Madonna: The Style Book – Debbi Voller

Stretch halter mini dress

with open weave sides

Madonna: The Style Book reads like one of those cheaply put together star memorabilia books written for young teenagers. In the 1980’s, such books were published in the form of small novels, scattered sporadically with poorly produced black and white photographs, and usually began with the obligatory “Vital Stats” chapter that proceeded to tell readers “crucial tidbits” about their favorite celebrities, like their favorite color and favorite fast food joint.

Voller’s work is not so blatant a celebrity dish-rag as those which came before.It manages to disguise itself quite well. The book is coffee-table format (albeit soft cover), and filled with resplendent photos of Madonna through the years, from her early days in the New York discos up to about 1998, shortly aftershe became a mother for the first time. In terms of its photographic collection, the book succeeds–there is not an era or phase in the ever-evolving public life and career of Madonna which has been overlooked. Unfortunately the text accompanying the photographs is not as impressive.

The book is broken down into a series of over-simplified chapters: “The Look,” “Sex and Religion,” “Fame and Power,” “Into the Nineties,” “Evita,” and the ridiculously stereotypical “Earth Mother” chapter. Then, as though these topics were not large enough to stand on their own, Voller interrupts her own text to haphazardly insert whole reviews of Madonna taken from various issues of Vogue Magazine. The text is also disrupted by pages on Madonna’s heroes and influences, sections on the men in her life, and the most absurd of all, “how-to” pages giving tips on how to copy different make-up looks worn by the Material Girl herself.

It is not that these reviews and other materials do not have their useful place in helping to define the styles of Madonna over time – they certainly do. And thanks to the book’s title, rocket science is not required to figure out that this particular definition of Madonna was Voller’s desired objective in her writing. No, the main problem with this book is its failure to meet that very objective.Instead of an investigative, analytic look at Madonna’s stylistic progression, it’s a rehashed collection of biographical information that barely begins to scratch the surface on the subject of her personal style development over the years.

Fluff has its place in the publishing world; it is unfortunate that the publishers and editorial department working on this book did not recognize its place in the category.The back cover of the book claims that it is “the first ever in-depth study of the most successful performer in the history of pop music.”Study? In-depth? With few exceptions, there is little information presented here that has not already been read or heard before. Diehard Madonna fans will yawn at Voller’s repeated riffs on Marilyn Monroe’s influence on Madonna. After all, Madonna admitted publicly to this influence as far back as 1984, with the release of her video for “Material Girl”, which was based on Monroe’s “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.”

Despite the book’s many textual flubs, its one saving grace is the chapter on Madonna’s Evita years. Perhaps the release of Madonna’s photographic scandal of a book, Sex, published in the early nineties, caused the media and paparazzi to experience a temporary lull in their interest in the pop icon. Or maybe they simply thought that she had played all her cards at that point in her career. For whatever reason, stories of Madonna during the filming of Evita have never been as familiar to the public as, say, stories of the burning crosses in the infamous “Like a Prayer” video, from 1989. Voller offers an interesting glance at this lesser-known phase in Madonna’s life, of her need to prove to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber that she was rightfully cast in the leading role, and of her fight to show the people of Argentina that she would not bring shame to the name of Eva Peron, the historic character she portrayed. At one point in the text, Voller writes: “As Madonna’s car pulled away from the airport in Buenos Aires, she noticed that several walls had been daubed with graffiti messages that, roughly translated, said EVITA LIVES, GET OUT, MADONNA!” This material is not all new, but Voller does manage to present it in a refreshing manner.

Unfortunately refreshment disappears in the final chapter of the book “Earth Mother.” Here, Voller depicts Madonna as a two-dimensional cookie-cutter figure of new age spiritualism: “Madonna had become like a spiritual sponge, eager to soak up all the mystical wonders of world religions.” If this period of Madonna’s life was so transforming, than why does Voller devote a meager four pages of text to its telling? And why the superficial references to the center-parted hairstyle and the navel-gazing outfits? If the latest era of Madonna’s life and career has truly been one of spiritualism and motherhood, it deserves writing of greater substance. Voller ends the book with a cliche about how Madonna stands as proof that life begins at age forty, a clumsy closing statement that negates the first one hundred and twenty-five pages, not to speak of the first twenty years of Madonna’s professional career that led up to this so-called “Earth Mother” phase.

After twenty years in show business, a “study” of Madonna merits more than Voller’s mediocre treatment. Madonna has proven her longevity and creativity in the cutthroat world of pop stardom; she has paid her dues. And yet she still finds herself devalued in a book built mainly on fascinating photos and media-invented stereotypes. Madonna: The Style Book is stylish in name only.

-Christi Davis

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