Today is the last day that I’m using words, They’ve gone out, lost their meaning, don’t function anymore.
. . . Words are useless, especially sentences, They don’t stand for anything, how could they explain how I feel? —Madonna, “Bedtime Story”
Clown: Good madonna, give me leave to prove you a fool.
Olivia: Can you do it?
Clown: Dexteriously, good madonna. —Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
There was a boy in my fifth-grade Catholic-school class whose mother was named Madonna. We found this howlingly funny. Two generations earlier a devout mother who prayed a lot of rosaries might have named her baby girl “Madonna,” but in the 1990s the name suggested something entirely different to those of us under 40. The very idea of a mother named “Madonna” was absurd.
It took more than a little touch of what Madonna-as-Evita called “star quality” to change what Catholics and Shakespeare fans think when they hear her name. It took years of relentless self-promotion and reinvention and a remarkable ability to transcend criticism, all of which have been analyzed to death by critics trying to explain the nature of superstardom. Having seen Madonna through all her previous projects—most distressingly, motherhood—we were hardly thrown by the news that the Patron Saint of Envelope Pushing was now writing children’s books. Madonna was due for another metamorphosis after all that time in her domestic chrysalis, and since bad tone quality hasn’t stopped her from singing, vicious film reviews haven’t stopped her from acting, and an unstable home life didn’t stop her from conceiving, nobody expected the disdain of literary critics to keep her from writing.
Madonna’s endurance depends on fans’ willingness to ignore inconsistencies: If we all held Madonna responsible for everything she said, she would never have made it from mermaid to Marilyn to mom. So perhaps it is unfair to hold her new bedtime stories against the vow of silence she took in “Bedtime Story.” But the more-enlightened-than-thou posture of this persona makes it impossible not to wonder how “Papa, don’t preach” turned into “I’d like to express my extreme point of view/I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Jew.”
For once even Madonna seems uncertain how her new vocation as scribe and teacher fits into or builds on her pop identity. The awkwardness is palpable in Madonna’s second children’s book, Mr. Peabody’s Apples, a cautionary tale about “the power of words” based on a kabbalah fable. Madonna has always demonstrated great faith in the power of word of mouth, but she’s never been what you might call articulate—methinks “Express Yourself” was not about writing sonnets. But Apples tests the power of words carefully chosen: not in the text, which is dull, uninspiring, and poorly punctuated, but in the marketing that surrounds it.
The Madonna of “American Life” asks, “Am I gonna be a star?/Do I have to change my name?” If she was asking her editors at Callaway, she never got a straight answer. In the pop world Madonna may be the queen of the first-name-basis celebrities, but in the world of picture books she is no Aliki, and on the book’s cover the single word “MADONNA” (in adorably rustic lettering) looks like a misprint, not a byline. However powerful her Christian name may be, in the context of publishing it feels inadequate and inauthentic. Whoever engineered the flap copy knew this: The author’s bio begins, “Madonna Ritchie was born in Bay City, Michigan.” The jarring inclusion of her married name seems a deliberate attempt to fool anybody who might flip to the back. This book is not by Madonna née Ciccone, who so recently tongue-wrestled Britney Spears; it’s by Madonna Ritchie, native of the pleasantly down-home sounding Bay City, Michigan, Blessed Mother of Lourdes and Rocco. You know, mommy-from-the-block. “She lives with her husband”—does that sound like the Madonna who once equated blowjobs with fervent prayer?
Aside from birthplace and birthing record, Madonna’s credentials as a children’s author are established through very selective career highlights. Perhaps the strangest dust jacket boast is this sentence: “She has recorded 16 albums, and appeared in 18 movies, including A League of Their Own.” Apparently the publisher was hoping to appeal to out-of-touch grandparents who vaguely remember League as a feel-good, suitable-for-children flick. Never mind that Madonna’s character was known as “All-the-Way Mae,” or that Body of Evidence is another of her 18 movies. She wants to be remembered for her work with Penny Marshall.
Madonna will survive as long as we are willing to keep asking, “Who does she think she is?” and to be satisfied with an answer that tells us only who she wants us to think she is. The bio attempts to make us accept this new project as a natural one for Madonna, despite what our memories or literary sensibilities might tell us, and as a result far more time was spent editing this paragraph than any other part of the book. The fact that Apples is badly written is no surprise, and probably is of no consequence, but nevertheless the book is much worse than it has any right to be. The familiar story, lifted from the Baal Shem Tov, is clumsily handled. The two characters we encounter in page-one portraits are ultimately less important than a third character given a half-assed introduction and a name that sounds like “ass” (Tommy Tittlebottom). And while Apples claims to be about the power of words, the words in question—a mildly libelous rumor spread by well-meaning Tittlebottom—are never represented. Loren Long’s resplendent art ensures that you’ll want to pick the book up when you see it on display (as you no doubt will), but the illustrations and text are so poorly integrated that many of the full-page pictures require captions. And while we’re at it, the scenes depicted could stand to be a little less static—good luck getting kids to thrill as “Mr. Peabody wonders where everybody is.”
This strange lifelessness is where the new Madonna really fails. Traditionally, Madonna doesn’t so much reinvent herself as she reinvents the genres in which she dabbles: religious statuary, cowboy threads, and power suits all became sexy and chic when endorsed by Madonna, but this time Mae is all-the-way out of her league. Aside from the character names, which sound like dirty jokes waiting to happen (Mr. Peabody, Mr. Funkadeli, the aforementioned Tittlebottom), there’s no room for sex in this book, and if you strip Madonna of her naughtiness she doesn’t have much to offer.
Of course, Mr. Peabody will probably not be left wondering where everybody is: Like The English Roses before it, this book will sell. The dust jacket cheerfully proclaims Apples “The second of five books for children (even grown-up ones) by Madonna.” Press releases declare that “Mr. Peabody’s Apples will be released in 37 languages and more than 110 countries.” As Madonna-as-Breathless once sang, “What can you lose?”
In her dedication “to teachers everywhere,” Madonna acknowledges her kabbalistic source: “It is about the power of words. And how we must choose them carefully to avoid causing harm to others.” (Too bad it is not about the power of punctuation. And how we must use it carefully to avoid sentence fragments.) Never mind that teachers everywhere have been trying to keep Madonna out of their classrooms for decades, or that teachers at my elementary school had to purge the word “Madonna” from religious lessons. Suddenly, Mrs. Ritchie wants to hang out in the teachers’ lounge, sharing the wisdom of the ages. She concludes with a humble appeal to her guru: “I hope I have done his story justice.”
She hasn’t, of course, but it hardly matters. In Madonna’s hands words may be stripped of their power to inspire or teach, but the book itself is a testament to the very potency of celebrity. Apples will be released in over 100 countries, and there will be three more books, regardless of the quality of the work or the enthusiasm of grown-up children. The folks at Callaway have good reason for their faith in the Holy Name: They published the scandalously best-selling Sex back in 1992. Of course, you won’t read that on the book jacket. That’s the power of words.