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Did Madonna Make Scandals Or Did Scandals Make Madonna?

It’s almost ironic that Madonna, who turns 60 on August 16, 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-color 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.

1984: Madonna makes the best of a wardrobe malfunction.

The scandal: Some might have stopped singing. Some might have bent down, fixed their stiletto, and moved on. Not Madonna. When her heel slipped off during the very first live performance of “Like a Virgin” at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, Madonna responded by squirming on the stage floor in a wedding dress. To the crowd, Madonna appeared as if she was a woman losing her virginity on her wedding night on the stage floor. And to aghast critics, this stunt signaled the end of her then-nascent career. They couldn’t have been more wrong, and this is roundly considered the moment Madonna became a global superstar. Her ad lib VMAs performance signaled the start of a trend: Madonna doing something wild and unexpected, and then watching nonchalantly as her fame reached a higher echelon. She also took the VMAs to new heights, cementing MTV’s legacy as a place of provocation.

Madonna’s response: On an appearance with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show a full 28 years after the fact, Madonna finally revealed the cause of her scandalous MTV stage-floor dance. It was actually the byproduct of a wardrobe malfunction. “I was standing at the top of a wedding cake, as one does, and I walked down these steps, which were the tiers of a wedding cake. And I lost my shoe. I lost my white stiletto. And I thought, ‘Oh god, how am I gonna get that? It’s over there and I’m on TV. So I thought, well, I’ll just pretend I meant to do this and I dove on to the floor and I rolled around and I reached for the shoe. And as I reached for the shoe, the dress went up. And the underpants were showing…. I didn’t mean to.'”

Madonna could have cleared this up in 1984. Instead, she let the mystery linger. “Like a Virgin” would figure into her mythology for years. During a stop in Toronto in her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, the Canadian police threatened to arrest Madonna if she pretended to masturbate on stage. She refused to alter her show, and performed “Virgin” as she’d intended – all three minutes of faux masturbation and all.

Did Madonna make the scandal or the did the scandal make Madonna? She made the scandal, and then the scandal helped make her — and MTV.

1986: Madonna manages to anger everyone with “Papa Don’t Preach”

The Scandal: Her 1986 track “Papa Don’t Preach,” sung from the perspective of a pregnant teenager choosing to keep her child, spurred fervent debate. For once, the conservative forces who usually condemned her were actually applauding her — the pro-life movement actually liked her song’s message. Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, criticized her for giving her character’s teen pregnancy a sheen of coolness. Albert Moran, the executive director of Planned Parenthood of New York City, dissuaded radio stations from playing the song, believing Madonna to have “more impact on young teenagers than any other single entertainer.” Even Gloria Allred weighed in. "This song has me very concerned because it's being used by anti-abortion groups to encourage young women to keep their babies instead of having an abortion," Allred told the L.A. Times. "We should be encouraging young people who are in a pregnancy crisis to discuss it with their parents and see what options they have. But this song puts parents in a very negative light. It makes having a baby seem very heroic and romantic, as if everyone lives happily ever after, which is not true in most cases for teenage women in America.”

Madonna’s Response: Madonna ignored Gloria Allred’s calls for her to make a statement about abortion access, and stayed out of the debate. "The song just fit right in with my own personal zeitgeist of standing up to male authorities," she told New York Times music critic Stephen Holden, "whether it's the pope or the Catholic Church or my father and his conservative, patriarchal ways." This song and the accompanying video fit into Madonna’s larger ethos: Women should choose their lives for themselves.

Did Madonna make the scandal or the did the scandal make Madonna? She made the scandal, and then the scandal helped cement her image as someone whose commitment to her artistic expression was stronger than her commitment to clear-cut party lines.

1989: Madonna “confuses” Pepsi with the “Like a Prayer” music video.

The Scandal: Madonna’s music videos were works of art. Sometimes, corporations don’t quite get those works of art. Such was the case with the video for “Like a Prayer.” The video is infused with religious imagery, including Madonna dancing in front of burning crosses and kissing a Black saint. “Like a Prayer” (the song, not the video) was initially used in a differently-themed Pepsi ad starring Madonna. But after the music video garnered controversy — including a condemnation from the Vatican — Pepsi cancelled its contract with the singer. "When you've got an ad that confuses people or concerns people, it just makes sense that that ad goes away," a spokesperson said. You know what didn’t go away? Madonna’s lifelong fight with the Vatican and her complicated relationship with Catholicism, which was only just beginning.

Madonna’s Response: She responded with clever, subtle shade. She walked the red carpet the next day in a bright red dress, carrying a Coke can. Madonna was allowed to keep her initial $5 million fee for the planned endorsement deal. Pepsi seemed to miss the point. The video was supposed to confuse people. Director Mary Lambert told Rolling Stone that her intention with the imagery — including the burning crosses — was to “force people to reimagine their visual references and really root out their prejudices.”

Did Madonna make the scandal or the did the scandal make Madonna? Both.

1990: Madonna gets banned by MTV.

The Scandal: With her performance of “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 VMAs, Madonna helped build MTV’s brand as a place for the cool kids to escape from adults’ conservative glares, and became one of its absolute biggest stars. But the network couldn’t handle Madonna’s “Justify My Love” music video, which featured what was essentially a pansexual orgy with her then-boyfriend Tony Ward and some other scantily clad men and women. Today, “Justify My Love” would just be a very, very sexy music video. Back then, though, it was something that would threaten the boys and girls of America.

Madonna’s Response: In this round of Madonna vs. MTV, Madonna certainly came out on top. Since MTV banned the video, Madonna released it as a VHS single, the first song ever released in this format. And who could resist spending a few bucks on video too scandalous for MTV, featuring America’s most famous pop star? No one. The video, packaged to play up its supposed seediness with an all-black cover and a sticker sealing the case, went platinum four times over and sold over a million copies at $9.98 a pop. In December 1990, Madonna appeared on Nightline and discussed the video on with Forrest Sawyer. During the interview, she addressed the double-standard at the heart of the ban. “If we’re going to have censorship, let’s not be hypocrites about it. Let’s not have double standards. We already have these videos that display degradation to women and violence that are played 24 hours a day, but yet they don’t want a video playing that deals with sex between two consenting adults,” she said.

Did Madonna make the scandal or the did the scandal make Madonna? Madonna made the scandal, and established her precedent of fighting for sexual expression. “Justify My Love” is a prelude to her 1992 publication of the $50 coffee table book Sex, which featured a sometimes nude Madonna in various BDSM poses, exploring sexual fantasies, including many with queer and LGBT themes..

1993: Madonna makes headlines in Puerto Rico.

The Scandal: In 1993, Madonna was set to arrive to San Juan for a concert, part of her Girlie Show Tour. Certain groups on the island who feared Madonna’s influence over teenagers demanded that the concert be cancelled. Even the government, while unable to cancel the concert, agreed that Madonna’s influence was detrimental. The kids did not agree. The concert sold out instantly. On the evening of the concert, religious groups picketed, singing hymns.

Madonna’s Response: During the concert, she rubbed the Puerto Rican flag on her crotch, further outraging the government and other organizations. The governor didn’t bother to ask her for an apology, telling UPI it would be like 'asking for pears from an elm tree.”

Did Madonna make the scandal or did the scandal make Madonna? By this point in her career, Madonna was synonymous with provocation and irreverence. This incident played into her image. The more “dangerous” she was the more people were interested in her. Everything she did had repercussions. The concert sparked a debate about Puerto Rican? identity.

1994: Madonna rewrites the late night game.

The Scandal: Usually, late night interviews proceed along the same well-trod tracks. Sit down, banter, allude to the Next Big Project, and slide down the couch for the next guest. But usually, the guest isn’t Madonna. A minute into her appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, Letterman began teasing Madonna about her sex life. “Go kiss a guy in the audience,” he suggested. And she played right back. So began almost 20 full minutes of bleeped-out curses (from Madonna), one-upmanship, double entendres, strange silences, insults, and a particularly awkward conversation, carried out entirely in allusion, about Madonna’s alleged affair with Charles Barkley. Chomping on a cigar, Madonna confronts Letterman for the amount he talks about her (and her sex life) while she’s not on the show – so why not do it now? Their conversation is nothing short of electric, with Letterman catching all of Madonna’s curve balls like a slightly shocked, but totally amused, baseball maniac kid who finds himself playing at a MLB game.

Madonna’s Response: They 1996, Madonna revealed to Spin Magazine that the producers of the Late Show actually encouraged her to curse and cause a stir. But Letterman wasn’t filled in on the stunt. “Well, I came out and started doing it, and David freaked out,” she said. “The way he introduced me was derogatory, so my whole thing was, okay, if that’s how you want to play it, you cannot beat me at this game.”

Did Madonna make the scandal or did the scandal make Madonna? At the time, Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker claimed, “The ‘Letterman’ appearance was another such stunt, a way to keep her name in the papers in lieu of actually producing some sort of creative work.” But it was so much more than a stunt. No one had done “celebrity” with quite the off-the-cuff provocative casualness like Madonna had – and no one has since.

2003: Madonna and Britney kiss, then Madonna and Christina kiss.

The Scandal: This was Madonna’s second major unscripted moment at the MTV VMAs. Almost 20 years after her initial “Like a Virgin” performance, she performed the song again with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. This time, no one lost a shoe (though both Spears and Aguilera did some on-stage writhing). In front of the stage’s makeshift wedding chapel, Madonna kissed Britney Spears full on the mouth, and then Christina Aguilera.

Madonna’s Response: Madonna handled the controversy with typical understatements. She casually said she wouldn’t kiss Britney Spears again. Been there, done that.

Did Madonna make the scandal or the did the scandal make Madonna? Madonna definitely constructed this scandal. The kiss occurred during a retrospective of two Madonna tracks — “Like a Virgin” and a brand-new song, “Hollywood.” It was a very Madonna moment in a very Madonna number. Yet by signing alongside two of 2003’s most famous pop stars, Madonna aligned herself with a younger generation of talent – preserving her own relevance in the process.

She said so herself to Spears’ manager, Larry Rudolph. Rudolph told Billboard that Madonna had been rigid about rehearsals — after the performance, he realized why. "Once the performance was over, I happened to be in the elevator at Radio City. She came off the stage first, and she walked into the elevator...She came right up to me. She put her arms around my waist. She gave me a big kiss on the lips, and she said, 'You see, Larry, it was all worth it,’” he recalled.

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 apologize 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 criticize 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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