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

Simpler times: Madonna in 1984.

Even as Madonna brings her world tour to Yankee Stadium for shows on September 6 and 8, longtime fans will have a sneaking suspicion that she’s already sung her swan song.

It happened in 2001, at the opening of the Grammy Awards. Performing a recent single, the unimaginatively named “Music,” the long-reigning Queen of Pop writhed on top of a car while a screen behind her projected legitimately iconic images from her career thus far—more writhing, in a wedding gown at the Video Music Awards; aping Marilyn in the “Material Girl” video; that whole Sex period. By the time she stripped off her black leather jacket to reveal a T-shirt printed with “Material Girl,” the game was up. It was the end of history for Madonna. Having stolen from New York’s drag queens, the nation of Argentina, Björk and the infinitely patient Camille Paglia, there was no one left to rob but herself. The snake had found its own tail and wasn’t letting go. “Music” was her last number-one single in America.

The subsequent 11 years have been no kinder to a pop singer who made untold profits by scandalizing the entire population all at once. In 2003, for instance, Madonna restaged the notorious VMAs “Like a Virgin” performance in which she’d mimed masturbation; it was such a sensational act back in 1984 that a worthy callback required the additional services of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, both of whom planted kisses on Mama. The stunt got ink, but felt a little derivative, unworthy.

We haven’t even gotten to the Super Bowl performance, this year, during which the chanteuse came out in a gilded barge, like Cleopatra, to intone “Vogue,” then almost fell off a set of bleachers while performing, once again, “Music.” Madonna duetted with of-the-moment hip-hop act LMFAO, gave airtime to Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. (who stole the show with a raised middle finger—proving she had learned from the best), and ceded the entire finale to reality-show judge Cee Lo Green, who belted out “Like a Prayer” while the ostensible star sang backup. Nothing here was new—not the reliance on the energy of younger pop stars (Madonna has, in the past 10 years, collaborated with everyone from Missy Elliott to Justin Timberlake and Kanye West), not the ostensibly new song she debuted (a retread of flimsy early material like “Burning Up”), and not the dopey “political” edge (her song ended with a plea for #Worldpeace).

Madonna’s ongoing world tour, following the halftime show that most of us were inclined to view charitably, has been marred by endless grabs for attention; the well-chronicled political mishmash has featured the comparison of a French politician to Hitler, the onstage brandishing of pistols, a merited-or-not mockery of Lady Gaga, and Madonna’s own fans booing her. And then there was Elton John, who declared, “Her career is over, I can tell you that” and compared her to “a fairground stripper.”

Which isn’t to say that Mr. John is the most relevant pop star of the moment, either, but he has a point.

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