Past Madonna tours were controversial; recall how natural she seemed in her 1991 tour documentary Truth or Dare, still discovering her power to provoke. Back in the day, the attention felt somehow earned, if often strenuously so—the Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra said a mouthful, for instance; “Papa Don’t Preach” still carries a frisson; and the apostasy of the Catholic-baiting “Like a Prayer” made up for the relative thinness of the music. It was an equal exchange—she gave us something to talk about, we bought her albums and got up to dance (for inspiration), whenever she commanded.
By comparison, Madonna’s bids for controversy these days come off as desperate, the Newsweek cover stories of Top 40 radio.
Or was it always a little troll-y? It’s possible that no public act has ever been more calculated than Madonna’s repeated cursing on Letterman—rewatching the 1994 segment today, you can see there is no spontaneity whatsoever. Madonna dropped the f-bomb because she had determined it was time to prove that she could be naughtier than we even believed possible. Her Erotica album doesn’t really sound like the work of someone who’s actually ever had sex (much less cruised the Lower East Side in a limo, hunting for hookups, or partnered with Warren Beatty, Sean Penn, JFK Jr., et al.). The Vanity Fair spread with her newborn daughter invented the current tabloid vogue for baby photos, but the earth-mother shtick felt like as much of a pose as the Hindi-inflected look she threw on at awards ceremonies around the period, or the British accent she would soon pick up. In retrospect, the British accent was when the pose overwhelmed the artist. Until then, it was easy enough to go along with Madonna’s act. Certainly it was more interesting on a semiotic level than just marveling, yet again, at the dully marvelous vocal power of contemporaries like Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton.
And yet Madonna seemed to grow rageful at the limits of the concord she’d struck with her audience. Her mid-career albums Ray of Light (1998) and Music (2000) got the first legitimately respectful reviews of her oeuvre—and the first Grammy wins aside from a 1992 music-video prize. Having proven herself as an artist and not merely a provocateur, Madonna released, in 2003, a musically interesting, politically moronic album called American Life. A video depicted her tossing a bomb at George W. Bush. This was the album on which she rapped about how dissatisfied she was with her household staff and her “soy latte” with a “double shot-té.” Rightly or wrongly, her discovery of Jewish mysticism—remember “Esther”?—came off as yet another pose, if an expensive one.
Her 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor marked a retrenchment; the music was well-regarded precisely because it so closely mimed the spirit of the disco tunes that had initially made Madonna famous (with a bit of international house music mixed in). On tour in support of the album, Madonna ascended a glittering disco cross and wore a crown of thorns, to which the world replied with a mass eye-roll. What, precisely, was she even trying to say about the Catholic Church, 15 years after Like a Prayer? What was there left to communicate? The confessions weren’t forthcoming on Dance Floor, an album about having fun and waiting for boys to call and vaguely pushing oneself toward some undefined goal. (It’s worth noting that Confessions on a Dance Floor sold well, and that Madonna will always be able to count on an avid, if graying, fan base—in particular among gay men between 25 and 55 who grew up with her act.)
After a warmed-over hip-hop-ish album in 2008 came this year’s MDNA—a not-so-clever mash-up of her own name and the active ingredient in Ecstasy. One song features a rap bashing ex-husband Guy Ritchie; another bashes “some girls” who don’t have Madonna’s particular je ne sais quoi. There’s “Masterpiece,” a weak ballad from the Wallis Simpson bio-pic she directed. There’s a tune called “Gang Bang,” and a remix of the leadoff single “Give Me All Your Luvin’” produced by LMFAO. None of this has aged well, and the album came out in the spring.