The Madonna Complex

David Toussaint
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And everything was going so well. Madonna’s political firecracker of pop fun leading up to the release of her 13th studio album, Rebel Heart, set for 6 March, had all the twists and turns of the next summer blockbuster, or, more appropriately, a political campaign. There were the hinted-at hashtag titles #livingforlove and #unapologeticbitch (songs, yes, title, no), rumours the album was coming out aeons ago, dropped Beyonce-style, Miley Cyrus and Adele collaborations . . . nope, the snippet releases, the producer’s names, the leaks.

Madonna, whose idea of relaxation must be sky-diving down the Grand Canyon with a parachute that folds out into scuba gear so she can plunge the waters and ride a shark before unfolding blades allow her to waterski upstream, efficiently released six finished songs right before Christmas, putting her on the iTunes number one chart in more than 40 countries. She did some sexy, retro-fun promotional shoots and made a very retro bull-fighting video for the first single, ‘Living for Love’, that commanded raves from fans for its ‘Take a Bow’ meets ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ vibe. Critics were exceedingly pleased with the new music, sometimes emphatically so, with The New York Times‘s Jon Pareles calling ‘LFL’ ‘easily one of her best singles in a decade‘.


If anything, the controversial Rebel Heart images posted on Instagram were a sign of pop things past, where a bit of wonderful Warhol-esque promotion (the roped images of such people as Jesus, Homer Simpson, and – to some backlash – Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela all started out as tributes from fans), caused a clash in our whiplash-reaction social media world.

Try as her detractors might, over and over, desperately, to paint Madonna as irrelevant, their insistence only proves how relevant she still is.

And then she fell from grace. And I’m not talking about the Brit Awards. Madonna performed on the 8 February Grammys, and not since Obama’s first debate with Mitt Romney has everything gone down so fast, so quickly, in Madonna’s always-on-thin-ice race for the prize. The 56-year-old singer wanted to start a love revolution, as her voice-over said at the beginning, then did a somewhat-live, somewhat-re-created version of the ‘Living for Love’ video, complete with gospel backup and ascension into the red-rose heavens. It’s safe to say the attraction wasn’t mutual.

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Appearing in a red matador-meets-boudoir outfit, and appearing on an elevated, ringed stage, Madonna’s movements were stiff and cautious, which, to anyone with a tweet and a titter, translated to frail, brittle, haggard, and, well let’s just say I haven’t read so many sad sack analogies of pathetic desperation since Sarah McLachlan last showed us those images of abandoned dogs. I’m surprised Kanye West didn’t rush the stage and offer to euthanize her.

Much of the reaction was valid. Despite having a body that out-rocks pretty much any woman half her age (I missed the round-table rage over Miranda Lambert’s tight leather pants), I would have much preferred she showed the younger generation of pop stars, who almost all take their clothes off, that she’s already done it and has nothing more to prove in that regard. Her stripped-down ‘No Fear’ back-to-the-audience MDNA catwalk bit was brilliant.

I also wanted her to focus on the music, and any discussion of her new album ended before her boots, which didn’t even seem made for walking, tried to circumnavigate that stage. It’s exactly what the audience wanted because the audience always wants Madonna to flop. She almost fell into the trap. Two weeks later, she literally did, ass-backwards no less.

Madonna’s performance on the Grammys was the most watched segment of the broadcast.

Live performances, outside of concert comfort zones, and MTV, are rarely great vehicles for female pop stars, especially singers like Madonna, a sensational entertainer but not a natural-born performer. 25 years ago, on the Oscars, Madonna performed ‘Sooner or Later’ so visibly nervous it wasn’t clear who was more relieved she made it through, her or her fans. That performance is now considered endearing, but others, like her flat-out ‘You Must Love Me’ number a few years later, are best forgotten.

Live bits also seldom cause a lot of harm: If they did the world would now be debating the relevance of Katy Perry post-Super Bowl pyro-gasm, or trying to remember who Ariana Grande is post-Grammy ballad, other than a pretty girl who sounds like every other pretty girl with a vocal coach telling them to emote till the ponytail pops.

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She’s the American Dream Rorschach Test

But Madonna’s not everyone. She’s the American Dream Rorschach Test dipped into an unflattering mirror of all those things we’d rather not face. If the seventies taught us that fifties suburban ideals didn’t necessarily equal happiness, Madonna’s Millennium showed us that being good doesn’t always equal getting what you want. Gay men understand that logic, which is a huge reason why they have always been among her biggest followers.

Years ago a friend told me, ‘It would be so much easier if I liked her.’ She was furious that Madonna, via the ‘Like a Prayer’ video, had kissed a saint in a church, wearing undergarments, no less. My friend’s favourite party story back then was telling people about the night she made out with a stranger on the steps of her church. But Madonna’s public and profitable antics? Heresy.

Madonna’s biggest sin has never been singing in front of burning crosses or opposing wars or taking her clothes off or having more hits than Elvis Presley or The Beatles (‘look it up’). Madonna’s biggest sin is that she’s not apologising for any of it. Worse, the ungrateful singer seems to think she deserves it.

Defies comparisons

We can’t really relate to Madonna’s fame because we don’t understand it. Her popularity defies direct comparisons. Pop superstars don’t age; they go away. In interviews, Madonna’s often aloof, sometimes crass, always funny, and never dependent on our approval. If she’s not as talented as someone else, why is she getting the acclaim? If she hasn’t fallen down and reemerged triumphant in Oprah-approved redemptive ashes, why should we care? If she could do it with so little, why couldn’t we, with so much more, do the same?

Maybe if she disappeared for a few years with an eating disorder and a drug addiction and a few misdemeanours to go along with a please-love-me mascara-trickled face we might warm up to the gal. Eh, probably not. We’d just chalk it up to clever marketing. Like falling down stairs, or having children, or being raped at knifepoint.

We don’t owe Madonna anything, nor do we need to like her or care about her or pay attention to her or endorse her. We do need to accept her achievements. Madonna is the most successful female recording artist of all time (that’s from the Guinness Book of World Records, not me), yet as soon as her popularity is mentioned, critics react to the claim like climate skeptics at a science fair.

Her achievements are also not as ancient as most people claim she is. She’s had four consecutive number one albums since the millennium. Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl performance drew 112.6 million viewers, making it the most watched TV show in history; and more people watched her half-time show than the game. Her MDNA tour was the highest grossing of 2012, topped by one other woman – herself in the previous Sticky & Sweet concerts.

The irrelevance of Elton John

Forbes listed Madonna as the Top Earning Celebrity of 2013, taking in $125 million. Steven Spielberg came in second. A huge percentage of the star’s revenue came from the MDNA tour, around the same time Elton John told a reporter at Sunday Night that, ‘[H]er career is over. Her tour has been a disaster and it couldn’t happen to a bigger cunt.’ On the list of musicians for that same year, Sir Elton came in ninth to Madge’s number one spot. I haven’t read a lot of clamour about the irrelevance of Elton.

The unrelenting discussions about Madonna, surely, make her relevant, but to deny it in other forms is also disingenuous. Her stamp is on every female pop star out there, her savvy marketing skills are studied by everyone else, she’s buzzed about and contemplated every time she makes a move, or steps outside her house, and her influence in pop culture is unprecedented. Bringing dance back to the Top 40 excelsior, changing producers like hair colour, setting the standard for performance production values – including, nowadays, the Grammys – using sex where women are in control as a form of female empowerment, and defining the art of change as the only pop constant, Madonna is everywhere in the room.

If her radio visibility has suffered, she’s in good company. Britney Spears is now in Vegas, Mariah Carey’s heading there, Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Lopez get most of their attention from TV, Janet Jackson’s lost, and Whitney Houston’s dead.

Beyonce, despite immense buzz and popularity, didn’t get as many mega singles as she used to from her last two efforts: 4; and the skillfully marketed ‘visual album’, a sex-drenched ditty that probably couldn’t have been made had it not been for Madonna’s 1992 flop, Erotica. She also didn’t bring in an audience as large as Madge’s for her 2013 Super Bowl performance, and she’s not as big of a concert attraction. OMG, Bey is so over!

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Relevance, obviously, is not necessarily measured in ticket or album sales or whether your song is number one. No one speaks of the irrelevance of Debbie Harry or Chrissie Hynde or Diana Ross. Nor should they. 75-year old Tina Turner, whose 1984 comeback album Private Dancer is named after a prostitute, is still performing in spike heels and barely-there mini-dresses, and isn’t going to get any ‘has-been, over, desperate, hag’ backlash for shameless immodesty or a lack of new hits.

Were I to call Cher irrelevant, even though her albums don’t sell as much as they used to and her movies aren’t panning out and she’s not nearly the concert attraction she once was, I’d face an outrage so intense I’d have to join ISIS for protection. If Madonna’s not relevant, than neither are the Beatles or Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson or James Brown. If Madonna’s over, than so are Oprah, Spielberg, and Bill Clinton.

When an older woman I know, one who displays her impressive over-60 body whenever she’s out, told me that Madonna’s a ‘desperate has-been’, I sent her an email showing that the Rebel Heart tunes had hit number one in more countries than either one of us had visited. Her return email was swift and unsurprising: ‘… but Lady Gaga has a better voice.’ And if you tell a Bible thumper that God also said you should be stoned to death for giving birth out of wedlock, they’ll say that’s the devil talking – now let’s get back to hating the gays.

Ruffled feathers

Elton John added in that same Sunday Night interview that, in concert, Madonna ‘looks like a fucking fairground stripper’. Kettle, Elton John just called. He’d like his platform boots and ruffled feathers back.

Madonna’s unwarranted face of the anti-ageism industry (‘unwarranted’ because it seems more of an example of her insistence on doing what she wants to do rather than what she’s supposed to do, and what women are supposed to do) has only upped her importance in our youth-obsessed culture.

Where she used to reflect our trepidation about sexual mores, she now mirrors our tug-of-war ageing dilemma. When are we no longer allowed to be sexy? Is plastic surgery acceptable? At what point do we hide? Judging by the repugnant comments about Madonna’s age – if it were just about doctored physical alterations, 90 percent of Hollywood’s women, and almost as many men, would also be bashed daily – she’s the perfect projection for our internalized ping-pong debate over the final frontier.

While gay men support Madonna, they can also be the nastiest of her name-callers. Even as they suspend their own youth with Botox and liposuction and supplements and steroids and endless Photoshopped selfies.

Rounding up on Grindr

After the Grammys, a gay man posted on Facebook that watching the 60-year old woman (I’d love to know if he also adds four years to his Grindr profile) ‘do exactly the same moves she did thirty years ago gets pretty tragic, especially when she can’t move anymore. She’s like an old Labrador with stiff joints’. He went on to ponder why, like AC/DC or Cyndi Lauper or ELO, Madonna can’t ‘play her good old music whenever she appears or goes on concert and stop acting like a child. [Those artists] are happy to play the music that we want to hear and don’t try and compete with teenagers at 60’ – yep, still rounding up.

With all due respect to the above-mentioned artists, the answer is because Madonna doesn’t want to and she doesn’t have to. Music is a business in which a shit-load of money is involved, and one in a million artists get the kind of success that allows you to work on your own terms. ELO doesn’t record new music, but the other two still make records. They just don’t get as much attention as Madonna’s. When most artists who’ve been around more than 30 years perform they’re pretty much required to play the greatest hits collection unless they’re aiming for a club crowd.

Madonna’s allowed more wiggle room because fans still love her music. Ticket sales and album leaks and every dance club you enter don’t lie. It’s not just the old stuff. Post-Ray of Light, Madonna’s still pop-tactular, from the vastly underrated American Life to the dark-into-light MDNA. Each disc is uniquely its own, all containing classic Madge.

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Rebel Heart contains tremendous Madonna fan tracks, the most infectiously unavoidable being ‘Ghosttown’, a power-ballad anthem that only Madonna could make upbeat. Even at the end of the world she still believes in love and she’s still got something to say about it! Madonna’s an optimist at (rebel) heart, and it’s that simple trademark that has always been at the center of her kaleidoscope-colored reinvention as invention world. It’s the first reason I have always loved her, and why so many people around the world love her. The rest is pretty-as-pink gravy.

As she recorded in 2000, it’s the Music, stupid!

A paper trail of accomplishments

Should it matter if she gets another big hit? Are we seriously still having this debate? Were it anyone else from her generation, be it Prince or U2 (imagine the jokes if Madonna ‘gave away’ her new album) or a comeback album from one of her long-forgotten peers, Billboard would take a backseat to earned accolades and the merits of the new material. Unlike every other music legend, Madonna has to leave a paper trail of accomplishments to keep her seat.

Can she rise from her epic fall? If the Grammys, or any other negative sound bite, brings the numbers down, a good, or great record, won’t automatically boost them back up. She needs to win the next debate, and we need proof. ‘Living for Love’ did not get Top 40 airplay, but it did make Billboard history as her 44th number one dance club song. To Morrissey, that’s only further proof of her demise. Before the Brit Awards, on 25 February, the former Smiths front man chastised her for a ‘frightening career,’ and noted that her song ‘reached no higher than number 62 on the UK chart’. I guess they needed more room for his slew of new smash hits.

When Madonna did tumble, down a flight of stairs at the finale of the awards show, the reaction from the press was mostly sympathetic – it was hard not to be impressed when Madonna got right back up from a drastic-looking fall and finished the number, un-lip-synched, like it never happened. There were the usual catty social media comments and nasty tabloid covers and hip replacement jokes, but most chalked it up to her other perceived trait: indestructibility.

Every major news outlet in the world covered Madonna’s fall, from NBC to CNN to Fox News to Al Arabiya, the leading 24-hour news channel in the Arab world.

Her least desperate album in years

My favorite ‘positive’ review, so far, of Rebel Heart, has been from The Telegraph, which called it ‘her least desperate album in years’, then gave it four out of five stars. Women should be offended at the repetitive labels thrown at Madonna. No matter how long Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger and Jon Bon Jovi sing about hot sex while wearing tight clothing, they will never be ‘desperate’. But they will be awesome dudes. And irrelevance be damned, the next pop singer over 40 who decides she can be sexy won’t be treated as harshly.

AC/DC opened the Grammys with a new song that no one paid much attention to, then segued into their 1979 classic ‘Highway to Hell’ that brought the audience to their feet. Deservedly so. Of the original band from that year, only lead guitarist Angus Young remains (the group’s ‘HTH’ vocalist, Bon Scott, died of an alcohol overdose in 1980), the guitarist and group’s founder is being treated for dementia, and the band’s drummer was arrested for an attempted-murder-related charge last November. (The charges were later reduced.)

Still, 59-year old Young strutted around that stage in the same childish schoolboy outfit he’s been wearing since the beginning, while 67-year-old singer, and Scott’s replacement, Brian Johnson, crooned his rock star heart out, sweating and selling machismo even if he’s a little puffier around the face and a little saggier in the jeans.

No one cared that they were a little older and slower than they were 30 years ago, because it was a testament to their survival and the glory of rock and roll. Madonna, when you think about it, did pretty much the same thing for the pop star circuit, minus the comeback and the sentiment and the drama and the testosterone. And that’s exactly why we hate her.


About David Toussaint

David Toussaint is a four-time published author, Huffington Post blogger, former Conde Nast writer and editor, professional playwright, and actor. He resides in New York.

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