Oh look, Madonna’s stirring up some very well-thought-out controversy again. Apparently she has a new album, and being a self-aware entertainer, she knew nobody was going to give a flying fuck about her music because it is not actually 1991 anymore. So, Madonna did what she has done for the entirety of her career: she calculated a palatable artistic scandal to get herself in the media while remaining accessible to her fan base.
Madonna has proven herself to be a very smart woman when it comes to moving her career forward – knowing exactly what kind of controversy will excite the public while remaining in a place of comfort. She sexualized Jesus in the “Like a Prayer” video, and while I’m sure the image spawned a few frantic grasps at pearls, it wasn’t anything the majority of us weren’t used to. We’d all been making jokes about Jesus being “hung like THIS,” way before Madonna insinuated fellatio on our lord and savior. She kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the VMAs, exploiting lesbian fantasies, without actually forcing society to confront gay issues. Manufactured controversy isn’t edgy – it’s old hat.
Her newest trick for self promotion is a series of photos promoting her new album Rebel Heart. The cover is a shot of Madonna’s face wrapped with a black cord because it’s an easy way to get mainstream America to buzz with excitement about bondage without scaring them away. Periodically photos have been added with musicians, artists and historical figures that she has deemed #rebelheart(s) with a caption referencing their most notable causes. Under a photo of Bob Marley she writes: “This #rebelheart sang about ONE LOVE!” Under a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “This #rebelheart had a dream!” And accompanying a photo of Nelson Mandela: “This #rebelheart fought for freedom!”
Mostly a stupid ploy for attention that becomes offensive and cheap when you notice that the photos are dressed up with the same watered-down bondage that adorns Madonna’s face. In a tossed off non-apology issued this week, Madonna insists that she wasn’t being racist or insulting, and it doesn’t matter anyway because they were made by her fans and she was just posting them. Exploiting black bodies for self-promotion and appropriating the message of civil rights activists to sell your album IS racist. Photoshopping a cord around the face of men who were assasinated and imprisoned for their activism in order to appear edgy IS insulting. Blaming your fans when you chose to post the photos is just plain childish (but kudos to Madonna for keeping with her history of trying to cling to anything that makes her appear youthful).
But at the end of the day, as insulting and racist as the photos are, the entire stunt ends up feeling tired and boring. It’s just an uninspired antic meant to make us all remember that Madonna exists. Calculated controversy is old news. If Madonna wants to make herself relevant again, I say she belly flops into the pool of scandal rather than tentatively dipping a toe.
If she’s so insistent on using images of MLK, Mandela and Marley, taking the opportunity to point out race and class disparities would be a way edgier campaign. I would love to see the photo of Martin Luther King Jr. with the caption: “This #rebelheart was assasinated in an attempt to halt the civil rights movement.” Under Mandela’s photo: “This #rebelheart was imprisioned for 27 years for fighting to end Apartheid.” And under Bob Marley’s picture: “This #rebelheart sang of redemption, but his legacy is carried on in the stoney eyes of frat boys everywhere.” And tying it all together, under Madonna’s photo for her album cover: “This #rebelheart consistently appropriates other cultures and traditions for personal gain and entertainment value, but only faces the consequences of temporary media scrutiny.” Using her fame to call out issues of privilege would be edgy, progressive and a big hit with the cool young crowd.
If she isn’t feeling the self-awareness angle, perhaps she could look into the avant garde approach. Rename the album Rebel Fart. Package each album with a ziploc bag containing one of her own farts. Fill her instagram with photos of herself and other noteworthy celebrities bending over and letting one rip. Caption the photos, “This #rebelfartist loves fast food and political activism.” Tell interviewers that she really poured herself into this album. Give Rolling Stone an interview discussing the nature of what constitutes art. Perform an unplugged concert that is nothing but acapella singing over a choir of fat truckers farting in the background. Finally accept that she is the type of person who enjoys the smell of her own farts.
If she really wants to be brave, I’ve got a radical idea that blows my other two away. Madonna could record an album full of fresh new material that is truly a departure from her previous work. She could rely on her talent as a musician to promote the album. She could actually let the music speak for itself.
As awful as publicity stunts such as this are, can we all agree to stop being offended when people want us to be offended? I’m the first one to call out ignorant actions and try to educate people on issues of injustice (it’s one of my more annoying traits, I know). But there’s a difference between educating the community on issues of intolerance, and letting your sense of justice be played. Shock value is pretty easily squashed with a simple yawn. I say we all go take a nap and regroup.
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.