Five Things I Learned from Madonna

Posted on August 16, 2011 by Marian Salzman

Today, Madonna turned 53. If there’s one singer who grew up right along with me, it was Madonna. Her music was a soundtrack for my life for quite a while. And I learned a lot from her brilliant ability to home in on trends and street culture with stylish aplomb and keep making hits. In many ways, Madonna was her own best CMO: Whether her music was pure pop, hip-hop, electronica or anything else, she was always promoting an image that consumers wanted.

I remember when she first arrived on the scene, or at least on my radar. There she was, consummate club chick, dancing around with a spray can and an oversize leather jacket in some downtown loft in “Borderline.” She was the ultimate trendsetter, and I was a budding trendspotter, so I love how she changed ahead of the times by knowing what her audience would want. (Maybe she’s hoping to singlehandedly bring back the cougar trend, but that’s another story….)

So, in no particular order, here are five things I learned from Madonna:

  1. Strong and steady (and sexy) sins the race. When I was like a virgin in my marketing career, Madonna was there to show me that it’s cool to be feminine and masculine, wear the skirts and the pants, and be unapologetically strong, both physically and mentally. Just as my career was growing up, so, too, was Madonna’s muscled physicality and incredible business acumen surpassing anything we had ever seen a woman do, in the MTV generation or otherwise. It was a real revelation as I tried to forge ahead as a woman in business—with confusing power suits and thinking I needed to act like a man to succeed. But all that was necessary was a set of virtual balls, and big ones at that. Camille Paglia dubbed Madonna the “future of feminism,” which makes a lot of sense to me, really, because it was true back then. Let’s face it: The world was different before Madonna. It just was.
  2. The material world keeps changing. When Madonna’s big hit “Material Girl” debuted in 1985, it was infamous not only for its take on Some Like It Hot and the grand tradition of sex bomb Marilyn Monroe, but also for its admittance, in the era of women in shoulder pads and Working Girl (I was way in that camp), that sometimes women want to be showered with gifts, diamonds and cash. Now when I watch the video, I realize it was all terribly tongue in cheek—especially because Madonna is one of the most successful pop stars alive and could certainly buy herself anything she wants. But she taught society to play with gender roles and turn them on their ears. At the same time, this hit was the beginning of the go-go days of consumerism. Now, as I look back, it’s almost a nostalgic reminder of how much has changed since the days when girls could be bought off with diamonds. In the wake of recent events on Wall Street and Main Street, it’s hard not to see those days as crass—and almost surreal.
  3. Life is always “on.” Madonna’s turn as an actress might not have been met with rave reviews, but anyone watching could not ignore her powerful showmanship. And her ability to live life in the public eye made her the ultimate social media expert, before such things even existed. Think about it: We all are struggling now with what I have referred to as a myopic existence—life/work/real life/social life is all one big blur. When Madonna released her documentary Truth or Dare, we got a very intimate look at her life, her relationship and her work ethic. Remember how horrified her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty was at her inability to shut off the cameras? Cut to now, where we are always on, documenting every second of our lives…and we carefully curate what we want people to see, don’t we? Maybe you didn’t know it, but Madonna taught us that, way back in 1991 when this movie was released. (Where did those 20 years go, anyway?)
  4. Globalism is good. For decades, I was somewhat of a perma-expat, constantly traveling around the globe. Hotel rooms were home. Attached to my expense reports were receipts from just about every country you could imagine. I related to my American roots but felt very tied to global events. Her “American Life” reminds me of why I am often so skeptical of bearing only a U.S. passport (Madonna herself was/is an expat living in the U.K., so she seemed keen to disarm our notion of the dream). To me, this album flagged the power of the super institutions that force-fed us a dream, one that you and I both know is really never what it seems (double-shot soy latte or not).
  5. So is reinvention. I feel like we’ve watched Madonna go from brat to wife to mom to charitable altruist and, ultimately, to the picture of physical strength and fitness not present for us normal folks. Esther is her Kaballah name, and she has made no secret of the fact that finding spirituality changed her life, as did a brutal daily ashtanga yoga practice. And despite falling down many times, Madonna has always picked herself up by her influential bootstraps and gotten right back in the game. Failed marriages, failed box offices and failed attempts at a British accent—they didn’t keep her down for long. And that’s a lesson we can all take to heart.

Of course, as a marketer, I still can’t help but wonder if megastars like Madonna really change or if their stardom is based on cleverly tapping into the values of the moment and creating their personas (Brand Me) around that. Isn’t the latter the real lesson for marketing and PR folks? It’s pretty much what is always on-brief and trending in a conference room near you: How do we get in line with culture or—if you’re really good in this business—disrupt it?

Photo credit: Flickr/ by choupigloupi

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