The New New Madonna

What two videos say about her.

The first indication that Madonna had the skill and the will to generate imagery that would rank with the most durable pop art came at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards in 1984. Dressed up in a variation of the ensemble she dons on the cover of Like a Virgin—the tawdry gown of pure white, the belt buckle reading “boy toy”—she descended a gargantuan wedding cake to sing that album’s title track. Her every move a pose, she brought the performance to its peak by getting down, stretching out, and humping the stage. Of the many persons and things Madonna has humped for the sake of her art in the 21 years since—the mind first flashes to a big bed in Truth or Dare, Austin Powers in the “Beautiful Stranger” video, Big Daddy Kane and Naomi Campbell simultaneously in the book Sex, backup dancers by the score—none has more charm than the boom box that receives her attention in the recent video advertising “Hung Up” and that reappears in its new sequel, the video for “Sorry.”

The “Hung Up” video begins as a small woman in a blue tracksuit clacks into a bare dance studio carting this slab of ghetto blaster—an appliance from a Bronx block party of a quarter-century ago. She slips the sweats off—leotard, tights, peep-toe pumps. You know her. The hot-rolled, Farrah-feathered hair is a shade that falls between Rita Hayworth and Julianne Moore. The leotard is a color that American Apparel would call fuchsia, but she wears it in a way that suggests hot pink. The studio is clean but seamy. Which is all by way of saying that the style of the moment is a kind of a minimal, sleekly sleazy, hipster chic.

When she presses play, the boom box starts pulsing with its electro-retro-disco and blipping with dots of hot light, transmitting the music from the dance studio to the singer’s idealized constituency. From the dining room of a restaurant to a baking curbside in southern California, the same model of stereo picks up the signal. Packs of cool kids get an aggressive groove on and find themselves urged in the direction of a nightclub. Through the first half of the clip, Madonna stretches at the barre and dances in the mirror, practicing moves that she then takes out to the club, which, as an archetypal music-video nightclub, delivers to all entrants the perfect ecstasy of release.

In the main narrative of “Sorry,” Madonna and these new friends pile into a party van with a neon-trimmed interior and a platform for that boom box. Because they’re headed to the after-party, everyone slips into something less comfortable, with the star going for a Marvel Comics get-up of silver boots and yet another take on what I guess you would still call workout wear even though it’s something like lamé. The van motors through the night, picking up some young men for Madonna to taunt. It ultimately chauffeurs us to the video’s grand finale, a roller-disco party, lighthearted and cheesy. There’s our heroine on eight wheels, with kneepads. There’s the boom box sailing by on a bobbing shoulder.

Between the van cruise and the roller rink falls a notably strange scene. For 40 seconds or so, Madonna and company materialize in a gray space adorned only by the kind of wirework you’d expect at a cage match. This is less a nightclub than a fight club, and Madonna engages in what must be a brutal dance-off. She shoves herself around the floor, hits yoga poses that seem anything but Zen, kicks like she means it, and gyrates stridently.

There has existed a line of thought in Madonna scholarship suggesting, to quote Robert Christgau, “that there was more gym than boudoir in the way she pumped her crotch.” The point of this pair of videos is to deny that distinction. For Madonna, exercise is passion is pleasure. There is no sex or violence or violent sex here. No metaphysics, no religion, no politics. The singer’s only statement is that she’s the hardest-working woman in show business. Her only thrust is ambition.