IF THE reports from her first concert in Seattle are any indication, you can expect Madonna to ask San Francisco, early in her show at the Civic Auditorium, “Do you want to play with me?” On the song, ‘Angel’, she will slither suggestively on the speaker stands, singing on her back like Prince and Cyndi Lauper before her. Performing one of her fistful of Top Ten hits, ‘Material Girl’, she’ll toss phony dollar bills to the front rows while the band showers her with fake diamonds, furs and money.
And finally, on ‘Like a Virgin’, she will be dressed like a bride, trailed by two male dancers carrying her long lace train.
Like a virgin, Hey!
Touched for the very first time
Like a virgin
With your heartbeat next to mine
Those lines, those songs, and those images are some of the reasons Madonna’s being called the latest “It” girl of rock ‘n’ roll. They are also reasons why she’s being referred to in far more unflattering terms.
According to those who’ve seen and dislike her, Madonna is a chief exponent of “Bimbo Rock.” The term first came to print last fall, in an article in Record magazine on Dale Bozzio, lead singer of Missing Persons, and Terri Nunn of Berlin.
“I was talking about two women who were spending more energy and attention on their sluttish come-ons and playing up to male fantasies than they were on their music,” said writer David Gans.
Last month, the Los Angeles Times‘ Connie Johnson pointed the bimbo stick at Madonna, Bozzio and Nunn, along with three protégées of Prince: Apollonia, Vanity and Sheila E. Under photos of the Prince three, a caption asked: “Are they a bad influence on teenage girls?”
The women she calls bimbos, Johnson wrote, “emphasize sexy looks and skimpy stage attire over musical ability and substance.” She attacked Madonna for her “boy toy posture” (the singer has worn a belt buckle bearing that ID) as “a step backward for everyone who has wanted to topple the notion that women’s only purpose and pleasure in life is to serve men.”
Sex has always been a part of rock ‘n’ roll and women exuding sexuality in rock is nothing new. Artists such as Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, Annie Lennox, Chrissie Kerr (nee Hynde), Joan Jett, Chaka Khan and the Pointer Sisters project an assertive sexuality, but it’s the new Bimbo Rockers that critics find insulting to fellow women and a bad influence on teenage girls.
While it may be unfair to call them all bimbos, most of this new breed of female rockers do have a number of common traits: They know exactly what they’re doing, have a penchant for exploiting their own beauty and use lyrics that glorify sex. Their songs emphasize their need for men and their willingness to fulfill their fantasies, and careers that got major boosts from Prince and/or the king of TV rock, MTV.
“We’re talking about entertainment as opposed to art,” says Bonnie Hayes, leader of the popular local band, the Wild Combo. “It’s MTV and its emphasis is on the visual, and I don’t think of that music as music, but as an extension of an image. They’re selling personality.”
• Item: Sheila E., for years a respected percussionist in her native Bay Area under her full name, Sheila Escovedo, has been transformed into a musical clone of Prince. Sheila’s flashy stage show features, along with a full dose of exhilarating music, a partial strip tease, a teasing question to the audience — “Would you like to play with my timbales?” — and a routine with a male member of the audience. He is placed in a chair in front of her, and restrained by Sheila’s tuxedoed “valet.” Then, while she sings ‘Next Time Wipe the Lipstick Off Your Collar’, she gives the man a couple of mock shoves and, at a climactic point in the song, places a hand between his legs while the rest of the audience, inevitably, roars.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Sheila E. asserted the way she is now is the way she’s always wanted to be. “Playing Latin jazz, you can’t do what I’m doing now.” And, to the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, she added: “The less clothes the better for me. I really like to get bold onstage.”
• Item: Since Prince, Frederick’s of Hollywood has invaded the rock stage, first with Vanity 6, who chanted such poetics as:
“It I wear a dress
He will never call.
So I’ll wear much less,
I guess I’ll wear my camisole
After lead temptress Vanity and Prince broke up, his purple highness concoted Apollonia 6 just in time for his film, Purple Rain. They, too, dressed up in lacey teddies, garter belts and nylons, and sang songs like ‘Sex Shooter’ and ‘Oh She Wa Wa’, notable for the line, “I get a fever when you touch my lingerie in public.”
Says Vanity (whose real name is Denise Mathews, and who was given her new name from Prince after she rejected his first suggestion, “Vagina”): “I write what comes into my head. It’s usually very sick and sexual…” Vanity is also featured in a graphic five-page photo layout in the current issue of Playboy Magazine.
• Item: Dale Bozzio, she of the platinum-blonde hair and the plexi-glas bras, was revealed recently to have posed for Hustler, the explicit sex magazine, in her pre-rock days. Her response: “Let’s face it; some people stand on their heads, sometimes, to make a buck.”
But, critics ask, at whose expense? “Children do derive their models from rock ‘n’ roll,” says Rickie Lee Jones, best known for her jazzy hit, ‘Chuck E.’s in Love’. “There’s a lot of crude, uneducated, untalented people that lecherous businessmen are using to make a lot of money.”
At Huckleberry House, a crisis-intervention center for teenagers, counselor John Bartholome finds that many of the kids he deals with have been abandoned by family and are looking for anyone to tell them something. “It’s like, ‘My parents won’t tell me anything; I’m going to listen to music.'”
The walls and the closet in the girls’ bedroom are littered with graffiti “SEX PISTOLS… HEAVY METAL RULES… FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD…”
“It’s not a whole lot different than when hippies were around,” says the 34-year-old counselor. “Before, it was unity against Vietnam; sexual and women’s liberation. Now, the music is… talking about being promiscuous, having many different lovers… being materialistic.” Parents, he says, underestimate the influence it has on the value systems of their children. In February, says Bartholome, two-thirds of his organization’s clients were girls. Videos on MTV, says Bartholomew, “influence the way they dress, and they act accordingly. If they dress like a slut, they’re gonna act like one.”
“Rock stars are definitely role models,” says Monique Vogel, a San Mateo-based teacher and the mother of two teenagers. Vogel and her 15-year-old daughter attended the Prince concert featuring Sheila E. as the opening act. Vogel is familiar with her work in jazz clubs, and she was shocked. “I had the feeling I was sitting at the Mitchell Brothers’ theater.”
Other adults aren’t so alarmed. Grace Slick, lead singer of the Starship and a veteran in the area of outrageous behavior, is mother of a 14-year-old girl, China. They, too, attended the recent Prince/Sheila E. concert. “She thought it was kinda funny,” said Grace. “Kids are a little smarter than we were at their age. She knows what [Sheila E.’s] doing and that it’s silly and so on.”
Rickie Lee Jones has a similar view. The worst flirt-rock, she says, “teaches some very bad moral codes; it teaches them they’ll get what they want if they’re devious and sexual and whores. And that is bad. But if they’re that weak-minded that they’re gonna do it, that’s their problem. There are other role models.”
Judy Dlugacz, president of Olivia Records, the Oakland-based label devoted primarily to women’s music, is a guardian to a 17-year-old girl. “What concerns me is not so much Madonna herself… it’s how that effects the 15- or 16-year-old, in terms of their own image. Women are seen as sex objects, and the more the media portrays it that way, the more both young men and young women view themselves and each other, and that’s not healthy.”
ASK THE 26-year-old Madonna about the image she projects, and she’ll say she likes to look “sexy, hungry, and trashy.” Besides, she can’t help herself. “I’m sexy,” she says. “That’s the essence of me. I would have to have a bag over my head and over my body; but then my voice would come across, and it’s sexy…”
“Madonna,” says Grace Slick, “is conscious of what she’s doing, and more than making fun of women, it makes fun of how stupid men are. She’s saying, ‘Let me twist that around.’ If we know men are gonna go for tits and the teddies and they will buy records regardless of the quality of the music, then who’s stupid?”
Cris Williamson, one of the most popular performers in the world of women’s music, prefers to applaud the increase in the number of female artists on the charts than to pan particular excesses.
If kids these days are more promiscuous, she says, “It may come from a sense of foreshortened time. Little kids nine or 10 are wearing makeup and budding early. Maybe it’s something that’s happened because we’re in a nuclear age. It makes you feel like ‘Let’s live for today — do what you want, express yourself, enjoy your body.’ It’s uninhibited, and part of that, I really like. It’s a new wave crashing on the shore.”
SOME THINK the wave will soon wash over and be gone, that “bimbo rock” is just another phase in a music that lives off trends. Others fear for the future of womanhood. Somewhere between those points of view, two more points should be made. Many kids don’t even listen to the words. Just as it was back in the ’50s, on American Bandstand, they buy records for a good beat they can dance to. They go to concerts to see their idols, yes, but also to see their friends. Shows are social situations, not classrooms.
Finally, we hear from 15-year old Monica Vargas of Concord. Monica is learning to play guitar; she favors local bands, but also likes Sheila E. “’cause she’s independent and stuff.” She says she’s been listening to rock ‘n’ roll since she was a kid. Today’s songs “are a lot sexier than they were in the 70s,” she observes. “But that’s just the way the ’80s are.”
© Ben Fong-Torres, San Francisco Chronicle, 21 April 1985