Wednesday night, to the surprise of no one, Madonna popped out of the audience to perform with Miley Cyrus at her MTV Unplugged concert.
It surprised no one, not because it was spoiled earlier in the week, but because Madonna has made it a habit of late to shoehorn herself into the pop culture conversation, no matter how awkward the fit is.
I couldn’t help thinking during Madonna and Miley’s grind-a-thon, “wow, Madonna did this so much better with Britney ten years ago.”
Back then, at the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards, it was Madonna who was making the headlines. Yes, Britney (Christina was there too, for people who remember more than the kiss) was the pop girl of the moment, but she still was still playing against Madonna. It was Madonna’s performance, and Madonna’s world, and we all just happened to live and ogle in it.
Now, Madonna is popping up everywhere, dressed as an angelic pimp at the Grammys, “twerking” with Miley, describing her white son as the n-word on Instagram. In all of these instances, I found myself saying either one or both of these things: “why is Madonna here?” or “she did this much better x number of years ago?” In the space of pop culture, she’s become equivalent to that awkward guest at a party who you politely revere but then make a quick dash away from to the other side of the room. But imagine that guest in a cone bra.
Irrelevant; it’s a weird status to attribute to Madonna. She’s been the main topic of discussion, colored with everything from acclaim to ridicule, since she arrived on the scene in 1983. Everything she’s done in her career has demanded our attention and we freely gave it. We gave it because she was always reinventing herself, bringing something different and unexpected to the table. Honestly, no other person besides Michael Jackson has profoundly impacted and influenced popular culture like Madonna. Maybe she’s also taken stock of her thirty-year reign as the primary tastemaker, because she’s clinging to it with a death grip. This latest flurry of appearances and controversy is disconcerting for a couple of reasons.
For one, you would think Madonna would know better. In the case of Instagram, it boggles the mind that Madonna, of all people, the undisputed queen of controversy, would even open herself to such criticism, especially something as ugly as racism. I don’t believe that Madonna is a racist, but I have to question her intelligence in this instance. Madonna has never concerned herself with good taste, but this steps over the mark. Throw in the fact that she is raising a black child in a such a racially charged climate, and you have an ugly quagmire. It makes you long for the days when she was corrupting America’s youth with the Sex book (and that almost destroyed her career).
There is also the sense of deja vu. Of course, Madonna has done so much, it’s only natural that there would be some familiar elements in her presentation. However, there is the added thought that she’s not doing it as well. Like her grinding on 21-year old Miley Cyrus. When she kissed Britney, it was exciting (and the age gap wasn’t anywhere near as revolting). The performance with Miley was just gross and cringe-worthy, without considering Madonna could literally be her mother. Not even those claiming they weren’t trying to be sexy can’t argue that Madonna hasn’t done that better before either. Once again, the Erotica era comes to mind (p.s. if you haven’t heard that album, it is worthy of a Spotify streaming; I’ll just leave this link here)
And then there is that nagging, unfortunate question: why is she there? The Macklemore performance at the Grammys last Sunday has prompted many responses, but mostly everyone agrees that Madonna’a appearance was a nonsensical lowlight. Seriously, what about the song or the performance’s concept required or asked for her appearance? If you offer the obvious answer, her huge gay following, then you risk exposing Macklemore’s performance as an insincere publicity stunt. So, I ask again, why was she there? There really is no good, artistically viable reasoning, is there?
Madonna’s “there she is again” appearances of late are unfortunate because it’s bringing attention to how far down she has slipped from the top of the totem pole, a downward slide that arguably began with her 2012 album MDNA. It would be something different if Madonna, approaching the age of 60, was passing the mantle to younger artists like Miley, but instead, she’s gracelessly forcing herself into the class photo. She’s known for her blonde ambition, but this is just getting sad.
Madonna has been many things in her thirty year career, but she’s never been desperate. And that is what the last few weeks reek of.