When Madonna drolly announced to fans packed into the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24, that "we have a black Muslim in the White House," the shit hit the fan. It was as though the nation's culture vultures had suffered another case of pop-cultural amnesia. This is Madonna, after all. And Madonna will be Madonna.
Like sheep, the grumblers scrambled obligatorily to their Twitter and Facebook accounts to register their (gasp!) horror. Smart people, too. Folks I normally consider quite astute. People I've known or worked with many times over the past quarter-century — fellow music journalists and critics and pundits, publicists, radio people, musicians, even old college friends and high school acquaintances. With teeth gnashing and mouths foaming, they all jumped, unbridled, on to the bash-Madge bandwagon — yet again.
It was quaintly nostalgic.
A Los Angeles writer and former Billboard reporter linked a Huffington Post article on his Facebook page headlined, "Madonna calls Obama a 'Black Muslim in the White House.'" Of course, he also supplied his own commentary: "Leave it to this dimwit attention-seeking b*tch to insert her worthless know-nothing ass into the political dialogue and help perpetuate one of the most abiding idiotic misconceptions about the president."
Seriously? Yes. His post netted 57 "likes" and 35 additional comments, including, "She's stupid as a bag of hammers"; she's a "no talent," "no brain," "stoopid cow" with "no sense of humor"; she's a "bitch," a "vacuous varmint" and "Let's just remember that she is still flashing her breasts at shows."
You'd have thought these music-industry professionals were junior high students discussing a popular but notorious badass cheerleader at lunch break. Actually, they were people in their 40s, 50s and even 60s, discussing someone they have followed closely over the past three decades. Someone who has been an integral part of American popular culture. Someone who has long been expressing herself in button-pushing, chart-topping songs, albums and performances, consistently raising the bar for women in the music business and expanding the definitions of pop singer and popular-culture icon. And here she was again — at 54, America's oldest badass cheerleader — on the road since spring, promoting her most recent album, MDNA. And creating more fodder for Facebook fuming.
Now on the final leg of a tour that began in Tel Aviv in May, Madonna swoops into Charlotte on Nov. 15 for a performance at Time Warner Cable Arena. Will she stir up controversy here? Is that even a meaningful question?
The big news in September wasn't that Madonna made a polarizing remark during a concert stop in D.C. (It would be news if she didn't do something polarizing.) No, the news was that Madonna is still doing things and saying things that ignite such passion, both positive and negative, a full 29 years into her career. The question "Is Madonna still relevant?" has been a mantra for about 28 of those years. It began in 1984, after she released her second album and was invited to sing her new hit, "Like a Virgin," at the MTV Video Music Awards. She ended up crawling around on the stage in a wedding dress, flashing a little crotch and singing the song slightly out of tune to a pre-recorded track. After the performance, in the first of many subsequent pronouncements, pundits sounded the death knell: Madonna is desperately seeking shock value; she's over, done, kaput. Next.
NOT ONLY was Madonna not over, but she was in the middle of a powerful three-album blitz, courtesy of smart collaborations with hot studio whiz kids including her former beau Jellybean Benitez, Nile Rodgers and Stephen Bray. Over the next five years, she would marry and divorce Sean Penn, appear on Broadway in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, star in the critical and popular hit Desperately Seeking Susan and ill-received Who's That Girl, and become the butt of countless jokes among punks and indie rockers. And yet, she'd also be lionized by members of that very indie/underground scene's royalty: Sonic Youth and Mike Watt of the Minutemen, whose Ciccone Youth side project was as much homage as parody.
Madonna's first big artistic turning point came in 1989 with Like a Prayer, the album that many — including myself — still consider her masterpiece. After battling with Father Dearest and the Catholic Church in "Papa Don't Preach" three years earlier, Madonna took her issues with religion a giant leap forward on the album's title track, its video packed with sacred/profane Catholic iconography: burning crosses, a stigmata, a sex fantasy with a saint. "It just fit right in with my own personal zeitgeist of standing up to male authorities, whether it's the pope or the Catholic Church or my father and his conservative, patriarchal ways," she said to Rolling Stone in 2009. In "Express Yourself," from the same album, she appealed to a new generation of young women to get out from their rocker boyfriends' shadows and take creative control. Turns out, Madonna was a riot grrl a full two years before Bikini Kill or Courtney Love would yowl to the misfit masses over grungy punk-based guitar rock.
In the 23 years since, we've questioned Madonna's relevance like clockwork. With each new button she's pushed, pundits have responded like Pavlov's pooches: "Has she gone too far this time? Have her controversy-seeking antics reached a level of desperation? Is Madonna relevant anymore?" We did it in 1990 when she incorporated bondage and sadomasochism into her "Justify My Love" video. We did it again in 1992 when she released a graphic coffee-table book, Sex, as a promotional adjunct to her new album Erotica. We did it in the late '90s, when she incorporated her new Kabbalah beliefs into Ray of Light, which turned out to be yet another creative leap forward.
The first decade of the 21st century was no different. In 2003, Madonna used MTV's VMA show again to push at the boundaries of acceptability, locking lips with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera after the duo's send-up of the original "Like a Virgin" performance. And the pundits responded like an amen chorus: Madonna's gone too far. Three years later, when Madonna and then-husband Guy Ritchie adopted a Malawian boy, the chorus returned: she's desperately seeking attention.
We've played into her game plan with each new Madonna move: her film appearances, latest lovers, her celebrity disses and social commentary. And in 2012 we're at it again. In July, MTV.com — of all media outlets — posted a story with the screaming headline, "Madonna's Controversial MDNA Tour: Has She Gone Too Far? From toting fake guns to exposing herself onstage, pop icon's MDNA Tour has run into criticism at every turn."
"OH COME ON, people! She was joking. Are Americans this incapable of getting sarcasm?" That's what I wrote in the L.A. music writer's Facebook thread about Madonna's "black Muslim" remark. Then I reposted the article on my own page. She didn't fare much better there, although the vitriol among my friends wasn't nearly as intense. "It's an ill-considered comment and not going to do Obama any favors. But hey, it got Madonna back in the news," an old acquaintance from college suggested. "While I have no doubt she was trying to be sarcastic," a hometown friend said, "she failed miserably." And a colleague from New York lamented that Madonna's joke was just inappropriate: "There are many, many people out there who truly still believe that Obama isn't Christian."
And why is this Madonna's problem? If people are dumb enough to believe the president is a Muslim, it's their issue, not Madonna's. And if President Obama had lost the election because of Madonna's sarcastic crack, it would have said much more about Americans' intelligence quotient than about her humor. Madonna's wit, timing and calculation are doing just fine, thank you very much. Or, as the lone voice of reason — longtime music journalist, humorist and I Want My MTV author Rob Tannenbaum — suggested on my Facebook page, the outrage over Madonna's statement "shows not only a misunderstanding of sarcasm, but — worse — a misunderstanding of Madonna."
Like her most obvious pop-star influence, David Bowie, Madonna is as much performance artist as musician — one whose experimentation with role play and character studies isn't just reserved for the stage, films, videos or albums. It permeates every aspect of her public life. When Madonna does a documentary, like Truth or Dare or I'm Going to Tell You a Secret, she's performing, not offering some sort of insightful journalistic look at her inner life or behind-the-scenes processes. She's playing Madonna, whether acting vulnerable or in control; she's toying with gender and cultural codes, sexual roles and assumptions about power.
When Madonna rallies for causes — whether gay rights, humanitarian issues or a presidential election — she's performing. Sure, it's pretty clear that the real person — Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone of Detroit — also supports President Obama and LGBT issues, but she does so through the various aspects of her personas, not with protest songs, reasoned essays or lectures. That's not the way she rolls. Madonna makes grand statements with elaborate sets and situations, big theatrical imagery, larger-than-life wardrobes, Fellini-esque make-up and, yes, profanity-laced sarcasm — all the various aspects of her characters in their various settings. If we take her political rants the same way we would take them from Joan Baez, Chuck D, Tom Morello or Boots Riley, we're misunderstanding Madonna. Her larger narratives are what elevate Madonna way above most of her imitators, except maybe Lady Gaga, who truly does understand Madonna.
On David Bowie's 50th birthday in 1997, I sat with him at a small English tea shop in Manhattan. We talked about the personas he'd created over the years — about what he was going for, what he was trying to achieve, what he expected others should know about him. Others should know little about David Robert Jones (his birth name), Bowie suggested, but they should know plenty about Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. Authenticity was overrated, he said. Bowie is a performer; he's about making art, characters and situations — not linear reality. "I used to get so hostile about the idea of integrity," he told me, referring to those who criticized him early on for being gimmicky in a time when earnest folksingers were preaching to their constituencies. "I was like, 'Fuck it — artifice is the thing for me.'"
ARTIFICE is the thing for Madonna, too. And we should expect plenty of it when she hits Charlotte's downtown arena Thursday. We already know that she's been pushing buttons with a violent sequence during a suite of her recent songs — "Girl Gone Wild," "Revolver" and "Gang Bang" — which find a gun-toting, black leather-clad Madonna in a bloody, choreographed fight against masked men inside a staged hotel room. The scene was so disturbing to some audience members in Denver (coming so closely after the Dark Knight Rises shooting tragedy) that a few people left the show. "We're dancing and all of a sudden people started realizing what the song was," one concertgoer, 25-year-old Aaron Fransua, told the Associated Press. "We all just stood there. Everybody who was around me all had shock on their face."
During performances of "Hung Up," a couple of songs later on the MDNA Tour set list, what had appeared in the previous suite to be a possible visual and thematic jab at Madonna's former husband, blood-loving British director Ritchie, becomes clearer, according to blogger Marilee Lindemann, known as the Madwoman with a Laptop. Lindemann wrote about Madonna's Sept. 23 performance in Washington, D.C. "I realized in that moment that we weren't being forced merely to revel in gratuitous violence for its own sake. The evocations of Abu Ghraib somberly recontextualized and geopoliticized the cartoonish violence of the earlier, Tarantino-esque scene and made its consequences starkly real." Lindemann, an associate professor of English and director of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies at the University of Maryland, added, "or... as real as anything can be in the surreal spectacle of Madonna."
What we also can expect from Madonna's spectacle when it arrives in Charlotte are references to her "feud" with post-Madonna poster girl Lady Gaga. The two have logged much time over the past year jabbing at each other in the theater of pop opinion. On tour, Madonna has injected the feud into "Express Yourself" ("don't go for second best baby...") by detouring momentarily into Lady Gaga's similar-sounding "Born This Way" — to make a point about appropriation, you know.
Gaga's response to the juxtaposition? "The only similarities are the chord progression — it's the same one that's been in disco music for the last 50 years," the Lady has said. "It doesn't mean I'm a plagiarist, it means that I'm fucking smart."
In fact, Madonna and Lady Gaga both are fucking smart. Madonna took the feud narrative to Minneapolis on Nov. 4, telling her audience that Gaga had turned down an invitation to sing with her onstage. "It's OK," Madonna said. "I have the best fans in the whole world. So take that, Lady Gaga."
Take this, too: According to the numbers, Madonna is no less relevant than she's ever been and easily as popular as any heir to her thrown. MDNA is her fifth album in a row to top the charts. The current tour has sold 1.9 million tickets worldwide, and most of those shows have sold out. What's more, she remains in great physical shape and the songs and performance concepts from MDNA are as strong as anything she's done in years.
Pundits have whined when Bowie or Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones continue performing well into their twilight years, but the Madonna backlash this tour — focusing, as much of it has, on her age — has been particularly vicious.
That's OK, too, according to Madonna. "I've been rejected before," she said, though she was referring to her younger rival's disses and not comments on her age. "It's good to build character."
And as long as we continue questioning the relevance of Madonna and her characters, she will remain as relevant as ever.