Materialism, Madonna, and You
By Jean Llenos
Image Credit: Screen capture from "Material Girl" music video. Warner Bros Records
Society and culture are far from straightforward concepts. They interweave inseparably with how we go about our everyday lives and are influenced by a constantly changing and evolving host of factors. Although we are born with certain social instincts, we look primarily to the world around us to learn what is permissible in the chess game that is social interaction. Additionally, we learn through socialization what is desirable in our culture and what we should pursue in our relationships. Because of this, celebrities are a major influence on this process of socialization. This comes as no surprise, since they are often lauded and highly scrutinized by society. The most influential and popular of celebrities have the power to set societal precedents that last for generations, growing from simple fads to interactive norms. Madonna is one such celebrity. A household name in her own right, Madonna has been known for being a provocative and highly scrutinized musician. Her styles have been copied and built upon since their inception, and she undoubtedly has influenced society through her music and actions. From classics like "Like a Virgin" and "Vogue" to the periodic and sometimes confusing public comeback performance, Madonna is a textbook example of how celebrities can influence culture. Her music video "Material Girl" is both a popular production and, less obviously, a statement on how the influence and precedents set by celebrities can last and evolve through generations. Madonna's video revolves around the concept of materialism and its interplay with society, creating relationships where wealth takes precedence over genuine affection. Madonna makes a powerful statement about the materialistic, money-driven culture that has been influencing American relationships by revealing a persistent and evolving precedent set by the influential and wealthy in her "Material Girl" music video.
"Material Girl" builds a scenario based on Marilyn Monroe's 1954 performance of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" from the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the scene, Marilyn sings about the merits of possessing diamonds and wealth above all else. She is dressed in all red with swarms of men dancing around her vying for her attention. She pays no interest to them, going so far as to reject their physical advances and moving away from them. The only time she ever truly interacts with them is when they offer her dazzling collections of diamonds arranged in a truly staggering diversity of jewelry. The video itself is a display of materialism, filled with men dressed in fine suits offering the radiant, fur-and-red-dress-clad Marilyn Monroe priceless jewels in an attempt to win her affections. Not only is it a piece of cinematography, it is a statement to those who watch it that, like Marilyn, you too should prize wealth above all else. It is a statement that lights the furnace of society to forge a dangerous new precedent of materialism.
To fully understand the impact and relevancy of Marilyn's statement with "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," it is important to consider the context of the time period. The 1950s were marked by a state of grandeur, optimism, and dominance in America. World War II had just ended, and people were experiencing what seemed to be the beginning of an era of peace and prosperity for all. This nationwide understanding that the time had come to reap the rewards of wars won took hold and personified itself with an era of unprecedented spending and, of course, the Baby Boom. Marilyn Monroe's "blonde bombshell" persona was the manifestation of this unprecedented wealth. She was the symbol of her era and of American society at that time: youthful, vibrant, carefree, and brimming with glamour and wealth. The allure of her image and her power as a rising star in relevant American cinema made this blonde bombshell image salient in the minds of Americans. During the 1950s, it represented a time period of nearly unlimited wealth, power, and potential. As America had its identity challenged by events such as the Cold War, Vietnam War, and Civil Rights movement, it was that image, among others, that people looked back upon to remind themselves of a happier time in the past to hope for happier times to come.
Madonna's version of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" shows how the precedent set by Monroe in 1953 has persisted until 1984. For the vast majority of the music video, the scene that plays is simply Madonna's recreation of that iconic scene. Practically everything is the same, including the choreography and tone of the song. Madonna even mirrors her look after Monroe's, wearing almost the exact same clothes and receiving the same gifts in the same manner. However, the meticulous reconstruction of the original performance is more than an artistic foundation or tribute. It's the most obvious way Madonna shows the persistence of Monroe's precedent. In one scene, Madonna is shown walking through a crowd of boys, accepting their gifts of diamonds gladly but immediately and almost violently rejecting physical contact (Madonna 1:36-1:42). Being a recreation of the original, Madonna is saying that even 31 years later, society has done nothing different. Watched side by side one could hardly tell the difference. There are two blonde, wealthily dressed women being pursued by the wealthy who can only garner a reaction by presenting the women with gifts of material wealth. The actors may be different, but in the end the message is clear: we are all still playing the same exact scene out again and again.
However, Madonna's imagery also demonstrates an evolution of precedent past its origin. In the opening scene of the movie, two men are seen discussing Madonna while watching her video. One man watches the video intently while the other man frantically gestures to and from the screen with his hands, enumerating all the ways why Madonna is, "the biggest star in the universe, right now, as we speak" (0:00-0:14). The two discuss ways for the man intently watching Madonna to meet her in person. We also see throughout the video evidence of men from outside the production attempting to buy her affections with expensive gifts. In Marilyn's scene it was simply a bunch of men vying for her attention and at the mercy of her whims. However, here we see something different. In Madonna's rendition there is the addition of an outside influence. The opening scene portrays her as an object put up for auction; something to be sought after. It establishes a new side of the situation where all the control isn't simply in the woman's hands anymore and she can just pick and choose. This structuring is important. Madonna doesn't make any changes to the Monroe-inspired portion of the music video. Instead, she makes additions that overlay the recreation to keep the concept of the precedent intact while making her own unique statement. Doing so demonstrates that the precedent has been around for so long that it has been perpetuated and evolved. Madonna shows that people aren't just materialistic anymore; they are also being treated as material objects.
Madonna's wording builds upon the idea of materialism, saying that it doesn't just drive relationships, but also encourages the rejection of true, genuine affection. Several times throughout the song, she cites actions usually associated with emotional content and essentially dismisses them in favor for monetary gestures. For example, she says, "They can beg, they can plead, but they can't see the light, that's right. 'Cause the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right" (1:13-1:27). Begging and pleading here refer to emotional appeals for her affection. The words themselves hold a desperate emotional and bare connotation that seems to be the antithesis of the cold hard diamonds her character would prefer. However, her materialistic perspective prevents her from even acknowledging what could be truly heartfelt efforts by other men. Instead, the only thing that can contest for her attention is wealth. Instead of the ideal man being somebody who truly cares about her as a person and expresses that care in a heartfelt way, Madonna instead asserts that the man with the money is the man that is desirable. She rejects something without much thought simply because of the established precedent of her society. Notice how she doesn't offer any substantial explanation for why wealth is so much more important than genuine emotional displays. Here, she is simply part of the system, and if the system says that materialistic wealth is the most desirable trait a man can have, then that is the precedent she uses.
By the end of the music video, events take an interesting turn to demonstrate how the precedent of materialism set by Monroe not only persists through Madonna, but has evolved past its original state. Throughout the video, the man who was initially asking about Madonna is seen attempting to gain her favor. Most importantly, he is shown attempting this in a non-materialistic way during the times when Madonna is being herself and not re-creating the Monroe scene. Their interactions are spread out throughout the video, creating a separation between the glamorous persona Madonna plays for the cameras and the the person she truly is. At first, he attempts to bring her a gift, but throws it away after learning her distaste for such gifts behind the scenes (0:49-0:55). After bumping into her and watching her from afar, he finally wins her affection by giving her a bouquet flowers, essentially the antithesis of the cold, hard diamond gifts Madonna has been showered with throughout the video. Finally, we see the man purchasing a very average looking car from a man on set before picking up Madonna and presumably taking her out on a date which culminates in a kiss between the two (4:24-4:40). These additions add another layer of narrative to the previously one-dimensional bombshell blonde persona. Madonna shows her audience that what an artist performs on camera isn't necessarily how the artist truly feels. She is saying that although materialism is a powerful social force, and perhaps one of the few routes to follow if one is to find success as an entertainer, at its core it may not speak to the true desires of humanity. Here, materialism is portrayed not only as a precedent, but as a societal expectation and norm: something that people accept and expect, but not necessarily something people want. We do it because we think that's how society works after watching the figureheads of society bask in such actions, giving little thought as to what we truly want from relationships. In a way, in this video Madonna is a whistleblower, a cry of defiance against the industry that sells their product of a materialistic lifestyle en masse to the public. However, as a medium for that same industry, whatever message she attempted to get out went both unseen and unheard as her music remained, ultimately, yet another outlet for the message of materialism.
Even in contemporary music, one can very clearly see the effects of the materialistic precedent set by artists like Monroe and perpetuated and evolved by artists like Madonna. The blonde bombshell image remains alive and well even today in the form of modern cultural superstars. The most obvious example of this is Christina Aguilera. A vocally gifted, platinum blonde musical titan, similar to the likes of Monroe and Madonna, she also performed a recreation of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in her 2010 movie, Burlesque. Like Madonna's recreation, the words are kept virtually the same but with a change in scenery from a stage performance to a provocative burlesque show. Additionally, there is evidence to show that, once again, the concept of materialism has not only persisted but evolved past its origin. In 2007, singer Beyoncé performed her rendition of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" for a Georgio Armani commercial. Where the notion of a blonde bombshell was quite literally personified by a white, blonde, female performer, Creole/African American Beyoncé has helped evolve it to better suit a more contemporary, racially diverse music culture. In this way, the blonde bombshell becomes less of a static physical person and even more of a concept and lifestyle, only adding it to its social power and longevity. Where as in the 1950s it was primarily viewed as that platinum blonde caucasian woman, the boundaries of race no longer hold as much sway over it. Now, the message is that more than ever before, anybody can be that personification of wealth and materialism. Moreover, you should be that.
The "Material Girl" music video continues to have relevance in contemporary society as we still wrestle with the glorification of wealth and materialism in relationships. It is entirely possible that Madonna chose to recreate Monroe's performance as a homage to the late cultural icon. When one looks at the music video at face value that is certainly an easy conclusion to arrive upon. However, upon further inspection, especially taking into account the few extra scenes added in, the wording, and the filmography, it becomes apparent that a deeper message is embedded within the music video. Thirty-one years after "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" was released, Madonna recreated the scene to show how the materialism displayed in that performance has remained and ingrained itself into society. Now, 31 years after Madonna's video, materialism still remains strong in contemporary society. Musicians still sing about how much they want fame and money above all else. Many could argue that we are a consumer-driven society, obsessed with climbing the social ladder and devoting our lives and relationships to the growth of wealth in lieu of other more emotionally substantial things. Especially when artists like Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera keep the tradition of materialism alive and well, its easy to see that the concepts first introduced by Monroe and artists like her aren't going anywhere soon. "Material Girl" is a microscope that probes deep within the human experience and shows the underlying greed of society and the honesty and heart below the surface that is choked out because of it. That greed, persistent, evolving, and socially accepted threatens to choke out the genuine and emotional things we hold dear in our everyday interactions if it is allowed to spread and grow.