The Singles Bar: Madonna, "Girl Gone Wild"

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On "Give Me All Your Luvin," Madonna invited us to step into her world. That world was bright and sunny and poppy and maybe a little questionable in how much territory it granted Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., but still a pleasant place with a pleasant ambassador well worth being peers with "Into the Groove" or "Holiday" or Madonna's lighter hits. The next single is evidently MDNA's world after dark. It is no longer bright. It isn't sunny anymore. It's poppy, but only in the sense that the RedOne sludge that clubs resort to after 1 a.m. is poppy. It's a world where you're trapped on the dingy dance floor, claustrophobic by sound, and all around you are men who look more and more like Joe Francis perving through the crowd and tossing you from scabby arm to sweaty chest. It's a world where "Girl Gone Wild" never leaves the stereo.

Look. It's downright audacious to have your lead single boast "every record sounds the same, come on and step into my world" and then follow that up with something where the first synth groans directly bite Usher and Max Martin's slice-and-bake "DJ Got Us Fallin' In Love"--part of Usher's now-abandoned faceless period, so don't think he cosigns this. The rest of Benny Benassi's track is exactly what he's best at: the sort of monotonous bosh designed to disguise the vacuum that replaces the personality of singers like Taio Cruz or Flo Rida, or to grease the comeback path for singers like Chris Brown with tracks as inoffensive as possible. Did Madonna realize this, ever? Is this why she drained all the verve from her voice, to emulate artists who are functionally replaceable with session singers? Even her supposedly sexy "forgive me" sounds like she mumbled it to a studio assistant after bumping the mic.

About that "forgive me." It's loud and clear about being transgressive! It's Catholicism appropriated for sex, a thing that nobody has ever done before, a thing that'd shock the church to its Vatican-buried bones! There's more where that came from, starting with the chorus and its phrase "good girl gone wild." ("Like a girl gone wild," even, which on this track could honestly either be an attempt to distance Madonna from actual girls gone actually wild or just sloppy songwriting.) Even if you discount the fact that the Girls Gone Wild franchise that coined the meme is possibly the worst thing ever, even if you discount the fact that it's cheap titillation, this is still a conceit that Madonna addressed and demolished decades ago. Madonna has been in the game since 1983. She practically invented the game, as it currently exists for pop artists. There are literally academic programs based on her career and its messages. Madonna has no business singing things like "good girls don't misbehave, but I'm a bad girl anyway," not because women shouldn't sing about sex and definitely not because older women shouldn't (I can already picture the YouTube comments and snarking squawking heads, and they make me want to yank my brains out through my forehead), but because she's been past this since she devised her persona. It's like a groundbreaking female artist deciding to finger-paint Tijuana bibles of herself for no reason except that's what the market wants, and y'know, it's not so bad, it's easy work. The other part of the chorus is hitched to "girls just wanna have some fun," a sentiment that required Cyndi Lauper's doctoring to charge its girl power in the first place. Madonna shouldn't have to borrow from Cyndi Lauper. And she definitely shouldn't have to borrow from the very cliche construction of sexuality that she's both teased and stomped to death.

"Girl Gone Wild" is probably going to get terrible reviews, the like not seen since "American Life," and they will all miss the point. Well, criticizing the music won't, but the lyrics will undoubtedly take more bullets than any preset Benny Benassi laid down. People will carp about pornification and tawdry sex and Madonna being overly wild and overly girly at this stage in her career; half the people saying "at this stage in her career" will really want to say "at this age in her career," and the other half will just say it outright. The irritating stan wars will continue to fog the discussions with smoke, and people will seriously think they can use the term "reductive" in comments-section diatribes and sound neutral. Joe Francis will continue his campaign of peacocking for attention. The Super Bowl decency police might get involved. It will be gruesome. And maybe one person will argue that Madonna's doing something deep and subversive and brave--but they'll also be wrong, because Madonna's already explained what she's doing. She is being "fun and ironic," where both are get-out-of-failure-free cards to explain anything. If you don't like "Girl Gone Wild," you're no fun; if you think it's fundamentally sad, you're taking her too seriously. And if you think Madonna is and has been so much better than this, you'll never be heard.


Ballet, Harvard, most of her 20s were behind her when she leaped at the opportunity to play `Black Swan'

The Boston Globe (Boston, MA) November 28, 2010 LOS ANGELES - Natalie Portman was a senior at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg arrived on campus as a freshman, in 2003. The movie star says she never actually met the Facebook founder, or spent time on his promising little website, but she remembers how quickly the revolution that unfolds in "The Social Network" took over student cyberlife on the banks of the Charles.

Here are two other things she remembers about her alma mater as it relates to David Fincher's current film: She never once saw a naked girl dancing on a table there, and - just like the elite New York ballet company at the center of Portman's own new movie, "Black Swan" (opening Friday) - Harvard remains an institution shaped mostly by and for men.

"It is a very sexist social system that the school has not dealt with properly," Portman says both frankly and delicately (it's a talent) as we begin a revealing conversation in a Hollywood hotel suite. She then throws in a qualifier ("I loved my experience there and I want to make sure that comes across") before concluding: "The problem is there is no parallel infrastructure for women friendships, which you really feel. Like there's this instant thing for guys to have fun, buddy up. And there's no similar sisterhood." Lately, Portman, 29, has spent a lot of time thinking about the ways women suc ceed, particularly in the arts, and the crazy, entrenched definitions of perfection that sometimes keep them from succeeding more. Because of "Black Swan," she says she has a deeper understanding of requirements for real artistry. Not that there's anything wrong with playing girlfriends and "Star Wars" action figures. website black swan movie

"The ballet world is such a clever stand-in for the way women are in the world at large," she explains. "[It reinforces] that there's a sort of male-imposed social structure that women are supposed to fit into; that women are supposed to shape themselves based on men's expectations; that they're meant to stay as children - you know, have these little-girl voices and these skinny bodies that take away their womanhood. And to become a true artist, to become a voice, they have to break out of that." This is the journey of Portman's character in "Black Swan," and it's also a pretty good summary of her career since debuting, at 12, in Luc Besson's "The Professional." Her latest role, easily the most demanding and nuanced she's ever attempted, has made her the talk of every festival the film has played. And whether or not her performance rewards her with a pile of trophies this winter, there's good reason to think it might mark a moment that exceeds every too- easy ballet pun. Yes, this could be Natalie Portman's turning point. It could also be her destiny.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler"), "Black Swan" is the story of Nina (Portman), a fragile beauty so obsessed with ballet - the industry term is "bunhead" - that she may drive herself mad in a quest to single-handedly execute the perfect "Swan Lake." She's pushed to the edge by the company's devilish impresario (Vincent Cassel), who won't stop until he's created a one-woman embodiment of both white and black swan - a light-dark mindmeld that threatens to bring human duality to new and dangerous artistic heights. Mila Kunis plays Nina's "All About Eve"-style rival, and Barbara Hershey (the thin-lipped version) plays the stage mom who nurtures Nina's dreams and delusions. Dance fans will no doubt recognize overt homages to "The Red Shoes" and other ballet classics, but it's been amply pointed out that Aronofsky's style of psychological horror thriller owes more to Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg. web site black swan movie

Though she readily admits she's no prima ballerina in real life, as a former dance student (ages 4 through 13, or thereabouts) and lifelong ballet fan, Portman (nee Natalie Hershlag) says she coveted the lead role in "Black Swan" from the moment Aronofsky first proposed the idea, back at the dawn of the 2000s. Portman was just getting started at Harvard then, on her way to a bachelor's degree in psychology that she says came in very handy when playing Nina's personality disorder. Aronofsky (Harvard class of '91) knew he wanted to do something stylishly creepy, Gothic, and twisted, but didn't have the keys to it until screenwriter Mark Heyman came aboard to reshape earlier efforts, and then one day a dancer friend gave the director some invaluable insight into the nature of the "Swan Lake" lead.

"I said, `What exactly is she?' " Aronofsky recalls in a separate Hollywood interview. "And [my friend] said, '`Well, during the day she's a swan; at night she's kind of a half-swan, half-human creature.' "I was like, `Oh. It's a were-swan movie.' And that was the big click for me. It was like, OK, we're doing this werewolf movie where we're going to turn Natalie Portman into this creature, but it's all built out of the myth of `Swan Lake.' " Portman spent more than a year training for the role - five hours a day, stepped up to include additional cross-training in the final months before shooting. She lived on carrot sticks and almonds. She danced through injuries (ripped toenails, strained muscles, a dislocated rib). And, in her spare time, she read dancer autobiographies and watched and rewatched ballet films (Frederick Wiseman's documentaries topped the list). It wasn't enough, of course. Professional ballet dancers are made, not born, and there is no crash course for mastering the torture of toe shoes. But the hallmark of any Aronofsky film is its attention to realistic detail, particularly in the pain and suffering department, especially where it comes to sport.

"I've always been fascinated by people trying to control the body and turn it into art," Aronofsky says. "Going through pain to create beauty is really fascinating. And I don't know [the psychology of why I'm so interested], but I just think it's a losing war, because entropy is coming, and all these dancers and wrestlers get old." This is partly why the director has called "Black Swan" an intentional companion piece to 2008's "The Wrestler," though for Portman the ballet melodrama may have a closer connection to "Closer," the 2004 Mike Nichols-directed drama that brought her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. That was the film in which she played a wounded sparrow-of-a-girl, who abruptly walks off into a kind of breezy, unconvincing independence at the end. In her new film, she plays a more deeply damaged bird, one who has the guts to leap off a cliff, if she must, to set herself free. Ten years ago, or even two (when Portman quietly made her directorial debut with the short film "Eve"), we might not have believed she could do it. Now, though, there's a visibly matured confidence that, along with the patented vulnerability, lets her swan take flight.

"I feel lucky that I got to go through my 20s before I did this, even though I'm playing a character who's younger," she says, not shy about identifying with a character whose life involves "going from being someone who is trying to please people, and trying to do what other people want from them, to pleasing yourself. That's what turns [Nina] into an artist. It's `What do I want?' Not `What do they want from me?' " Janice Page can be reached at