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Why Is Madonna, the Grown-Ass Grammy-Winning Queen of Pop, Still Looking for Ideas to Steal?

Any cringeworthy moment Madonna serves up isn't the result of age, or of the length of her career, or even a dulled instinct as far as picking songs—so why does she keep trying to prove herself?

by Maura Johnston
19 June 2015, 3:19pm

2015 is Madonna's 33rd year as a pop star, and it's presented something of a challenge for her—how can someone whose whole career is built on being a provocateur not just survive, but thrive in an endlessly needling landscape? The release of Rebel Heart, her 13th studio album, offered a couple of clues (Diplo! A "Wrecking Ball" co-author! Mike Tyson?), but the video for its declaration of intent "Bitch I'm Madonna," which came out yesterday, offers another view at what the Material Girl has become.

Madonna teased the clip early in the week with a poster, a la Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood," shouting out a few of the boldfaced names who would share screen time with her—Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, Rita Ora. It looked on first blush like her attempt to enter the "you can't sit with us" lunch-table wars that "Blood" started; the presence of purported "Blood" target Katy Perry didn't really help matters. (That said, it's not like this is the first time Madonna has surrounded herself with boldfaced names; her coffee-table book Sex co-starred Isabella Rosellini, Big Daddy Kane, and, uh, Vanilla Ice.)

Thankfully, "Bitch" as a video is much more fun—not to mention more willing to poke fun at itself—than "Blood." (The sock puppets!) But it also represents the most recent period of Madonna's career in that it's yet another attempt to harness the "cool" that's already been through the wringer of mainstream culture: "Sexy" extras in bright, barely there clothing; FaceTime sessions with stars that are guaranteed to gain social-media heat; a venue, the Top Of The Standard, that was enshrined as "the place to throw events in New York City" almost immediately upon its opening in 2009. Even the clip-closing rooftop party, the path to which is adorned with eye-popping graffiti, looks like outtakes from a between-innings Bud Light ad extolling the virtues of summer.

Continued below.

Any cringeworthy moment Madonna serves up isn't the result of age, or of the length of her career, or even a dulled instinct as far as picking songs—Rebel Heart, like many albums in 2015, is a bit overstuffed, but it has a solid pop album at its core; once you take note that she's still operating on a Major Pop Star's slightly laggy promotional schedule, its slightly behind-the-times offerings shape up.

She's faltering because she's operating in a time when superculture and counterculture are not only collapsing into one, thanks to forces including but hardly limited to the way in which media is conceptualized and subsequently disseminated; at the same time, attempts to appropriate underground culture are (rightly) scrutinized more visibly than they have been in the past.

At her peaks—of which there have been many—Madonna fused the bubbling-under and the already-popular, adding just enough sex appeal to make her undeniably eyeball-worthy and appropriate for nomination to the Parents Resource Music Center's "Filthy Fifteen." She always seemed ahead of the game, because she knew where to look for her next moves. She plucked Björk from MTV's Buzz Bin for Bedtime Stories; she enlisted Chris Cunningham, director of the relegated-to-nighttime-airing video for Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker," for "Frozen." She appropriated underground culture as easily as she breathed air, and she did so before "cultural appropriation" became a derisive term; her 1990 hit "Vogue," in particular, "had taken a very specifically queer, transgendered, Latino and African-American phenomenon and totally erased that context with her lyrics, 'It makes no difference if you're black or white, if you're a boy or a girl,'" according to Terre "DJ Sprinkles" Thaemlitz, who took the exploitative aspects of "Vogue" to task on her 2008 song "Ball'r (Madonna-Free Zone)."

Undergrounds of all stripes, from Tumblr art to witch house, operate faster and more publicly now, rising up and sometimes fading even more quickly than they ascended. This is a good thing for those people who are actually participating in those cultures; they receive more visibility than they might have, although there's a potential to be felled by the hype cycle's endless appetite. And artists who attempt to borrow without credit get a lot more pushback than they would have even seven or eight years ago.

When Madonna geared up for the release of MDNA a couple of years back, she courted the audience of EDM, which was just starting to really settle in as youth culture's escapist music of choice—she also attracted controversy by introducing the then-ascendant producer Avicii's Ultra Music Festival set with a clunky drug reference. ("Has anybody seen Molly?" Oof.) It received derision from the likes of Deadmau5, and set the whole campaign for that 2012 album off-kilter; the groanworthy name and leaden attempts at being down with "the kids" only made it feel like more of a faceplant that was intended to be a flag-plant.

Madonna's previous album, Hard Candy, had also experienced a rocky roll-out—the frothy lead single "4 Minutes," with production by Timbaland and a Justin Timberlake cameo, did well enough on the charts, failing to hit No. 1 but still becoming her first top-10 hit since the ABBA-sampling "Hung Up." Still, though, that was Madonna operating at superstar level; Timberlake and Timbaland were just coming off the success of FutureSex/LoveSounds, and the move was at least lateral.

But Madonna's foray into EDM fizzled, even as it resulted in quality tracks like the sumptuous "I'm A Sinner" and the kooky, M.I.A.-assisted "Birthday," fell flat. In part, it was because in the years that elapsed between Hard Candy and MDNA, media had become lightning-fast; Beyoncé's surprise rollout of her self-titled album was still a couple of years away, but albums' promotional cycles seemed to become more bogged down the longer they dragged on. Blame the omnipresence of media, which so effectively floods the zone with minor bits of artist "news" that it obscures useful information like record release dates; blame labels, which before throwing caution to the wind and just putting albums out seemed to to be growing more and more skittish with each slight misfire.

But the Joe Sly-like nature of Madonna's request for her missing pal was also a factor. That reaching toward underground cool—also notable on Rebel Heart—is reflexive for Madonna at this point. But is it necessary when the underground has become so essential to mainstream culture? Major brands sponsor shows in venues designed to mimick ramshackle basements; the art world is becoming increasingly colonized by financiers; the Lower East Side is dominated by glass towers, not tenements. What if the ultimate way for Madonna to harness cool would be to not look to what the kids are doing, but instead to amalgamate the music she's made over the last three-plus decades into something more solidly honoring her legacy than a lyrical shout-out to herself?

What Madonna will do next is anyone's guess, a game made a bit more difficult by the fact that she'll likely ignore any suggestions that come her way. (And with good reason.) She was able to serve as the most prominent conduit between various underground cultures and the exact middle of the pop mainstream for a long while, and she at least tangentially helped along their eventual bridging; now it's time for her to get creative about what that all means, both in terms of culture and for her own art's sake.

Maura Johnston is a culture writer based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter.

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