Madonna: The Evolution and De-Evolution of a Brand

I remember the first time I met Madonna. It was 1980 in New York City, and the disco thing was merging with the new wave thing to create a whole new kind of music genre.

The city was alive with a new breed of artist: edgy, opinionated, daring and theatrical. This was the period where Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat and Boy George were hitting the scene. Artists were crossing and blurring lines all over the place… white, black, gay, straight, old, young. Anything went because people were hungry for something different.

I met Madonna late one night in the stairway of the Music Building on 38th Street and 8th Avenue, right near Times Square. She was collaborating with a friend of mine there in the famed studio, where sometimes she’d sit in the decrepit, filthy stairway with a Casio keyboard on her lap playing around with melodies. She looked me up and down, said “How ya doing?” and went back to work. That was it. No time for small talk. She was focused completely on getting to where she wanted to be, even then.

I remember seeing her numerous times over the next couple of years. She was in every club, after hours, every DJ booth, every VIP room. Every time you turned around, she was there, working every moment, every angle, every opportunity.

A huge part of what makes Madonna Madonna is the notion of her sheer gumption. The girl who wouldn’t lie down, back down, take no for an answer. The girl who claimed she arrived in NYC with nothing but $30 and a dream. It is a big part of her legend and her brand, and it struck a nerve.

She crafted a mythology around herself: one part rebel, one part femme fatal, one part court jester hidden behind a hyper-sexualized parody of the many sex symbols that came before her—Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, Louise Brooks. She was the whole package and pushed envelopes left, right and center.

Bad girl from Detroit makes good or good girl from Detroit makes bad… however you choose to see it, she was about to hit it big—and well, we all know what happened next.

Madonna’s brand has always been about transformation, a mirror of our own journey through pop culture and as a people. When we were ready to bust out, she did it for us; when we were ready to explore our sexuality and what that meant, she did that, too; when it was time to awaken to our sense of global purpose, she waved the banner. She has always been there to tell us what time it is and to give our subconscious a place of expression.

She paved the way for a whole line of her descendants—brash, sexy, in-your-face performers who were ready to take the baton and run with it. In every icon’s career there is that moment of graciousness where that needs to happen. It’s a cultural changing of the guard that occurs in every artist’s life. The only problem? Madonna wasn’t letting go.

Brands evolve over time, and there are a couple of ways that can happen. Most of the time, they build and expand based on one theme or story they are trying to tell, like Deepak Chopra or Oprah. And then there are the brands that are about constant reinvention, like fashion, automobiles and a handful of great performers. That concept has been central to Madonna’s career.

Madonna’s story has always been about being the eternal survivor, the warrior queen, the woman who surfs the waves of the times. But is that still the case?

There are many who would argue that fact, instead that she has become a parody of her former self. They say she’s piggybacking on the careers of the current performers du jour through less than stellar collaborations, forgetting her own roots and falling into mediocrity. They say she’s refusing to hang up her tights and brassieres and step into the role of the sophisticated, demure grande dame any woman of 56 should hobble into, while still criticizing her for her alleged plastic surgery and dressing like a “fairground stripper.”

But isn’t that exactly where we are right now? Isn’t that the aesthetic of the moment? That actually makes Madonna smart. In an era that celebrates mediocrity and apathy, that makes Madonna, in fact, right on time.

Madonna has always been one to stay slightly ahead of the curve. It was once rumored she actually paid cultural sleuths to keep her informed of every shift and modulation of the current trends before they made their way into the masses. That’s what she’s always done and that is perhaps the biggest piece of her genius—keeping her finger not just on the pulse but ahead of it.

The last time I saw Madonna up close and personal was on the set of one of her first videos, directed by a friend of mine back in 1982. It was a couple of years after our stairway encounter, and her first album was about to be released.

She had gone full-on blonde at this point and had finely tuned her image into the Madonna who was about to rock the world—the Madonna of “Holiday,” “Lucky Star,” “Like a Virgin.” This would be the Madonna who we all fall for, covet, study and ruminate over; the Madonna who dove deep into the cultural underbelly, took the bits and pieces she liked and projected them onto the musical landscape. This was the first time she would use her particular genius and the last time she wouldn’t be famous.

Word has it that Madonna’s new album Rebel Heart is really good… something different… a reinvention of sorts. Unfortunately, news broke that the entire album was leaked, a full month ahead of its March release date.

Despite the leaks. Despite the critics. Despite everything, Madonna will end up nailing this. She always knows exactly she’s doing.

Madonna’s not the only superstar who knows business. Now see what Taylor Swift, who’s built an empire of loyal fans, can teach you about customer service.

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Timothi Jane Graham

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