Material Girl . . . Immaculate sexpot . . . Superstar . . . Mother . . . Kabbalah enthusiast . . . For three decades she has defied categorization. . . . She remains one of our greatest living pop icons.
Here is the groundbreaking biography that finally solves the mystery at the heart of Madonna's chameleonlike existence. Drawing upon scores of candid interviews with producers, musicians, collaborators, lovers, and friends, Lucy O'Brien's Madonna: Like an Icon explores the complex personality and legendary drive that have made Madonna the most famous female pop artist of our time. From her mother's premature death to Madonna's dynamic arrival on the New York club scene, from "Like a Virgin" to Evita and beyond, every stage of this dazzling star's life and career is brilliantly illuminated—the stereotypes deconstructed, the lies exposed, the artist examined, the legend celebrated.
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About the Author
Music critic Lucy O'Brien has contributed to many publications, including the Sunday Times (London), Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Q. The author of She Bop and She Bop II, as well as acclaimed biographies of Dusty Springfield and Annie Lennox, O'Brien lives in London and teaches at Westminster University and the University of London's Goldsmiths College.
Read an Excerpt
Madonna: Like an Icon
The Death of Madonna
Just north of Detroit is the suburb of Pontiac. Now a depressed area, back in Madonna's day it was a thriving manufacturing town servicing Detroit's huge automobile industry. Rising up by the highway is a cavernous bubble-shaped structure called the Silverdome. It was built in 1970s for Detroit's football team, but since the Lions moved downtown in 2002, it's been more or less abandoned. In its heyday, it hosted the NBA All-Star games and welcomed such rock bands as Led Zeppelin and The Who. In January 1987, Pope John Paul II celebrated a mass there.
Just across the road from the Silverdome is a small working-class neighborhood. Here Madonna spent her early childhood, at 443 Thors Street, in a modest, pale green single-story house. When I arrived there in 2006, it had a worn, dilapidated air, as if the ghosts hadn't quite left the building. Back in the early 1960s it would have been filled with children. It was Madonna's parents' first house, the place where they started their married life and where their eldest daughter first hatched her adventurous dreams.
"My grandparents came from Italy on the boat . . . [they] spoke no English at all. They weren't very educated, and I think in a way they represented an old lifestyle that my father really didn't want to have anything to do with," Madonna once said. Her grandfather Gaetano Ciccone came from Pacentro, a small village in the Abruzzo region of Italy. He came from a family of peasant farmers, but was encouraged to go to school and broaden his opportunities. In 1920, there was no work for this ambitious teenager, so he leftfor America, and made his way to Aliquippa, a steel town just outside Pittsburgh. After finding a job working on the blast furnace floor, he brought from Italy his young wife, Michelina di Ulio. They lived in a rented one-bedroom house near the steel mill, and raised six sons, five of whom worked at the mill. The youngest, Madonna's father, Silvio (also known as Tony), was the only one fortunate enough to go to college.
The Ciccones found being an immigrant family tough: there was considerable prejudice against the new wave of European immigrants, particularly Italians, who often came from impoverished backgrounds and were vulnerable to exploitation in the non-unionized mills.
Gaetano worked hard and got into politics. Spurred on by the historic National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which recognized unions, he helped organize a brief but crippling strike at the Aliquippa mill in the summer of 1937, which led to an improvement in the lives of the workers. Madonna later inherited that sense of justice with her inclusive politics and her open support of the Democratic Party. In the early 1990s, for instance, she filmed a public service announcement for the U.S. Rock the Vote campaign, a movement cofounded by MTV, which led to a 20 percent increase in youth turnout in the 1992 election that ushered in President Clinton. And in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War, Madonna was vocal in her opposition to George Bush, urging her fans to go and see Michael Moore's controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. In 2004 she endorsed Wesley Clark's Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidential election with the impassioned statement: "The future I wish for my children is at risk." Then, two years later, she expressed support for Hillary Clinton's campaign for the presidency.
Though she hasn't been as politically active as other major artists, such as Bono or Peter Gabriel, Madonna has campaigned for years on issues like safe sex and AIDS awareness, and has always opposed discrimination, whether on the grounds of race or sex. As a daughter of second-generation immigrants, she was keenly aware of social marginalization.
Her grandfather Gaetano was a strong disciplinarian, who managed to provide for his large family, but daily life was a struggle. The strain showed in his addiction to drink, a habit that took hold after he began making his own homemade wine. Madonna has said that both her paternal grandparents were alcoholics, a factor that played a part in her more abstemious attitude toward drink and drugs. Although the Italian community in Aliquippa was close-knit, it was also restrictive, with women expected to be little more than mothers and homemakers. And higher education, with its threat to traditional values, was treated with a degree of suspicion.
Studious and devout, Tony decided to break free from the restraints of his background. "He wanted to be upwardly mobile and go into the educated, prosperous America," Madonna once told Time magazine writer Denise Worrell. "I think he wanted us to have a better life than he did when he was growing up." After a stint of military service in Texas in the U.S. Air Force, in 1952, he returned home to Pennsylvania to get a degree in engineering at Geneva College, a Catholic institution in Beaver Falls. He had a long-term plan. The previous year he had met Madonna Fortin, the younger sister of his air force friend Dale Fortin. Tony was invited to Dale's wedding at a small chapel on the Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas, where they worked. The seventeen-year-old Madonna was maid of honor. A quiet beauty with wry wit and a gentle smile, she descended from pioneering French-Canadian stock—generations of farmers and lumberjacks who worked the land with a pragmatic, determined outlook. Her father, Willard Fortin, was a top manager in a Bay City construction company, and together with her mother, Elsie, raised their eight children to be pious Catholics. "She was very beautiful," remembered Madonna. "I look like her. I have my father's eyes but I have my mother's smile and a lot of her facial structure."
It wasn't just Madonna Sr.'s beauty that attracted Tony to her, but the fact that she came from a similar hardworking ethnic Catholic background. Both had high ideals and a strong attachment to family. . . .Madonna: Like an Icon. Copyright © by Lucy O'Brien. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Who can properly explicate the woman who is arguably the most famous female pop artist of our time? Many have tried some have failed. Music critic Lucy O'Brien has a good go at it with Madonna Like An Icon. O'Brien has been researching the phenomenon that is Madonna since the 1980s, fascinated by what appears to be unbridled ambition and the ability to repeatedly reinvent her image. This biographer's summary judgment is 'The only place where she seems truly herself is when she is doing her work. Away from that she can be self-conscious, status-conscious, everything-conscious. Only in performance are those layers stripped away and it's just her.' Whether or not we agree with O'Brien's assessment this biography is meticulously written and researched, taking readers from Madonna's childhood in Detroit, Michigan, where she later danced at gay clubs to her almost fearless pursuit of success, through her tumultuous marriage to Sean Penn, to her Like a Prayer video, her movie roles, her stage appearance as Evita, her embrace of Kabbalah, and finally her marriage to Guy Ritchie. Noting that Madonna's theatrical shows have made her a 'quasi-religious icon', O'Brien cites friend and actor Rupert Everett who called Madonna the 'Immaculate Conception.' He describes his impression upon first meeting Madonna: '.....there was an energy field around her, like a wave, that swept everyone up as it crashed into the room' Madonna once said of herself, 'I am the work of art.' Who is the 'real' Madonna? The answer may not be found in Madonna Like An Icon, but it is fascinating reading and sure to be devoured by her legions of fans. - Gail Cooke