In 2019, viewers are generally not strangers to violence and gore onscreen, but context has everything to do with how messaging should be interpreted. On Wednesday, Madonna released a new music video on the coattails of her most recent LP, Madame X, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the music video, which is called “God Control,” the artist sits in front of her typewriter as she recalls the details of a horrific shooting at a dance club packed with beautiful people. In the fictional world of the video, Madonna was present at the nightclub on the night of the massacre and survived the attack to translate her grief into art. The video never states this directly, but “God Control” is dominated by a clear reference to the Pulse nightclub shooting of over three years ago.
To give Madonna some credit, the YouTube notes for the video features a heartfelt message requesting that viewers wake up to the horrible gun violence around them and do something about it. However, her personal detachment from the Pulse shooting, which harmed so many people, is evident.
“I appreciate the message that Madonna is trying to convey,” Brandon Wolf, a Pulse shooting survivor, told TMZ. “I think it’s really necessary in art right now that we talk about issues that are affecting us, and we need to do it in a graphic way because that’s real life. What I don’t particularly appreciate, and the questions I have for Madonna center around the timing, center around her not involving the Pulse community at all in this conversation.”
Madonna is a pop star with a particularly strong hold on the American imagination, which she’s more or less maintained for decades. Once the target of hysterical, mid-20th century controversy when she was labeled a heretic (or a poison for the minds of young people), Madonna has evolved into a figure who’s more often labeled as simply problematic. It’s a completely fair analysis. For decades, Madonna has shown herself to be frequently politically and racially insensitive, and she’s been rightfully called out on her behavior accordingly.
Madonna’s most recent music video seems to be, at the very least, motivated by honorable intentions, but that’s just not going to cut it in a time as fractured as this one. If you’re going to reference something as awful as the Pulse massacre in a music video, you absolutely have to talk to people who witnessed it and ask what they think about that idea beforehand. That’s just basic empathy.