On Hating Madonna
Madonna is old and washed up. An icon turned has-been. She’s desperate. Thirsty. Gross, even. Certainly irrelevant. Sure, few have contributed more to popular culture, but enough is enough. She doesn’t get it anymore. “Madonna is so easy to revile that you start to wish she’d make it a little harder,” Time magazine wrote in 2006.
That’s a common refrain these days, especially on the internet, where perception of celebrities often tends toward the unforgiving. Age is an arbitrary clout metric, but it defines Madonna’s image, much to her disdain. The first pop star of the MTV era to remain prolific at 60, she is, in her own words, “being punished” for continuing to work, something the giants who predate her — Elton John, Paul McCartney, Cher, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Carole King — don’t have to worry about. They’ve more or less accepted that they are nostalgia acts, a status Madonna is hellbent on avoiding. Unlike them, she still craves No. 1 hits, having told a Billboard reporter as much last month.
Sometimes the consequences of Madonna’s drive are a collective apathy: Thirty-seven years into her career, we’ve seen it all before; we’re bored, and isn’t there a new Jonas Brothers record to catch instead? Other times, the result is outright spite. People actively root against her, using Madonna’s bygone youth and eternal doggedness as ammunition. The veritable “queen of pop” now believes she’s an underdog — a narrative that in turn fuels her scoffers’ acrimony. When the world isn’t ignoring her, it’s mocking her. “If you move like an old lady, then you should just stick to your old-lady moves,” talk show host Wendy Williams sniped after Madonna’s Billboard Music Awards performance in May.
To get a sense of how Madonna’s reception has tumbled, consider “Medellín,” the lead single off her eclectic new album, “Madame X.” The song dropped the same day as Beyoncé’s Netflix documentary and surprise live album. Two days later, Lizzo released her critically worshipped major-label debut. The following week, Taylor Swift unveiled a cheesy empowerment anthem about the joys of spelling. Then Pink and Vampire Weekend joined the parade. Meanwhile, the country-fried curio “Old Town Road” lingered atop the Billboard Hot 100, which claimed three different Ariana Grande jams and six Billie Eilish tracks.
“Medellín,” a glossy reggaeton reverie featuring the Colombian stud Maluma, didn’t stand a chance. Two months later, its Spotify plays total a mere fraction of those belonging to Madonna’s competition, even though her sensibilities target the same audience — a stark reality for the person with more Top 10 hits than any other act in Billboard’s history, as well as an abiding presence on the dance charts.
Anyone can name a handful of Madonna songs off the top of their head, but most would reduce her activity over the past several years to vaguely feuding with Lady Gaga, posting questionable things on Instagram and chasing sonic trends that don’t always fit her. It’s all but guaranteed that Madonna will never have another smash, partly because the world is dismissive of her age and partly because her instincts aren’t as shrewd as they once were.
As the 2010s leave behind a radically changed pop landscape, Madonna’s standing reveals a lot about the half-life of a contemporary music career. That so few care about new Madonna content says as much about us as it does her. It’s hard to think of a pop star — or any celebrity, really — with as many singular achievements and such a durable place in Western media who provokes so much ire and indifference.
Then again, there’s no one as ruthless. Chief among Madonna’s talents is persistence, a determination to remain herself no matter how much the world around her changes and no matter how many times she is labeled the empress of reinvention. It must be hard for someone so calculating and self-mythologizing to accept that she no longer sits at the nucleus of culture. The digital age makes it harder than ever to be a trendsetter with true staying power, but Madonna maintained her throne longer than anyone else from any era, and damn if she won’t try to claw her way back. If the public has been largely ambivalent about Madonna’s 50s and 60s, what will Taylor Swift’s, ahem, reputation look like in a few decades? How about Beyoncé’s? Are they doomed, as women, to be branded elderly try-hards? Or can Madonna be a morality tale in how pop dignitaries age?
Pop has always, for better or worse, been a young person’s sport — specifically 8- to 25-year-olds, as composer Leonard Bernstein posited during the 1960s’ Beatlemania. Not much has changed. The Top 40 tunes we embrace as preteens determine what we think pop should sound like. By the time we reach 30, so many fads will have come and gone that all we can seem to do is mourn what once was. Any artist who hopes to transcend the moment he or she was introduced to the world faces an uphill crusade. Even America’s original rock stars, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, endured major slumps as their heydays waned.
By the time MTV transformed modern pop fame, artists were lucky to prosper for more than a few years. Eventually, most of Madonna’s peers stopped questing for sovereignty (Cyndi Lauper, Pat Benatar), faded away altogether (Sheena Easton, Belinda Carlisle, Duran Duran) or died (Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, George Michael, Prince). It was clear that Madonna would be her generation’s torchbearer, no matter how much anger her provocations elicited.
Some of Madonna’s disfavor comes down to routine ageism and sexism, afflictions she says she’s fighting against. (Really, why shouldn’t she still talk about sex?) “To age is a sin,” she said in 2016. “You will be criticized and vilified and definitely not played on the radio.” Straddling the huge technological shift in music distribution that finished downloading around the time Madonna turned 50, her tenacity had little precedent. After all, we never got to witness how Madonna’s taboo-busting idols Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, to whom she genuflected in the “Material Girl” video and publicity photos, respectively, would behave at that age; both died in their 30s. Meanwhile, Marlene Deitrich, another of Madonna’s inspirations, left the spotlight in time to sidestep the internet’s hyperconnectivity. Even Cher, in many regards Madonna’s closest counterpart, has made peace with her diminished position in youth culture, as evidenced by her recent ABBA collection, which was never going to produce a hit single. “There are no living role models for me,” Madonna told British Vogue earlier this year in a sentiment that’s as self-aggrandizing as it is accurate. “Because nobody does what I do. And that’s kind of scary.”
As a brazen attention-seeker who’d list “pushing people’s buttons” as a qualification on her résumé, did Madonna invite this apathy upon herself, destined to be pushed aside by Rihanna and Lady Gaga, her spiritual successors? To be a Madonna diehard today — hello, it is I — requires defending her honor and justifying her blunders. But if she’s made things a little easier for the upstart women who have come behind her, her role as a wrinkle-free Aunt Sally is sure to do the same for, say, Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, who are nearing 50 and don’t take half the beating that Madonna does. She’s our punching bag because no one else had the gall to be.
Madonna fatigue can be traced back to at least 1991, at which point The New York Times branded her a “show-business veteran because she has held on for all of eight years.” Without the 21st century’s ever-rapid news cycle, the volume of media attention Madonna commanded was a feat. Only Michael Jackson rivaled her. Unlike Jackson, however, Madonna’s scandals were almost always premeditated.
In ’92, eight months after MTV banned the carnal “Justify My Love” video, she released the album “Erotica” alongside the soft-core porn book “Sex,” featuring Madonna and pals in BDSM photography. The seminal “Truth or Dare,” which included her masturbation simulation from the Blond Ambition Tour, was by then the highest-grossing documentary in history. When the sophisticated R&B opus “Bedtime Stories” arrived in 1994, even Madonna wondered whether it was time to tame her image. No one wanted to talk about her music anymore, it seemed — only the way she wielded her body. “I’m not your bitch / Don’t hang your shit on me,” she commanded on the standout “Human Nature.”
Today, it’s clear these are some of Madonna’s finest creations: mature, unconventional and naked in more ways than one. And amid the “Erotica” period’s sexual liberation, Madonna was arguably pop culture’s most vocal warrior for LGBTQ equality and AIDS care, speaking out long before social-justice advocacy became mandatory for celebrities.
Despite social critic Camille Paglia calling her “the future of feminism,” Madonna’s already lengthy career could have died with her sexual progressivism, and some hoped it would. “After the ‘Sex’ book came out, there was a time when I could not open up a newspaper or magazine and not read something incredibly scathing about myself,” she later reflected on VH1’s “Behind the Music.” In 1994, journalist Ilene Rosenzweig published “The I Hate Madonna Handbook,” a biting attack that presents its subject as little more than a talentless bloodsucker. (Sample chapter: Feminist or Slut?) “It’s a book for everyone who wonders when this woman will have had enough, start a perfume line and call it quits,” Rosenzweig explained in the introduction.
Madonna quitting? As if.
From 1998 through 2005, following her Golden Globe-winning turn in “Evita,” she released four brilliant albums that should make any pop wannabe of any age seethe with envy. “Ray of Light” (1998), “Music” (2000), “American Life” (2003) and “Confessions on a Dance Floor” (2005) presented a different Madonna: introspective, inventive and ready to reflect on the trials of fame. She was a mother now, and an enlightened one at that, aging gracefully into her 40s. “It’s no good when you’re misunderstood / But why should I care / What the world thinks of me,” she sang on the “American Life” single “Nobody Knows Me.”
Most artists don’t have much to say beyond a few albums, but by the time “Confessions” arrived, Madonna’s tally totaled 10 (discounting soundtracks and compilations), without a major misfire in the bunch. (Some might quibble about “American Life,” which was considered a divisive flop, insofar as a platinum album can flop. They’re wrong: It’s a daring, cohesive masterstroke.) What Madonna lacked in vocal dexterity she made up for in evocative diction and smart producers, many of whom weren’t superstars before she enlisted their talents. With time, she graduated farther and farther from the post-disco bubblegum she’d popularized, incorporating trip hop, electronica, folk, country, trap and an increasing fondness for auto-tune. When the A&R-heavy Britney Spears/’N Sync era bloomed in the late ’90s, most of Madonna’s music sounded nothing like the stuff dominating American radio.
That forward-thinking ingenuity is what kept her in vogue, to borrow a word she’d appreciate. Janet Jackson was Madonna’s only equal who worked as consistently, and even she suffered a decline by the mid-2000s, largely because of the puritanical uproar over her exposed nipple at the Super Bowl ― something Madonna’s “Erotica” cycle should have made palatable, had the body politic seen it as more than a stunt.
Maybe Madonna got nervous about protecting her cachet after “Confessions” won her so much acclaim. Maybe she got cocky. No one else in pop seemed to have her staying power, and there was a new class in town, ready to take over when Spears proved she wouldn’t be Madonna’s ultimate descendant after all. Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Adele, Lady Gaga and plenty of others vied for the crown. She couldn’t compete with their monopoly; suddenly, social media became the epicenter of celebrity, and the soulless directions Madonna went on her next albums, the Timbaland-produced “Hard Candy” (2008) and the electronic dance music-inflected “MDNA” (2012), couldn’t stack up against her fresher peers. It was the first time she’d faltered so dramatically.
Internet culture and music access shifted dramatically at that exact moment. Madonna naysayers had a bigger platform than ever, and the teenagers discovering pop through their iPhones weren’t about to press play on someone their parents’ age. Remember how “easy to revile” Time thought she was in 2006, the year of Twitter’s inception? The discourse was exponentially more cutthroat by the time “MDNA” arrived. (“Wtf is mdna,” Cher tweeted.)
Madonna’s anxieties shone through in her lyrics. Furthermore, she started recruiting younger peers who would help her seem current. On 2008’s “4 Minutes,” her last bona fide hit, Justin Timberlake announced her name before the first verse, as if paying his dues by way of flagrant benediction. “Give Me All Your Luvin,” the lead single from “MDNA,” found Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. chanting “L-U-V Madonna!” Later on the same album, Minaj closed out a track by declaring, “There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna.” The far sturdier album “Rebel Heart” (2015) included a club banger called “Bitch I’m Madonna,” accompanied by a video in which Beyoncé, Perry, Cyrus, Rita Ora and others mouthed the title. She leeched off their influence with a blatant brag.
Meanwhile, Madonna became more self-referential, obsessed with her own biography in a way that leaped past confessionalism and drifted into narcissism. The nadir of this was the bombastic cut “Veni Vidi Vici,” on which she filled two entire verses with her own memorable hits (“I justified my love, I made you say a little prayer”). On “Madame X,” she again name-checks “Like a Prayer” multiple times. And when alluding to herself, Madonna wants us to believe she’s a survivor who overcame torture, a narrative that doesn’t square with the white-savior complex she sometimes employs when advocating for persecuted minorities, as she does on the overwrought “Killers Who Are Partying.” Her voice was vital during the AIDS epidemic, as depicted in the ongoing season of the FX series “Pose.” It’s less vital in self-important lyrics like “I’ll be Islam, if Islam is hated / I’ll be Israel, if they’re incarcerated.”
In interviews, Madonna is more pretentious and less eloquent on matters of cultural appropriation, something she’s been accused of more and more, like the time she promoted “Rebel Heart” by comparing herself to Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. (“Oh, they can kiss my ass,” she said of pundits when I interviewed her in 2015. “I’m not appropriating anything. I’m inspired and I’m referencing other cultures. That is my right as an artist. They said Elvis Presley stole African-American culture. That’s our job as artists, to turn the world upside down and make everyone feel bewildered and have to rethink everything.”) Madonna has always cribbed from classic films and poetry ― “Metropolis” here, Pablo Neruda there ― but now she makes it known, over and over, that she channels such lofty legends as Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, James Baldwin and Joan of Arc.
Madonna wants to project stamina, but ego-driven vulnerability emerges between the lines. Humility has never been her strong suit — who wants a humble pop star, anyway? But Madonna’s defiance in the face of jarring miscalculations, like her conceited Aretha Franklin tribute at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards and her off-key performance at this year’s Eurovision, shows that age has made her stubborn and wealth has isolated her from reality. At this point, criticism is a personal affront, no matter how much she insists she doesn’t care what others think. She understandably resents that we harp on her age, but it’s impossible not to when she works overtime to convey agelessness. “Died a thousand times / Managed to survive,” Madonna belts on the new ballad “I Rise,” a sentiment she surely applied to a recent New York Times profile headlined “Madonna at Sixty.” On Instagram, she accused the writer of making her feel “raped.”
All of this and more keep the public’s vitriol flowing, at a time when the digital outrage cycle is endless and entertainers are either parodied or subjected to the thoughtless clichés of standom. Had “Hard Candy” and “MDNA” been stronger albums, would more people care about “Madame X,” a messy but fascinating political screed rife with such global influences as Portuguese fado and African batuque? Or will the Greek chorus that scrutinizes pop always reject a persevering diva of 60? (Bruce Springsteen, 69, released his latest album on the same day as “Madame X” and hardly anyone debated his worthiness; maybe that’s what happens when your sound barely changes after five decades. Similarly, no one called Paul McCartney futile for recording with Rihanna and Kanye West in 2015.)
If the world hates aged women so much, what hope does Taylor Swift have? She’s only 29 and already fumbling musically, as evidenced in “Me!” and “You Need to Calm Down,” the latter of which reveals her thin skin and insistence on Madonna-style self-mythologization.
But amid the invective, we can already see how much things have improved in Madonna’s wake. When Britney Spears rebounded after her climactic hardships circa 2007, people stopped ridiculing her and instead celebrated her comeback; the ordeal launched a vital conversation about fame and mental health. Jennifer Lopez is now older than Madonna was at “Hard Candy”; yet Lopez, another thin-voiced songstress who strives to cultivate youthfulness, is commended for being one of show business’ hardest-working stalwarts. Even Janet Jackson, 53, managed to land a song on the Hot 100 last year.
Where Madonna trips over herself is her insistence on having things both ways: She wants to be the queen, but she also wants to be a scrappy underdog, forever misunderstood or worse. She wants to be a revolutionary like she was in the “Erotica” days, but revolution starts at the bottom and she’s now part of the establishment. She can’t quite figure out what to say because she can’t quite figure out who she is. The traits that once made her so appealing now make her seem out of touch.
The sad thing about Madonna’s disrepute is that doubters have no idea how interesting she still is. “Madame X” is more original than half of what her younger contemporaries are doing. Some of the overt politicism doesn’t work, but when it does, Madonna’s ear for catchy beats and rousing vocal inflections is as keen as ever. Like David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” it’s the sort of thing that seems destined for a reevaluation once Madonna has left this earthly plane and can’t be taken her for granted anymore — in other words, once she is finally deified, leaving behind acrobatic tours and era-defining bops.
That’s the great tragedy of Madonna’s late career. She wrote the playbook time and again, and she won’t be alive to see the world acknowledge it.