When I first started writing about Madonna, over a decade ago, she was the undisputed queen of popular postfeminism. Thanks to cultural studies classics like The Madonna Connection (1992), she was the subject of extensive academic analysis and feminist debate.
Was Madonna a transgressive, feminist, anti-establishment rebel, critics asked, or a symbol of the post-industrial capitalist system?
For her part, Madonna seemed to prefer to present herself as an ambitious rebel. As she famously declared, way back in the 80s:
I’m tough, ambitious and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, okay!
The young and sexy, defiant but desirable Madonna of the 1980s was always going to attract attention and adoration. Today, however, in her late 50s and on her most recent (and perhaps final) world tour, Madonna has been going through some trying times.
Is Madonna having her “old Elvis” moment?
Madonna is now 57. Elton John, himself 68, has famously called her a fairground stripper whose career is “over”. And YouTube is awash with amateur parodies of the video for her latest hit Bitch, I’m Madonna, featuring guest vocals from Nicki Minaj and a host of celebrity cameos. Most poke fun at her for having the audacity to surround herself with much younger pop stars to appear hip.
Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour, which ended this week, sparked a flurry of stories about her so-called meltdown. Both local and international press suggested that Madonna was making a sad spectacle of herself by running late and rambling between songs.
Part of what her fans love about Madonna is the image she has presented over the decades as the ultimate pop power-woman: always in control, always professional.
Yet on this tour, for a titillating moment, it seemed Madonna was finally about to have an “old Elvis” moment. The media hype led us to believe we would see Madonna transform into her very antithesis, as a drunk or drugged, burnt out icon – a sad parody of the former self – like Elvis Presley near his end.
I didn’t see a “train wreck” on Madonna’s latest tour, only the same professional performer who never puts a foot wrong. The Madonna machine was not about to be derailed by the tragic but mundane matters that everyday women face (divorce, relationship breakdowns, custody battles); she had a show to put on (albeit a little late).
Madonna may have been going through hard times but she was never going to stage a truly shocking, novel and transgressive performance in the manner of say, punk goddess Courtney Love. Love was also often dismissed as a train wreck, but in her Brisbane performances back in the 1990s, she gleefully threw it all back in the face of audiences and the media.
You never knew when Love was going to give her guitar away to a girl in the audience, tear off her own top or hurl herself spontaneously into a dangerous writhing, mosh pit. But unlike Madonna, Love was not a middle class girl from the mid-west raised on a furious work ethic.
Is Madonna really a Rebel at Heart?
She was right, of course, about the old sexist double standard on gender and ageing. Perhaps we’ll only have a genuine postfeminist popular culture when aging female pop stars are allowed to look like Keith Richards.
The trouble with Madonna calling out “sexist reporting” and misogyny though, is that she has always had a troubled relationship with feminism.
Some critics, academics and second wave feminists suggest she is not really much of a rebel at all, but rather a corporate sell-out who made her millions by sexually objectifying women, mostly herself.
Madonna may have imagined her hypersexual objectification in her soft-porn Sex years as a kind of political rebellion against the father figure of conservative patriarchy. She has also depicted herself as a rebel against the male dominated Catholic Church.
In the 1990s, third wave or postmodern feminism even celebrated Madonna as a kind of rebel against gender itself, blurring the boundaries of masculinity and femininity in her Girlie Tour years.
The trouble is, corporate capitalism was only too happy to absorb Madonna’s performance of hypersexuality, bisexuality and notoriety.
Today, thanks in part to Madonna, female popstars are almost always expected to present themselves as sex objects and liberal feminist icons at the same time.
Capitalism was also happy to profit from the reality TV-style self-disclosure and exposure that Madonna pioneered in her In Bed with Madonna film made back in 1991. In today’s all access selfie culture, narcissistic image-making is big business.
Madonna pioneered a lot of cultural trends that didn’t do average working women a lot of favours. Turns out, there is nothing neoliberal, post-industrial capitalism loves more than a perfectionist workaholic, especially one that takes such meticulous care of her body and business.
She has spawned a whole new generation of Madonnaesque corporate feminists in all areas of postmodern life. She has always been the ultimate mobile metaphor, picking up and reflecting back multiple cultural meanings in her music videos, lyrics and media representations.
Uniting all her various reinventions however, is the self-concept she seems to hold most dear, Madonna as a “Rebel Heart”. Ironically however, there is not much that is truly anti-establishment about Madonna today, indeed if there ever was.
Madonna: Vampire or Zombie
Many of the Indie or independent alternative rock music stars that supplanted Madonna briefly in the 1990s defined themselves in opposition to her. Courtney Love, for example, once dubbed Madonna a vampire who wanted to appropriate, or suck the ideas out of, younger more innovative performers to keep herself young and relevant.
Even today those who love to hate Madonna, seem to imagine her as some kind of supernatural “freak” – a corporate zombie, who never ages and refuses to die.
Mainstream culture generally wants ageing sex symbols to either die or disappear, and so Madonna faces her most difficult challenge yet.
The new and ultimate test of her legendary power, determination and “transgressive” potential will be to prove to a sexist culture that women can still be sexy, relevant, controversial and cool into their sixties and beyond.
There’s not much about Madonna that’s still radical or rebellious today. But if she does manage to push back the boundaries of gender and age, that will be a real victory over patriarchy.
Bitch, I’m (still) Madonna
Will Madonna once again rise triumphant, relentlessly marching on, absorbing criticism like fuel, as she has in decades past?
She is still the best-selling and most influential female artist of all time, imitated by millions. No journalist, academic or cultural commentator pecking away at their keyboard or smartphone can take that away from her.
Naturally, she has plenty to say about all this on the Rebel Heart album. “Who do you think you are?” she challenges us. “Bitch, I’m Madonna!”
Susan Hopkins does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.