Madonna’s Last Days of Disco: Has the Material Girl Finally Run Out of Material?

Given Madonna’s undisciplined message, her buckshot approach to baiting controversy—if you throw every signifier out into the world, one is bound to hit—it’s perhaps no surprise that her lunch has been eaten by a crop of pop stars who absorbed her best moves and subtracted the air of breathless doggedness. Katy Perry has nailed the faux-naïf “Why are you paying attention to me?” quality. Rihanna captures the air of the profane. Nicki Minaj does the whole rapid-cycling-through-personae thing, albeit in fast-motion. And Lady Gaga, whose own popularity waxes and wanes in a Madonnavian manner, has adopted the sense of unashamed artifice, mixing in a bit more humor and perhaps a bit more heart, daring us, as Madonna once did, not to talk about her.

While Madonna performs old material and prematurely stale material and waves guns and twirls batons and invokes Godwin’s Law at Yankee Stadium, the world’s top pop acts will be in Los Angeles, at the MTV Video Music Awards. While the deal-makers who paid Madonna a reported $120 million over 10 years can count on strong attendance this one last go-round—she’s still Madonna, after all—the Madge business isn’t a growth industry. The last time Madonna performed at the VMAs was to reprise her past material and kiss Britney.

It turns out that Madonna’s 1987 album Who’s That Girl is the most appropriately titled of her career (certainly more so than Music). Some 30 years on, we’re no closer to finding out what makes this girl tick, what interests her beyond the glitter and flash of a camera. At this point, it may be time for her to take her own advice from one of her number-one singles, “Take a Bow.” “The show is over,” Madonna sang, back when the future seemed bright, or at least more full of possibility. “Say goodbye.”