Madonna never stopped provoking, surprising, aggravating and upsetting as many people as she could and in full view of as many people as possible.
One way to decide whether someone hastens a cultural shift rather than just provides great art and entertainment is to try to recall what life was like before them. Can you remember a world in which celebrities kept their private lives to themselves and audiences respected their privacy? Or stars avoided scandals that could derail their careers? And sex? Can you recollect any entertainer ever refusing to write, talk or sing about it, for fear of upsetting not just audiences, but sponsors and TV companies?
On August 16, Madonna (neé Madonna Louise Ciccone) will reach her 60th year. For 35 of them, she has been challenging us to ignore her. We’ve never been able to. She’s asked for and received the attention of the world and taken the opportunity to elbow, nudge and shove audiences into places they found uncomfortable — for a while. Madonna stands with Germaine Greer, Rosa Parks, Oprah Winfrey, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Mother Theresa, the Pankhursts and even the Kardashians as one of the most influential women of the past 100 years because we can feel the effect of the changes she triggered in our everyday life.
Around the time of the release of her album Like a Prayer in 1989, Madonna, then 31, seems to have had one of those “Eureka!” moments. “I have seen the future,” she might have whispered to herself. “Audiences will demand more from stars and receive more; and those who are prepared to give them what they want — or even more — will prevail.”
The world didn’t so much demand details of Madonna’s private life — it was inescapably surrounded by a life, which might have been “private” in one sense, but was opened up for full public inspection. Before Madonna, stars had tried to section off parts of their lives, presenting only a Hollywoodized persona to the public. After, they either gave up trying, or gave up trying to be a star.
The organizing themes of Madonna’s career were finely judged scandal, continuous media exposure, a cycle of dramatic makeovers and sex. Its momentum was such that it carried her through over three decades as a leading show business performer. She sold more records than any other female in history (300 million and counting, and she’s currently working on her 14th studio album) and amassed personal wealth of $560 million, according to Forbes. Even in her fifties, she sold out world tours and still managed to stir controversy. Madonna earned paeans, prizes and plaudits and drew censure, condemnation and jeers.
Her first album, Madonna, released in 1983, sprung three successful singles, all of them heavily featured on MTV, then in its ascendancy. The music channel could legitimately be credited with making many artists (Duran Duran included) and stymieing the progress of others. Numerous African-American artists had their videos turned down by MTV, and it took pressure from CBS to ensure a place for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on the playlist in 1983. Madonna, however, was perfectly congruent with MTV’s preferred profile: white, twenty-something, tons of junk jewelry and a wardrobe that might have been put together from a flea market. Anyone could look like Madonna; millions actually did.
Then the “Material Girl” assumed a new image: a bottle-blonde Marilyn Monroe manqué dripping with diamonds for her “Like a Virgin” video, Madonna kept changing, keeping her fans guessing as to what she looked like. Two movies, an appearance in a Broadway play, a tempestuous marriage to Sean Penn, publication of nude photo spreads (against her wishes; the shots were taken in the late 1970s) and multi-million record sales turned Madonna into a major performer. She could have opted to stick with the formula: more albums, more chameleon-like changes of image and occasional ventures into drama, in which case she would have been remembered in the same way as her contemporaries like Gloria Estefan or Pat Benatar.
In the golden age of Hollywood, adultery, under-age sex, abortion, alcoholism, venereal disease and suicide were rife. But journalists in the main refrained from gossiping about the hedonistic excesses of the stars — controversy and scandal were unwelcome detours on the professional highway. Often they were roads to oblivion. The media respected this and limited their criticisms to on-screen performances. In 1989, Madonna deviated with what might have been suicidal recklessness. She all but dared the media not to get involved as she jumped repeatedly from the frying pan into the fire, then back into the frying pan. When she heard people cry “excessive,” “tasteless” “offensive” and “vulgar,” she knew she was onto something.
But, eventually, there were signs of, for want of a better word, ordinariness. Madonna’s appearance in a 2003 TV commercial for Gap may not have surprised many, but those who had followed her career over the long term would have divined a symbolic meaning. This was a fashionista of the first order swapping her Gaultier bras and Versace gowns for sensible T-shirts and khakis from one of the world’s most generic brands.
Over the next decade, Madonna morphed from grande amoureuse to grande dame. She wrote and directed her own movie W.E. in 2011 (presumably emboldened by winning a Golden Globe award for Evita in 1996). She converted to the Judaic sect known as the Kabbala (changing her name to Esther in the process), wrote children’s books, had children, married British film director Guy Ritchie and moved to London. “I have earned a reputation for being many things,” Madonna reflected in 2008 in an interview for Dazed & Confused. “For being a provocateur, for never taking no for an answer, for endlessly reinventing myself, for being a cult member, a kidnapper, for being ambitious, outrageous, irreverent, and for never settling for second best.”
— Madonna (@Madonna) August 13, 2018
She luxuriated in the notoriety, making her decision to sue the British newspaper Mail on Sunday in 2009 seem paradoxical. Madonna claimed successfully that the publication had breached her privacy and copyright by publishing photos of her 2000 wedding to Ritchie. Breaching Madonna’s privacy must have been close to a contradiction in terms. She later divorced him, agreeing to a £76-million ($93m) settlement, of which Ritchie took just £10 million.
In 2012, Madonna, then 53, but still la maîtresse des surprises, exposed her breast during a concert in Istanbul, with 55,000 watching. It came nine years after she had kissed Britney Spears in full view of a concert audience. Her capacity to upstage practically anyone seemed undiminished. When interviewed by Cynthia McFadden, of ABC News, she proudly stated: “I’ve spent my life pushing the envelope. I’m not gonna stop just because I’ve got children.” But the transition was complete and the breast flash was a tiny reminder of Madonna’s once mighty potential to shock rather than a return to old values.
It doesn’t lessen the overall impact she made on culture. Commemorating two decades of her influence, Harper’s Bazaar in September 2003 held that “the ultimate pop-culture icon(‘s) … influence is endless.” Even allowing for exaggeration, the point is that Madonna changed “how the game works,” as Gwen Stefani put it to Nick Duerdan of The Independent — the principles that bind the actions of parties involved either cooperatively or competitively with the media. Madonna never stopped provoking, surprising, aggravating and upsetting as many people as she could and in full view of as many people as possible.
The quid pro quo was simple: Madonna disclosed her body, her sexuality, her fantasies more than any other entertainer in history and, in return, got more saturation media coverage than anyone, present or past (Kim Kardashian is catching up, mind). She was operating in an age of global media when entertainment was becoming television’s hard currency and when having a video vetoed by the likes of MTV made international news.
Compellingly newsworthy in everything she did or said, Madonna was ubiquitous for at least the first half of the 1990s. Thereafter, her presence might have faded, but her influence remained. After her, no one could aspire to becoming a celebrity if they wanted anything resembling a private life. And scandal, far from being the death knell of yore, became a valuable resource. Just ask Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian about sex tapes.
Writing for Rolling Stone in 2004, Britney Spears offered the view that “Madonna was the first female pop star to take control of every aspect of her career and to take responsibility for creating her image, no matter how much flak she might get.” It’s a common observation, though one that misses the more important point that, in taking control of her own career, she needed the assistance of a media that had, by the end of the 1980s, become potent makers and breakers of careers. Hers could have finished prematurely in a comic shambles if her 1986 tale of a teen pregnancy “Papa Don’t Preach” had been dismissed as a contrived attempt to inflame conservative moralists and prompt further outrage. Instead it was hailed by the media as a daring and inventive attempt to break away from the insubstantialities of pop music.
She did risk the flak, as Spears points out, but as with all Madonna’s gambles, it was a carefully calculated one. Emboldened by her success, she deepened her liaisons with the media until confident she had won them over. She provided great copy; they provided great coverage. The rules changed.
From the vantage point of the 21st century, Madonna is a middle-aged diva who reigned long and made good music. Some might suspect that I exaggerate the extent of her influence. I’m not arguing that she singlehandedly introduced celebrity culture. But she, more than anyone else, effected a change in style and the manner in which stars engaged with the media. And, in this sense, she both epitomized and helped usher in an age in which the epithets “shocking,” “disgusting” or “filthy” didn’t presage the end of a career. On the contrary, when treated appropriately by the media, they occasion the popping of champagne corks in celebration.
Our culture today is characterized by a prying, ravenous media hungry for every morsel, a digital network with little else to fill its channels apart from entertainment and a class of figures of world renown who have been changed as if by sorcery into what we now call icons. Audiences are not content to watch: They insist on engaging with their favored celebs — today through social media. Whether you blame or credit her, Madonna has been instrumental in landscaping this.
*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption and Celebrity Culture.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.