Rohmer wants to say that it really is unlikely that you will be able to stand still once you enter the herd, or swim against the current once you wade too far out into the sea. The only way to uphold your principles, then, is to make a bold existential choice not to enter the stampede in the first place. And of course the larger lesson is that small, tinkering changes and reforms are preferable to wild swings driven mostly by the caprice of the masses. That is because high civilization is an unstable equilibrium for homo sapiens, a state that can easily diverge off into barbarism after even modest perturbations.

Other revolutionaries receive relatively sympathetic treatment, showing that Rohmer is not a knee-jerk royalist either. Elliott harbors a fugitive polemicist and, fearing that a revolutionary patrol might discover him (and punish her as an accomplice), she hides him between the wall and the mattresses of her bed. She remains on her bed, nearly nude, hoping that she will not be asked to get up. Although it appears they may force her from her bed -- to the delight of several leering beasts in the patrol -- the officer in charge tells them to back off, since it would be a violation of etiquette. Elliott thanks him for maintaining propriety, and the fugitive evades capture.

Near the end when Elliott is put on trial, it is clear that the revolutionaries are not a cohesive monolith -- as a cartoon version might portray them -- but a group barely held together, riven by disputes large and small, some just delusionally idealistic and others consumed by hatred for aristocrats. Robespierre himself makes a brief cameo to tell the others not to bother with Elliott, as they have bigger fish to fry. He does not come off as a bloodthirsty, choleric tyrant; he seems more cold, calculating, and charismatic.

Another director could have easily used the occasion of making this movie to either skewer the aristocracy or portray them as angels, according to his ideological tastes. Instead, Rohmer takes a humanizing approach, showing both the foibles of the upper classes and of a few revolutionaries, as well as the savagery of the mob. *** The film ends with several high-ranking figures stepping up to the guillotine, the camera only showing their austere expressions and the dignified attire they're still wearing even as they await death. This approach works best, for as Burke observed, an inordinate focus on the faults of a group of people leaves little room for thinking up cool-headed reforms that would correct these faults (my emphasis):

Your legislators [in France] seem to have taken their opinions of all professions, ranks, and offices, from the declamations and buffooneries of satirists; who would themselves be astonished if they were held to the letter of their own descriptions. By listening only to these, your leaders regard all things only on the side of their vices and faults, and view those vices and faults under every colour of exaggeration. It is undoubtedly true, though it may seem paradoxical; but in general, those who are habitually employed in finding and displaying faults, are unqualified for the work of reformation: because their minds are not only unfurnished with patterns of the fair and good, but by habit they come to take no delight in the contemplation of those things. By hating vices too much, they come to love men too little. It is therefore not wonderful, that they should be indisposed and unable to serve them.

* Poo-poo-ing a movie as "talky" rarely means there is too much dialogue. "Too talky" means "I wish they wouldn't say that." In the present case, bitchy reviewers just want the super-rich to shut their traps and get guillotined already.

** Marie Antoinette did not actually say this; that she did was propaganda and has survived to the present day.

*** In one scene, Elliott is accosted in her carriage by a ogre carrying the head of the Princess of Lamballe on a pike, presumably only shortly after she had been brutally gang-raped and mutilated.

August 9, 2007

French Baroque on YouTube

All right, enough Madonna. You've probably heard this type of music if you've seen anything having to do with Louis XIV, Versailles Palace, etc. (A previous post on visualizing harmony and melody featured works by other Baroque composers Scarlatti and Bach -- it was a great period.)

"Soeur Monique" by Couperin

Three pieces by Rameau

"Entree des zephirs" from Atys by Lully

August 5, 2007

Before they ruined themselves 3: Madonna

[Part 1 on Shakira, Part 2 on Mariah Carey.]

Yes, there was a time when Madonna was neither slutty nor new age-y, although I'm too young to remember it personally. I recall hearing "Open Your Heart" and "Like a Prayer" when I was in elementary school, and by the time I started secondary school, she had just crossed the Rubicon of skankdom with Erotica and Bedtime Stories. Since then, it's all been pretty bad or mediocre compared to her earliest albums.

One thing worth clearing up is that she has never returned to her dance music roots -- I didn't know so many people thought so, but reading around, I find lots of references to Ray of Light and her newest Confessions on a Dance Floor as being dance music. No, they're more of a return to her techno/house megahit "Vogue." But techno, house, trance, ambient, and recent electronic music generally, are not crafted to facilitate dancing. It is overly repetitive, amelodic, lacking in vocal range, and has lots of percussion, most of which has a "marching in lockstep" rhythm: BOON-chick BOON-chick BOON-chick BOON-chick.

Now, to enjoy truly danceable music, you have to go back to her first, eponymous album. Just listen to "Holiday" -- a naive listener would guess it was a disco song, which is understandable since the album came out in 1983, right after disco's downfall. "Lucky Star" isn't quite as lively, but still works well. The year after her debut album, she released Like a Virgin, my favorite. The title track, "Dress You Up", * "Material Girl", and "Into the Groove" -- great dance-pop music.

The lyrics are sanguine rather than cynical,** celebrate long-term love over fucking and spanking, and focus more on the irrational helplessness and possessivenes of falling head-over-heels as opposed to the jaded calculation of a cougar on the prowl. The videos are basically slut-free, although there is the occasional instance of her acting like a dopey seductress. Even her infamous performance of "Like a Virgin" at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards is pretty tame. For all but the last 30 seconds, she's not doing much of anything, and then lightly humps the ground for a few seconds near end. She was hardly an ideal role model, but she wouldn't have been an awful one then either.

Now fast-forward to 1990: that's the year of the switch to house/techno music ("Vogue"), of the Blond Ambition Tour with its skeezy NSFW rendition of "Like a Virgin," and of the harbinger of much later S&M-themed videos (the NSFW "Justify My Love"). This latter video is as druggy as an Andy Warhol movie, and about as erotic -- the kind of goofy, fumbling attempt at edgy sensuality you'd expect from the goth kid in a freshman filmmaking class. After her sleazy phase, she turned into a new age spiritual flake,*** passed the torch of skankiness in saliva form to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, then released the obligatory "post-fame political manifesto" album like every superstar, and most recently put out the aforementioned non-dance album.

Nevertheless, in Madonna's defense, she deserves credit for not caving in to dissoluteness until as late as she did. Born in August 1958, she was nearly 32 when the Blond Ambition Tour marked her descent from dance-pop greatness. By contrast, the other two women I've profiled so far in this series -- Shakira and Mariah Carey -- were 28 and 27, respectively, when they sold out their earlier fun and nonchalant personas in favor of what they have become. It's possible that the difference is due to Madonna entering the spotlight much later in life than the other two -- she was 24 when her first album came out, while Shakira was 19 and Mariah Carey 20 when their first major albums came out. As another data-point, Janet Jackson began her foray into voyeurism and sluttiness when she was 27, having first made it big when she was just under 20.

I still think it's somewhat due to Madonna having a stronger character than Shakira, Carey, or Jackson, though. As a woman approaches 30, on some level she is aware that her youth is basically over. For example, even if she's on the attractive side, she won't automatically turn lots of heads anymore. She has to make a decision about whether to age gracefully, accepting that she's no longer a "pretty young thing," or to hurl herself headlong into the abyss of skankdom in order to maintain the same level of attention she's been used to. See Roissy's post "From kitten to cougar" for more detail.

In high school, Madonna got straight A's and go into the University of Michigan -- that takes a certain amount of IQ and conscientiousness. Hell, a weak person could never conquer the world of entertainment and earn the title Queen of Pop. Partly for this reason, Madonna's vulnerable period from 27 to 31 was much more dignified than that of most female stars. So, one cheer for her career overall, although she's pretty good if you focus on her pre-1990 albums, especially the first two.

* There's no music video for the song, and this clip had the best sound. I don't actually like Jem and the Holograms...

** "Material Girl" pokes fun at plotting, princess-y types; remember this was from her early, Cyndi Lauper-esque period. The music video makes that clear when she tells her friend that diamonds don't move her, and asks the friend if she wants the expensive jewelry a suitor has given her.

*** On some level, she must have been ashamed of her early-mid '90s sleazefest, and sought some form of redemption, but her look-at-how-spiritual-I-am image just shows how self-absorbed she had become.