Did Madonna Make Scandals Or Did Scandals Make Madonna?

Elena Nicolaou

It’s almost ironic that Madonna, who turns 60 on 16th August, has come to be associated with the word scandal. Scandal befalls a person who is not careful — the result of a stray camera drawing unwanted attention, a clumsy lie. Scandal ends in a damaged reputation or a cringe-worthy media apology tour, which gradually eclipses why a person was ever renowned to begin with.

Sure, Madonna’s spectacles in the ‘80s and ‘90s attracted the same media flurry that a quintessential scandal might. The Pope denounced her, the Toronto police threatened to arrest her for pretending to masturbate during a concert, and long before the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial disaster, Madonna was involved in her own Pepsi ad campaign-related brouhaha. But if an attention-grabbing event is deliberately constructed, if it’s on purpose, can it really be a scandal? If you look past the controversial religious imagery, the writhing on the VMAs floor, the Sex coffee table book, there it is — tinny, hard, undeniable and admirable ambition.

After all, Madonna didn’t go from a child of eight in a working class Detroit family to one of the most famous, lasting, and influential pop stars in the world by responding to a Craigslist ad. Her success is the result of one long, determined calculation — not necessarily just the manifestation of talent. In the documentary Naked Ambition, Pearl Lang, Madonna’s dance professor at the University of Michigan, attests that if Madonna hadn’t become a pop star, she would’ve become a professional dancer. But what set Madonna apart was not her capacity for dance or her ability to belt a song. It was her knack for creating memorable moments — and she was well aware of this. “I know I’m not the best singer, and I know I’m not the best dancer,” Madonna said in her 1992 tour documentary Truth or Dare. “But I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative. In being political.” Her fame was cobbled together through explosive moments.

Looking back, many of the “scandals” that made Madonna famous now seem almost tame. Yet by pushing cultural boundaries — actually, by knocking them over entirely — Madonna made space for us to catch up and join her in the new normal. In recent years, though, Madonna has lost careful control over her PR machine. She doesn’t get headlines because of intentional stunts, but rather for texting during Hamilton, or off-colour remarks.

Through looking at her most famous “scandals,” we peer closely into the fame machine that created Madonna, the machine that Madonna created — and the machine over which she’s gradually lost control.

2013 & 2015: Madonna is banned from movie and Broadway theaters.

The Scandal: Madonna was called out twice for using her cell phone in the only truly remaining cell phone sanctuary: The theater. She allegedly texted on her Blackberry for the duration of a 2013 screening of 12 Years a Slave, resulting in her being banned from the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain. Then, after she texted from the front row of a performance of Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda personally banned Madonna from all future performances. “That bitch was on her phone. You couldn’t miss it from the stage. It was a black void of the audience in front of us and her face there perfectly lit by the light of her iPhone through three-quarters of the show,” Jonathan Groff, who played King George in the original run, told Vulture.

Madonna’s Response: Here’s the thing! Madonna used to be very good at being her own PR person. And then the 21st century came. Madonna did not handle these situations so well. The 12 Years a Slave incident was especially egregious. After a theatergoer called Madonna out, she screamed, “It’s for business, enslaver!” We need no reminder that 12 Years a Slave depicts the true story of a freed Black man kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Did Madonna make the scandal or the did the scandal make Madonna? Madonna made the scandal, accidentally. These didn’t add to her legacy.

2014 & on: Madonna does weird things on Instagram.

The Scandal: Madonna is clearly in charge of Madonna’s Instagram. In recent years, the bubbling source of her scandals has transferred from music videos to home-grown, off-the-cusp Instagram photos and shocking captions. Example: In 2014, she posted a photo of her son, Rocco, boxing, and referred to him as the n-word. She quickly deleted the post. Then, in 2015, her Instagram hosted other posts that showed Madonna’s racial insensitivities. For her Rebel Heart promo, Madonna posted photos Civil Rights Leaders in ropes, equating her work with theirs.

Madonna’s Response: Not so good, guys, not so good. Madonna's responses show a lack of understanding. "I am sorry if I offended anyone with my use of the N word on Instagram," she about the caption of Rocco's photo. "It was not meant as a racial slur.. I am not a racist. There's no way to defend the use of the word. It was all about intention.. It was used as a term of endearment toward my son who is white. I appreciate that it's a provocative word and I apologise if it gave people the wrong impression. Forgive me." Madonna addressed the photoshopped photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela on her Facebook page, saying, "I'm sorry. I'm not comparing my self to anyone. I'm admiring and acknowledging there Rebel Hearts [sic].'"

Did Madonna make the scandal or the did the scandal make Madonna? Madonna made the scandal, and the outcry was understandable. Whereas in the ‘80s and ‘90s society was prudish, now, Madonna comes off as insensitive. Fans were quick to criticise her Rebel Heart merchandise. She responded with another post that said, “Dear Haters, I have so much more for you to be MAD at … Be patient!.” Were they haters, though, or just people who caught up to 2015?

2018: Madonna declares herself the master; people are dubious.

The Scandal: In the video for the Carters’ 2018 song “Apeshit,” Jay-Z and Beyoncé insert themselves into the canon. They walk among the Louvre’s pieces of eons of Eurocentric art and assert their dominance. And in the face of that powerful statement, Madge made an ill-conceived joke. On Instagram, he posted a photoshopped version of the moment when Jay-Z and Beyoncé are staring up at paintings — only here, the paintings are replaced with her album covers. She wrote the caption, “Learning from the Master..............lol. #art #equals #freedom.” Beyonce’s fans responded with vehemence.

Madonna’s Response: She changed the caption, but kept the post.

Did Madonna make the scandal or the did the scandal make Madonna? The era of Madonna’s dominance over pop culture is over. She’s not as good at Instagram as she was with creating smashing moments in the ‘80s. 2018 is a different landscape than 1984. Madonna’s scandals were once highly calculated PR moves. Now, her scandals are closer to the actual definition of the word. Events one slowly backs away from, which will eventually fade away.

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