Madonna performs during her concert in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photo: Alexander Demianchuk, AP)
Can Madonna still command pop culture?
As the Michigan native
winds into the final stretch of her world tour this week in Detroit, the
question has begun to linger. The occasional whispers have turned into
regular chatter: Are we starting to see cracks in Madonna's power, her
judgment, her -- GASP! -- relevance?
That charge isn't new. When
you spend decades on the pop-music throne, queen of the style-setters,
you get used to the haters around the corner and the target on your
back. Longtime fans will note that critics have been cranking out
boneheaded Madonna-is-finished stories since her second album.
2012 does seem to be the year the doubts -- coupled with a series of
odd stumbles by Madonna herself -- have converged into a new sort of
cloud. And if it's not quite overshadowing her public persona, it's
certainly been lurking nearby.
On this there is no doubt: When it comes to moving albums and concert tickets, Madonna is no spent force. MDNA,
released in March, was her fifth consecutive U.S. chart-topper, selling
nearly 360,000 copies for her best opening week in 12 years.
followed a much-hyped Super Bowl performance in February watched by 116
million Americans, according to Nielsen -- more viewers than the game
When the media began buzzing in the spring that her
upcoming MDNA Tour was underperforming at the box office, a LiveNation
bigwig hit Billboard with a litany of supersized stats to refute the
claim. Strong ticket sales -- now 1.9 million worldwide, the company
said Friday -- have put MDNA on track to join Madonna's 2008 tour among
history's top 10.
Most shows on the tour have sold out, with average attendance of 33,200, according to Pollstar.
reports from the road have been solid: At 54, reviewers say, Madonna is
in stunningly good shape, limber and lithe as she delivers a two-hour
performance with sizzle and poise. She's loyal to her latest music,
loading up the set with "MDNA" songs and avoiding a routine
Still, it's been hard to miss the discontent.
The MDNA Tour has been accompanied by a steady drumbeat of negative
reports -- and not the standard schoolmarm scolding that has always come
Madonna's way. This time she's felt the wrath of diehard backers.
Some had already been disappointed by the new album, particularly the fluffy leadoff single Give Me All Your Luvin'.
Now they were getting vocal. At an exclusive Paris theater show in
July, Madonna angered French fan-club members -- some who had waited 30
hours -- when she ducked out after a quick 49-minute set. One French
paper summed up fan sentiment: "An Evening in Hell," read the Le Figaro
Some in France already had a beef with Madonna, who had
plastered a swastika onto a photo of right-wing politician Marine Le Pen
during a Paris stadium show.
That move drew charges of clunkiness
from one of Madonna's biggest champions: culture scholar Camille
Paglia, who two decades earlier helped elevate Madonna's name in
"Why impose ideology in an artistic setting?
I think it's gimmicky," Paglia told Joy Behar in October. "I wish
Madonna could age as gracefully as Marlene (Dietrich) did. ... There was
a dignity to the aging Dietrich that Madonna unfortunately lacks."
once celebrated by Paglia as a paragon of female empowerment and
cultural savvy, had now "lost the instinct for performance," Paglia
said. "I think she's straining for effect."
Days later came
reports from Madonna's concert in New Orleans, where she endured boos
and walkouts after urging fans to vote for President Barack Obama on
Election Day. She'd already had to clarify a September comment
describing him as "a black Muslim," which she defended as irony.
join backlash. That Madonna has endured this long is a feat in itself.
In modern pop culture, it's rare for anyone to enjoy three decades of
staying power, let alone well into middle age. Just being part of the
2012 conversation is a testament to Madonna's sharp cultural sensors,
which have helped her seamlessly navigate trends while nudging them in
new directions, reinventing herself along the way. But perhaps the
signal is getting a little fuzzy.
When her tour debuted in the spring with a medley of Express Yourself and Lady Gaga's Born This Way
-- a song Madonna had already labeled "reductive" -- many figured she
was trying to pick a fight with the young star. Gaga's response? Picking
fights is passe: "We're in a new place in society now, aren't we?" she
said. "Things are really different now than they were 25 years ago."
it passive-aggressive if you want, but the dig is clear: Gaga is the
new breed, and the new breed has no time for old customs.
have been other missteps. When Madonna touted a street term for ecstasy
during her March set at Miami's Ultra Music Festival, she was publicly
blasted by some in the dance-music community for linking the scene to
A sardonic tweet from popular DJ Deadmau5 -- "hey, at least
yer HIP AND TRENDY!" -- came with an implicit message: Madonna was an
interloper in someone else's territory, clumsily stumbling around,
unable to accurately read its cultural signposts.
Madonna has long been a lightning rod for criticism, and playing the
provocateur is in her bone marrow. But it's one thing to get harangued
by Tipper Gore for sexual imagery. It's something else altogether to be
slated as out of touch by a fashionable young artist.
In the '80s
and '90s, Madonna's detractors only supplied her with fuel: Each
high-profile lashing was like a bullet scar on a rapper's chest -- a
wound that helped sell subversion, with controversy as the calling card.
the recent outcries mark a different sort of backlash, a shift in the
playing field. The attacks from diehard fans, public boosters and fellow
artists reveal a new perception: Going after Madonna comes with less
risk. She no longer dictates the terms of the game.
shouldn't do, however, is count her out. Thirty years as pop music's
alpha female weren't an accident, and the last time Madonna was accused
of slumping -- back in the mid-1990s -- she came roaring back with the
game-changing albums Ray of Light and Music.
all, there are few things pop culture loves more than a good comeback
story. And there are few who understand pop culture more than Madonna.
Detroit Free Press