Music

Why do we love to hate Madonna?

RICHARD S. HE questions our love/hate relationship with pop’s first lady ahead of Madonna’s first Australian tour in 23 years.

Madonna was never a bigger pariah than in 1993, the last time she toured Australia. Her infamous Sex book had just given an enormous middle finger to the prudishness of ‘90s pop culture. Equally pretentious and tongue-in-cheek, it was a coffee table art book that had no place in most respectable living rooms. Of course, you didn’t actually have to read it – the point was just that it existed. But at the same time her complex, contradictory Erotica record suffered for it, reduced to Sex’s same hypersexual veneer. She’d become too good a provocateur. That punk rock incarnation of Madonna would feel right at home in 2015, now that Sex has paved the way for everyone from Miley Cyrus to Kim Kardashian. Popstars who weren’t alive for ‘Like a Prayer’’s release revere her. So why does it still feel like the general public can’t wait to prematurely wheel her to the retirement home?

Madonna’s been called “desperate”, “calculated”, and much worse – usually by straight white men – ever since she rolled off the 1984 VMAs stage singing ‘Like a Virgin’ in a wedding dress. If it wasn’t true then, it’s even less true now. Nothing she did, not even Sex, was ever just bald-faced provocation. Now, Madonna has nothing left to prove except, ironically, that she still has something left to prove. No genre has a shorter memory than pop, where you’re only as good as your last move or you’re a flop. She can’t help being compared to not only all the younger, hungrier popstars in her wake but her entire three-decade legacy, like an albatross around her neck.

Once upon a time, all publicity was good publicity. But nowadays, you risk becoming a celebrity first, musician second – doubly so for women, who can’t afford not to be image-conscious whether or not sexuality is part of their art. Just as Janet Jackson, not Justin Timberlake, took the fall for that Super Bowl incident, so too Madonna suffers for planting one on Drake at Coachella. Drake’s the sad clown of rap, but it’s Madonna who’s martyring herself for our collective online amusement. Being a popstar in 2015 means constantly generating memes, Instagrams, GIFable moments – all while running the risk of becoming a punchline yourself.

“Bitch I’m Madonna” on the Tonight Show is easily the best thing she’s done this whole album cycle, a perfect take on her raucous live show. Last week’s official video transports that same freewheeling energy to an opulent New York penthouse, but in the two months since Fallon, Taylor Swift’s already changed the game. The bigger-budget, higher-concept ‘Bad Blood’ is Taylor’s #squad in video form; it got Kendrick Lamar his first number one single in comically absurd fashion. It’s one thing to get all those people in the same room; it’s another entirely to phone in cameos from half of TIDAL’s Illuminati. It could’ve been her take on Beyoncé’s ‘7/11’ ; instead, it feels like “fun” in quotation marks. Pop’s built on that thin line between influence and straight-up appropriation, but all that matters is how effortlessly you pull it off. And Madonna, she of zero-percent body fat, never half-asses anything, right?

So what went wrong?

In 2015, there’s increasingly less separation between the mainstream and underground. Lorde went from ‘Royals’ to fronting Nirvana in under a year; pop is unquestionably art once again. It feels like the biggest moment for the counterculture since the sixties, but in fast-forward, with laptops instead of guitars. Madonna’s method was always to find new sounds and producers, and bring them above ground. 1998’s Ray of Light was the first real electronica record by an existing popstar, but what made it truly great was how she rebuilt herself around William Orbit’s production. But today’s bedroom producers are perfectly content to stay underground. Seapunk, witch house, trap rave, bubblegum bass – scenes are born and die faster than you can rope in a collaborator to work on a major label’s plodding release schedule. Madonna was making house music before Disclosure were even born, and they couldn’t even make time for her! And the obvious hitmakers – Diplo, Kanye, Avicii – seem to be saving their best tracks for themselves.

“Fuck ‘ageing gracefully’ – Madonna can age however she wants”

Madonna albums used to be totally distinct from each other. You could name them like Friends episodes – the ‘90s R&B one, the ‘70s disco one, the folktronica one. Her latest album, this year’s Rebel Heart, could be all of them at once. It’s bursting at the seams with collaborators, but it’s both too sprawling and too familiar. Don’t call it an identity crisis – it’s deliberately loose… and yet. On the eve of her first Australian tour in 23 years, her live show’s where she remains most herself. But with ticket prices ranging from $99 to $2000, she’s largely preaching to the converted. Madonna was the ultimate crossover artist; now, the most surprising move she could make would be to cross back out of her own fanbase.

Madonna’s never indulged nostalgia for her own work. That’s doubly admirable in 2015, now that the ‘80s revival’s lasted longer than the actual ‘80s. But its side effect is a fragmented legacy. Everyone agrees on Prince and Michael Jackson, even if no one really listens to their work past 1996. But there’s no such consensus on Madonna, a divisive figure even at the best of times. Maybe “pop” doesn’t do her justice.

Madonna released Ray of Light at 40, Confessions on a Dancefloor at 47. Those albums alone give the lie to the notion that pop’s a young woman’s game. Fuck “ageing gracefully”. Madonna can age however she wants, especially if the alternative means being put out to pasture in a Vegas residency. But what’s agelessness worth when the pop landscape shifts every day? She and Janet Jackson single-handedly created the modern popstar. Now everyone’s a provocateur, auteur, aspiring style icon. Madonna used to be a big fish in a small pond – now pop is an ocean. It’s like we’re living in all possible futures at once. Don’t ask if Madonna’s still got it. Bitch, we’re all Madonna.

Richard S. He is an award-winning writer at Junkee and The Essential. People still don’t take him seriously. Tweet your grievances to @Richaod.

Madonna 2016 Australia tour

Saturday March 12 – Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne

Sunday March 13 – Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne

Saturday, March 19 – Allphones Arena, Sydney

Sunday, March 20 – Allphones Arena, Sydney

Saturday, March 26 – Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Brisbane

Sunday, March 27 – Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Brisbane