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Music: Madonna has been scandalizing people for 40 years, and nobody’s going to stop her | Culture

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Madonna’s Instagram account has a reputation as a playground for digital voyeurs. It doesn’t disappoint, featuring Madonna crying; Madonna drunk; Madonna twerking with Maluma; Madonna filming her family performing a dance while cooking; Madonna kissing Britney Spears at Spears’s wedding; Madonna flashing a boob; Madonna posing spread-eagle with the caption, “I have something for you.”

The singer has relatively few followers (18.4 million) compared to stars from later generations like Beyoncé (273 million), but she offers better stimuli: the chance to see a pop star who has done everything – going above and beyond both morally and artistically – struggle not to become just another sympathetic character. Madonna has been part of the music world for 40 years and still no other pop star has proven to be more subversive and provocative than she is. Now, she’s releasing a remix album summarizing her career, Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Ones (on sale August 19), turning 64 (August 16) and moving up the production of a film that tells her life story, the real one.

Madonna on the set of director Uli Edel’s Body of Evidence in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s.
Madonna on the set of director Uli Edel’s Body of Evidence in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s.

The singer’s frenzied use of her Instagram perfectly symbolizes her career, which has been scrutinized around the world since she started in the music industry in 1982, at the age of 25. Surely, Madonna has suffered every type of harassment that a pop star can endure: sexual harassment, body criticism, machismo, classism; accusations of cultural appropriation and of being anti-religious, sacrilegious, unpatriotic, youth-obsessed; and claims that she’s a heretic, an imposter for using playback in concerts, the financier of an alleged sect (Kabbalah)… Yes, she’s always gone too far in everything; as a woman from the suburbs of Detroit, that has not been tolerated. In the 1980s, she burned crucifixes in her music video for Like a Prayer; in the 1990s, she published a book, Sex, that had the most explicit images of homosexuality and fetishism that a star had ever shown; in the 2000s, she passionately kissed Britney Spears at an awards gala with millions of people watching on television; and just recently on June 23, at a New York Pride celebration, she made out with her new friend, Tokisha, the 26-year-old Dominican woman we know from the songs she performs with Rosalía like “Linda” and “La Combi de Versace.”

Madonna with designer Jean Paul Gaultier after the release of the album 'Erotica' at a parade in Paris in 1992.
Madonna with designer Jean Paul Gaultier after the release of the album ‘Erotica’ at a parade in Paris in 1992.Jim Smeal (Getty)

For a person who is so continually obsessed with attention, it must be frustrating for Madonna that she doesn’t resonate with today’s young people. Hence, her display with Tokisha and her desire to work with Kendrick Lamar, hip hop’s biggest talent today, as she confessed a week ago on Jimmy Fallon’s show. Madonna has one consolation: many teenagers today will also ignore the Beatles’ significance entirely, although Paul McCartney probably doesn’t care much about that anymore.

For 40 years, Madonna has been a thoughtful provocateur. Between provocations, she has recorded good albums with a limited voice. She herself has confessed that the biggest challenge of her career was preparing for the musical film Evita (1996); she had to work hard with the best singing coaches to bring her vocal abilities up to snuff. In four decades, she has released 14 albums, and at least five of them are essential listening. The first two (Madonna, 1983, and Like A Virgin, 1984) are full of gems that define 1980s dance pop. Songs like Holiday, Everybody, Lucky Star, Material Girl, Like a Virgin and Dress You Up are still exciting today, and they hold up equally well at the gym and in the club. Of course, Like a Prayer (1989), surely Madonna’s best work, transcends the context of the 1980s to retain its appeal in

subsequent decades. In terms of lyrics, Ray of Light (1998) was one of her career’s best. Her great avant-garde electronica work with producer William Orbit is both relaxed and festive. Finally, her reinvention with Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) – done in collaboration with Stuart Price – gave 1970s/early 1980s disco music a facelift by updating it and making it more sophisticated. Through the present day, Madonna has been enormously influential; her imprint on Dua Lipa is the clearest example. She always knew that fame comes through a musical pastiche: taking a bit from here and a bit from there without being too obvious and then embellishing it with her own contributions.

The singer in her iconic gold corset with spiky breasts on the 1990 'Blonde Ambition' tour.
The singer in her iconic gold corset with spiky breasts on the 1990 ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour.Cordon Press

Madonna has sold 250 million records and is the best-selling female artist in history, not bad for a girl who was born in a Detroit suburb, and whose world was shattered when she lost her mother at 6 years old. At the age of 20, she left for New York to do the opposite of what her strict father told her: she

became a model and was soon performing nude at punk joints like CBGB’s. When she began to break through in music, she found herself in the spotlight and surrounded by male achievers, including Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins, George Michael and U2. Of the 25 best-selling albums in the 1980s, when she began her career, only two women’s work made the cut : Madonna (with Like a Virgin and True Blue) and Whitney Houston.

In this male-dominated context, Madonna used her own sexualization to craft her image and exert control. She was not a sexual amusement for the male audience; she was a powerful and defiant woman. Madonna grew up listening to Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and other Motown artists, learned to play the drums with Elvis Costello’s New Wave records, saw David Bowie as the first concert she attended, and had her first drink at the age of 30, following her divorce from actor Sean Penn. Restless and curious, she always sought the company of daring artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

With Maluma at a concert in Medellín, Colombia, on April 30, 2022.
With Maluma at a concert in Medellín, Colombia, on April 30, 2022.Fredy Builes (Getty Images)

Soon, Madonna realized that she was living in a hostile environment that was not ready to tolerate an emancipated woman’s success. In 1985, Playboy and Penthouse magazines published nude photographs that had been taken of her in 1979, when the singer was not yet famous and made her living posing naked for photographers. The publications took advantage of the singer’s fame in the mid-1980s and sold the old images. Madonna took the incident as a warning. “That was the first time I was aware of saying ‘Fuck you’ with my attitude. You’re trying to put me down because of this? I’m not going to let public opinion dictate my own feelings about myself. I’m not going to apologize for anything I’ve done,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. In 2016, when Billboard magazine named her Woman of the Year, Madonna delivered a legendary speech against sexism, machismo, and misogyny: “If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion that’s out of line with the status quo. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness.” She defiantly added that those who diminished her had made her tougher: “To the doubters

and naysayers and everyone who gave me hell and said I could not, that I would not or I must not — your resistance made me stronger, made me push harder, made me the fighter that I am today. It made me the woman that I am today. So thank you.”

More than a pop star, Madonna is a concept. She stands for rebelliousness, indiscipline and fighting against the odds. That’s why she is an LGTBI muse and a point of reference for those who came after her: Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Pink… and the current pop goddess, Beyoncé, who recently released a version of her single “Break My Soul” fused with Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue.” Beyonce thanked Madonna for her example in a note that the latter shared on social media: “I’m so grateful for you. You have opened so many doors for so many women. You are a masterpiece genius.”

Emerging Spanish-language urban musicians also express their appreciation for Madonna. As the Argentine Ms Nina, who lives in Spain, put it: “She’s an inspirational empowered woman. Now, our lyrics scandalize people, but she was much more radical in the 1980s. People criticize her now because she has surgery, because she is old…. Let’s see how her critics are doing when they’re 60 years old. They’re never happy. But they’re not going to intimidate her. I love her.”

Madonna with Michael Jackson at the 1991 Oscars.
Madonna with Michael Jackson at the 1991 Oscars.Cordon Press

Indeed, no matter how many haters visit her Instagram, Madonna is not going to give up. In 2019, she released an album that passed muster with harsh critics. Madame X did not thrill people but she did convince them. “Oh, you’re not allowed to make youthful, fun, sexy music if you’re a certain age? That’s a load of bollocks, to speak your language,” she said in a 2019 interview with The Guardian about her recently released album. True to her commitment to the queer community, a few days ago she released Material Gworrllllllllllllll!, a collaboration with gay rapper Saucy Santana in which they remix her 1980s hit Material Girl.

Three weeks ago, the singer gave an interview to Variety, announcing that she will direct a movie about her life (Julia Garner will play her). She explained it this way: “It was also a preemptive strike because a lot of people were trying to make movies about me. Mostly misogynistic men. So I put my foot in the door and said, ‘No one’s going to tell my story, but me.’” As always, that’s just Madonna being Madonna.

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Greasy, but satisfying: Three Mexican street foods among the 50 worst in the world | Culture

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As he hands a client a freshly made torta de chilaquiles (a bread roll stuffed with salsa-coated fried tortilla chips), Giovanni Aguilar says, affably: “The fact that Mexican food can be bad for you because it’s so greasy is nothing new, but the way it tastes, you just have to have it.” This is the food vendor’s response to a ranking published by the gastronomic website Taste Atlas, which placed three Mexican street foods among the worst in the world.

Tripe (ranked 17th) and torta cubana (a bread roll stuffed with many kinds of meat and seasonings, ranked 14th) achieved a more favorable position than the torta de tamal (a tamal inside a roll, ranked 13th), but the three dishes share the same score: 3.5 out of five stars. Nonetheless, they still remain almost one point above that which Taste Atlas considers to be the absolute worst: kuzu kelle, a Turkish dish prepared with baked sheep’s head.

In Mexico City, the ranking doesn’t appear to have affected business. Aguilar’s stand is small and located on Reforma Avenue. According to his calculations, he can sell up to 100 tortas de tamal a day, on top of all the bare tamales and the other kinds of tortas that he sells. “It’s quite a convenient dish; one is enough to keep you going all day long,” he says.

‘One is enough to keep you going all day’

Aguilar pays no attention to these kinds of rankings and claims that those who criticize these popular dishes don’t know what it is like to live in Mexico. “Habit has a lot to do with it; there are differences even among Mexicans from the south and those from the north, where the food is not as spicy. In the south, it’s nothing but pozole [a traditional soup made with corn and pork meat]. The advantage of Mexico City is that you can find it all.”

The stand is surrounded by customers and more keep arriving to place their orders. Aside from the tortas, other dishes like chilaquiles, fried tortillas covered in spicy salsa that can be complemented with a number of toppings like cream, cheese, chopped onion and meat, are proving popular. Aguilar says that people’s eating habits have changed a lot. “Nowadays, they order more sandwiches, more chilaquiles and less tortas de tamal, but when the cold season arrives… what you crave is a tamal.”

The tamal that Aguilar makes consists of corn flour, vegetable shortening and, depending on the type of tamal, either salt or sugar. It is a simple dish, which he considers to be a sort of steamed bread. Customers choose their own toppings: “Some want cream or salsa; everyone has their own preferences. You want beans? Go ahead, eat it all, don’t waste it, bro.”

The vendor serves a cup of coffee from an orange container as he reflects that, in the modern world, basically all food is unhealthy. “Long ago everything was better, everything was homemade. Nothing beats what you get at the farm, but it comes at a price,” he concludes as he hands a customer her change.



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Italy’s Meloni begins tricky government talks after election win

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Readers have been in touch over the past few days to express concern at the result of Italy’s elections, with many asking how Italian voters could hand a landslide victory to Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia or FDI) a far-right party with roots in the post-fascist movement.

“I’m trying to understand why most voters in Italy would be in favour of this party? Has nothing been learned from history?” asked one Italian-American reader in the US.

EXPLAINED: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

But, though it might not seem like it from some newspaper headlines, or even from the election results at first glance, the majority of voters did not actually choose Meloni’s party – and a large number of people in Italy didn’t vote at all.

Political analysts also say there hasn’t really been any evidence of the “sharp turn to the right” described in many international media reports. The views of voters in Italy overall aren’t necessarily shifting to the right or getting more extreme: Meloni has however been very successful in uniting the existing right-wing vote.

Her strong right-wing alliance, the lack of any credible opposition, and an electoral system that favours coalitions all worked in Meloni’s favour. Here’s a brief look at what this means:

FdI took the right-wing vote from other parties

While it may look a lot like Italy has taken a sharp turn to the right – particularly from a glance at these overwhelmingly blue maps – political analysts say strong support for the right in Italy has long been at around the same level, but was previously split.

As Dr Daniele Albertazzi, Politics professor at the University of Birmingham, put it in his analysis: “Brothers of Italy has attracted negligible support from outside the right.”

Data shows Meloni likely drew much of her recent surge in support from Italy’s other right-wing parties, particularly the League and small hard-right parties, while right-leaning supporters of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement likely also voted for the right-wing coalition this time.

FdI’s success came from it being the biggest party in a strong right-wing coalition able to appeal to voters all the way from the more moderate centre-right to the extreme right.

Many moderate voters said they were giving Meloni a chance because other party leaders were almost all familiar faces who’ve already had a shot at running the country – Enrico Letta, Giuseppe Conte, Matteo Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi have all previously served as prime minister at least once.

While Meloni has been involved in politics for many years, she was previously unknown to most of the electorate. Her profile has risen astronomically over the past 18 months after she chose to make FdI the only party in opposition to Mario Draghi’s broad ‘national unity’ government, attracting the protest vote (which last time went to the populist M5S and League) by presenting it as the only alternative to the status quo.

Voter turnout was historically low

A poor turnout, particularly in the south, is also thought to have contributed to the election result.

Voter turnout fell to a low of around 64 percent, about nine points lower than the last elections in 2018, and the lowest-ever turnout at an Italian general election.

The rate of voter participation was markedly lower in southern regions, with the lowest turnout of all in the region of Calabria at 50.8 percent.

Meanwhile the highest turnout was recorded in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, both at around 70 percent. This area happens to be the heartland of hard-right parties including Brothers of Italy and the League (previously called the Northern League).

Around one in four of those who voted in Sunday’s election backed Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.

At the last elections in 2018 the south of Italy voted overwhelmingly for the Five Star Movement, which promised to tackle poverty, inequality, and other issues primarily affecting southern regions while railing against the political establishment.

But the party seemingly failed to impress once it got into government, and has since lost a lot of support. It also chose to run alone rather than allying with any other parties, which put it at a disadvantage.

Italy’s electoral system favours coalitions

The centre-left’s complete failure to form a strong coalition in order to fight the election is also thought to have contributed to the right’s landslide win.

Such alliances are paramount in Italy due to the way the electoral system works. About 37 percent of seats in both houses of parliament are allocated on a first-past-the-post basis in single-member constituencies, and this works to the advantage of parties who run as part of coalitions. (You can find an explanation of how Italy’s particularly complicated hybrid voting system works here.)

As a result, the right-wing bloc with 44 percent of the vote was able to take more seats in parliament than all the centre and centre-left parties on 49 percent, basically because of the fact it joined together and they didn’t.



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Nazi Germany: The horror of discovering that your grandfather was an SS officer who personally murdered Jews during the Holocaust | Culture

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SS Major Otto Kraus, left, and his brother Hans.
SS Major Otto Kraus, left, and his brother Hans.

After a long conversation about horrors, the writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus finally breaks down. He is a lively and robust man who is accustomed to dealing with terrible things, but something inside him has broken. When he’s asked to explain his grandfather’s role in the Nazi regime and the mass murder of Jews, he turns pale and his blue eyes tear up. “My grandfather, Otto Kraus, was part of the Baltic German minority in Latvia. Reinhard Heydrich recruited him for the SD [Sicherheitsdienst], the SS agency that served as an intelligence service and was central to the Holocaust. In 1941, he participated in the invasion of the USSR as a member of Einsatzgruppen A, one of the roving execution squads that followed the troops and killed mainly Jews. He later became the head of the SD in Riga. He rose to the rank of Sturmbannführer, an SS major. He was personally involved in at least two mass executions.” In his novel The Bastard Factory, Chris Kraus recreates one of those horrific episodes. The main character is based heavily on Kraus’s grandfather, and the novel faithfully follows his journey as an SS major.

In the book, on a summer day on the outskirts of Riga, the SS and their Latvian henchmen give a group of Jews the “special treatment.” The scene closely resembles one of the massacres perpetrated in the Bikernieki (Bickern) forest, the main site of Latvia’s massacres (out of a population of 90,000 Jews, 70,000 were murdered). They are forced to undress next to a ditch and then shot in groups. Kraus writes: “Executing someone at point-blank range often means that the victims’ brain matter and blood splashes in all directions, and it did. Skull shards flew like shrapnel to where I was standing, 20 meters away. There was screaming, blood soaked the ground and the air smelled of wet iron mixed with cold sweat, excrement and urine.” The scene continues as the main character approaches to shoot a young woman and peers into the pit with his Luger in hand: “In the midst of that jumble of bodies I discerned some feet that kept shaking. It was a girl whose skull cap had been blown off and landed beside her. She was looking at me with wide eyes, still hugging her baby, who seemed intact, just asleep […] Before I couldn’t hold back the vomit any longer, I fired my pistol at them both.”

The passage offers a glimpse into the world in which Otto Kraus (in the novel, Konstantin Koja Solm) moved, and the legacy with which his descendants grapple. “Finding out my grandfather’s story was horrible, very disturbing,” a distraught Chris Kraus explains. “I loved my grandfather.” In 1985, as a student, he became interested in the stories Otto Kraus told him. “He talked about shootings, but he never said precise words; he used terms like ‘special treatment,’ and you could think that they did something else, like going into the forest to chop wood. But then I read a book about General Vlasov [the Russian defector who commanded Nazi troops], and it contained details about my grandfather and his connection to mass murder. It was horrifying. Nobody in my family knew about it. So, I went to the archives to look for information and to find out what had happened.”

A dark legacy

He uncovered the whole truth, but none of his family members wanted to believe him, except his cousin Sigrid Kraus, a publisher. “I wrote an essay, Das Kalte Blut [or, Cold Blood], based on my research; it was published in 2014 in a small print run and meant for my family and our circle. I recounted everything to show that I wasn’t making things up and to demonstrate how incompatible everything was with my family’s memory. It didn’t help…Throughout Germany, it’s like the Nazis came down from Mars: most people say that their grandparents were excellent people, anti-Nazis, and that Hitler, Himmler and four psychopaths were to blame for everything.”

The Kraus family’s dark heritage isn’t limited to Chris’s grandfather. “[Otto’s] two brothers also belonged to the SS and were part of the killing squads, it’s an extraordinary case…madness. The elder brother, Hans, was even more involved in the atrocities, while the younger one, Lorenz, was a wartime correspondent for the SS; he was a gifted artist and drew anti-Semitic pictures.”

The three Kraus brothers, Frank, Lorenz and Otto.
The three Kraus brothers, Frank, Lorenz and Otto.

How does Chris Kraus bear such a heavy burden? He thinks for a long time before answering. “It’s hard to explain. I try to understand, to investigate what really happened, it’s very difficult. I try to set things right with the truth. Of all of Otto’s children and grandchildren, it has fallen to me to do it. I don’t want to be a passive accomplice, I won’t accept silence, even if the process is unpleasant for me.” Did you ever confront your grandfather with the truth? “No, never; he died in 1989, and I didn’t know his real story until 10 years later.” Would you have liked to have talked to him about it? “Yes, but he commanded so much respect… I don’t know if I would have dared, and I was the one who got along best with my grandfather. The others reproach me and say that he can no longer defend himself. To them, he was a good man, period. The truth is that he died without having to account for his crimes, like so many other SS elites, because Germany didn’t dare to bring them to justice.” Where is he buried? In Latvia? “In Nuremberg; how ironic,” Chris Kraus laughs bitterly. “Although that city came to symbolize Nazi punishment after the war, it was once very anti-Semitic and quite fond of my grandfather, and of Hitler.”

The Bastard Factory turns Otto Kraus’s life into a nearly 1,000-page novel. He participated in secret SS missions, such as the Zeppelin operation to kill Russian leader Joseph Stalin (where he met Otto Skorzeny, famous for his daring military actions, including the rescue of Benito Mussolini). Then Otto became an agent for the CIA, the Federal Republic of Germany’s new intelligence service, Org-BND, and even the KGB and the Mossad. “It’s a fictionalization of his story, based on years of research and the essay I wrote for my family.” Chris recounts the origins of the Krauses (in the novel, the Solms), their life in Latvia and the increasing involvement of Koja and his older brother Hub in the Nazi apparatus. The novel opens in 1974 in a Munich hospital. Hospitalized with a bullet wound, the main character tells his life story to the person in the next bed, an innocent, well-meaning, Buddhist, stoner hippie who can’t believe what he’s hearing.

Otto Kraus informs more than one of the novel’s characters. “Both Koja and Hub reflect aspects of my grandfather. The older one is more brutal and the younger one is seemingly more sensitive and introspective, but you like him less and less. They both have evil in them. Hub at least has a coherent stance, but Koja has that personality of agents and spies who lack core convictions and navigate a universe of falsehood and lies like a fish in water. Ambiguity is the most disturbing element in the novel.”

Writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus.
Writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus.

Given its subject, The Bastard Factory has a surprising sense of humor – Koja’s irony; the Black lover who sings Horst Wessel; the ban on playing Monopoly because it’s “a Jewish game”; the harelipped SS officer; Himmler’s car stopping to let toads cross the road; the main character’s circumcision so he can go undercover in postwar Israel as a Hebrew teacher named Himmelreich. “I’ve been harshly criticized in Germany [because of the novel’s humor]. I knew that it would happen. Actually, I think the humor makes the story even more unbearable.”

The novel also tells a love story. “The terrible thing is that Nazis like my grandfather were people. I didn’t want to depict them as demons but rather as human beings in an inhuman regime. In Germany, people prefer to see the Nazis as monsters who were nothing like the rest of the population… humor and love are incompatible with demonizing them, which is why it’s so disturbing.” Can’t it be seen as a form of justification? “No, they are stylistic devices, to help people understand that the human abysses I’m describing are not fiction. The key theme is morality, the character’s amorality. He is despicable; humor and love draw him closer to us, but they do not excuse him. We cannot distance ourselves from evil, which is part of the human condition. My grandfather was capable of loving and being loved. How could a person I knew and loved be like that in another context? I wanted to make that experience accessible to readers. It could happen to all of us.”

Kraus also portrays the world of intelligence services in which his grandfather moved following the war. The novel includes the stories of General Gehlen, Otto John, Isser Harel, the hunt for Eichmann… “It’s all true, the events during the war and after. When I discovered that my grandfather was also a spy…how do you reconcile that with the importance that my family has always attached to honesty?”

Einsatzgruppen A officers. Otto Kraus is the fourth from left.
Einsatzgruppen A officers. Otto Kraus is the fourth from left.

The Bastard Factory has much in common with Jonathan Littell’s great novel The Kindly Ones. The latter is also narrated by a Nazi criminal, and it describes the atrocities in detail. “I consider the comparison a compliment. It’s an extraordinary book; I loved it. We did our research at the same time: during the 15 years that I was researching information about my grandfather, we visited the same archives and consulted the same documents, I saw his name. [Littell’s] perspective is also that of the executioner. His main character, Max Aue, is a member of the SD and part of the Einsatzgruppen. But Littell worked more on the eroticism than the horror. It’s a very literary book, with…all its homoerotic and perverse fantasies. It was an inspiration, but I take a different, harsher approach.”

In Kraus’s novel, the main characters’ relationship also includes many perverse and scatological elements: Koja and Ev, his adopted sister and romantic interest, are influenced by sharing a potty as children; there’s masturbation as well. “It’s true, but I do that seeking the primitive, the elemental. There’s also excrement, and blood, and the process of turning people into corpses in acts of mass murder. My grandfather saw all that. He smelled the excrement, the blood and the fear of the people who were murdered. What did he think then? How did he handle that experience? Some of my grandfather’s comrades confessed that they enjoyed killing. Others said something that I find grotesque: they participated in the killings, yes, but in a charitable way, to avoid the unnecessary suffering of the victims.”

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