At this stage in her career, it seems needless to distinguish between Madonna's musical output and her stunts. Both are products of a savant-like aptitude in attention-grabbing. Both have defined her image. Both have worked in tandem from the earliest days of her superstardom. "Like a Virgin" was a great slice of post-disco dance pop, but it was also the background music to her feral roll around the stage of the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards. "Justify My Love" is a truly bizarre pop song from Venus that was brought down to earth when its video was banned by MTV. The list goes on. She is the queen of shocking moments.
So the fact that her seemingly not-quite-consensual kiss with Drake Sunday night at Coachella has spurred a bigger media flurry than her most recent album, Rebel Heart, came as no surprise to me. Madonna is an expert stuntress, and we are all at her mercy, love her or hate her.
Even Madonna herself has pointed out the folly in making the distinction between her art and her public behavior:
Social media has fostered an economy of attention that makes approval more instantaneous and tangible than ever. Madonna seems aware of this situation, which her career probabably helped facilitate. And so she participates. At this point, Madonna has more money than she and her children ever could spend. All she has to lose is her command on the public's attention span, and she has yet to do so. She's been especially ubiquitous for the past two months, saying shit that gets attention for getting attention. Her recent album, Rebel Heart, has been more useful as an excuse for Madonna to show up and say outlandish things than as a showcase of her musical creativity. People still listen to her talking. Her singing? Not so much. Rebel Heart is at No. 57 its fourth week on the Billboard 200 album chart.
The album is as invested in new-to-borderline-passé trends in dance music as Madonna's music has consistently been. That's not a problem, per se, as it seems like the most reasonable path for her to take if she is going to continue releasing new albums (she is going to continue releasing new albums). What else is she going to do? Grow up and behave? Enter the Great American Songbook phase of her career and start singing standards? Her voice can't support that, and no one would buy that either.
Remaining relevant is an open concern of Madonna's, and by that token, the Rebel Heart press tour has been a resounding success. "So if I have to be the person who opens the door for women to believe and understand and embrace the idea that they can be sexual and look good and be as relevant in their fifties or their sixties as they were in their twenties, then so be it," she told Rolling Stone in a recent cover story.
As an object in itself, the Drake kiss barely registers half-mast on the boner scale of Madonna's trademark salaciousness—it's too reminiscent of the Britney VMAs kiss from 2003 and it's missing the same-sex taboo. But I suspect the lip-lock with Drake was directly inspired by the one with Britney, and as such reads as an expression of power. Madonna knows that when she kisses people onstage, people care, and oh my god they care so much. Only a handful of people in the world will ever know what it's like to own a pair of lips whose mere use can create a scandal.
Onstage at Coachella, Madonna reveled in her fame, while ensuring its maintenance. She celebrated herself and her condition simultaneously. Perhaps the only celebrity who does this as consistently and entertainingly is Kanye West, who is still at the point in his career where he can release hit songs, but has nonetheless amassed a slew of non-musical hits through the years (his New York Times interview promoting Yeezus characterized that era and got as much traction as the album itself). Rolling Stone asked Madonna if she saw any similarities between her and West and she said, "Not really," only to retract that a few weeks later and call Kanye "the black Madonna" in a New York Daily News interview. (Maybe "heir apparent" would have sufficed.)
Madonna vacillates between performing bald-faced stunts and decrying bald-faced stunting. It's as though she knows her behavior is sometimes cheap, but she just can't help herself. She claimed to Rolling Stone that Rebel Heart contains "envelope-pushing, mischief-making, provocative music," but on that album's title track is this curious verse:
I've spent some time as a narcissist
Hearing the other say: "Look at you, look at you,
Trying to be so provocative"
I said: "Oh yeah, that was me.
All the things I did just to be seen."
Outgrown my past and I've shed my skin
Letting it go and I'll start again, start again
Never look back, it's a waste of time
I said: "Oh yeah, this is me
And I'm right here where I wanna be."
But it's clear that Madonna has learned little on this front—or maybe it's just that her education is coming from the school of public attention. Look at all the things she's done to be seen in just the past two months! She's suggested a lot of skull-bashingly stupid things this era, like that her career is comparable to that of Martin Luther King, Jr., or that she's the only one who hears shitty, bigoted things in Instagram comments. (To Rolling Stone: "No one would dare to say a degrading remark on Instagram about someone being black or gay, but my age? Anybody and everybody would say something degrading to me.") Madonna has bragged about not reading newspapers—it's doubtful that she is stepping outside her own existence to understand others' social media struggles. What can we take this for other than pseudo-intellectual provocation that's said for the sake of being repeated?
And there go I, falling into her open trap like I always have. It's been fun. Madonna isn't always right, her music isn't always good, but I can't take my eyes off her and the public can't either, even if its collective ears are now elsewhere. Madonna's provocation is often empty and self-serving, yes, but clouds rain and wind blows and time goes by so slowly. These forces may have no profound meaning beyond the self-evident but they're not going anywhere any time soon. Neither is Madonna.
[Image via Getty]