Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Madonna + Missy = Win-Win-Win

Madonna and Gap are not natural go-togethers in the hot dog and mustard, jeans and T-shirt sense. Of course, for generating press excitement, it’s a no-miss combo. All Gap had to do was announce it had gotten the usually couture-clad rock goddess herself for a commercial and millions of dollars in free publicity instantly rolled out. But beyond that mother lode of hype, my concern was that the actual work would turn out to be just another (embarrassing?) case of the empress’s new clothes: two once-hot branding behemoths newly joined together, desperately seeking sales (and youth and self- reinvention) and whatever mass and class they could snatch from each other in this strange new symbiosis.

The much-awaited reel arrived: The 30-second spots, which break tonight, open on the still-sinewy image genius, a newly honey-blond Madonna, her hair in tasteful waves, sitting sideways in a director’s chair (its back flap imprinted with a star and a stylized “M”) planted on a fake street corner of a Hollywood lot. She looks great in a wife beater and lowrise cropped cords, high-heeled ankle-strap shoes and lots of platinum bracelets. Nicely framed, she sings “Everybody Comes to Hollywood,” from her single “Hollywood,” off her latest album, American Life. The sound is surprisingly thin and tinny, and when she gets out of the chair and dances toward the camera, it’s a kind of leaden attempt at peppiness and keeping the beat. And between the fakeness of the set and the hollowness of Miss M, it would seem we might have another Swept Away on our hands.

Then Missy Elliott raps into the picture—dancing out of a trailer with a star and an “M” on its door—wearing many layers of clothing, the most prominent of which is a giant white T-shirt airbrushed with a supa-dupa, extra-large portrait of herself (which cracks me up), and the whole production comes alive. Actually, it combusts.

Missy and Madonna in combination (the new Emandem) are electric and delightful as they sing and bump and grind together—indeed, each has customized her pants with a monogrammed “M” on a back pocket, and at one point they bang the “M’s” together, to great effect.

So here they are, singing/ rapping/dancing/voguing down a faux city block on this obvious backlot. As opposed to the heightened artifice of this “Hollywood” set, they bring a new organic, natural look and sound to Gap advertising, which is exciting.

Missy gets off lots of clever lyrics, including a bit that becomes a hook: “We walk by/ People ask, ‘Where you get them jeans?’ ” An incredibly ethnically correct trio—an Asian guy, a Latina and an African American woman—standing on a nearby stoop like an a cappella group from the 1950s repeats the question. Then both women move into “Get Into the Groove,” one of Madonna’s earliest hits, which opens up the dance set.

Though they make a mighty match, each performer shows her individuality—musically, in movement and in personal style. Perhaps as an allusion to her new English life, Madge (who dons a newsboy cap later in the production) wears pants that sport a big “Lady M” down one side (sounds cheesy, but it looks cool). She also wears more than $5 million worth of borrowed diamond jewelry. The real Material Girl turns out be Missy, whose considerable bling bling is her own. She also sports an airbrushed “Gap,” for some street flav, on one pant leg.

The longer spots (a :60 as well as a 74-second director’s cut that will debut on VH1 tonight) offer more of Missy’s clever raps and also much more dance, with the movement framed in a clean letterbox setting. It’s fun to see M and M really shaking it. In this case, the choreography celebrates hip-hop and break-dancing as a basic American art form. It’s as open and joyous as any of the great Gap dance ads past (“Khakis Swing,” “Khakis a Go-go,” “West Side Story”).

As with any provocative pairing, there’s some competition. One spot ends with Madonna doing a yoga pose (tree) and Missy getting down to do a split. Madonna looks over and says, “I can do that!” In the 60-second spot and the director’s cut, we get to see Madonna getting down to do the split. Then she raises her hand balletically over her body as if to say, “So there.”

The standard rap on Gap, of course, is that there’s a sameness to the merch that makes it seem like a uniform. In these spots, the customized work on the two artists’ outfits alone could outdo the detailing of the collective vehicles of Nascar for years. (Gap.com will offer a limited supply of customized cords.)

As for the by-now-cliché idea of synergy, it’s a festival. Gap is releasing a CD, and Madonna will have new crossover appeal to Missy’s audience and vice versa. But it’s win-win-win for Gap; most important, as an effortless blend of ages, ethnicities and musical styles, the campaign suggests a democratic elasticity that goes to the heart of what the Gap brand has always stood for. I was swept away, in a good way.