Madonna bared her breast during a concert in Turkey the other day, and the world did not pause in its orbit. The most shocking thing about the moment is that one of the era’s most successful purveyors of shock played what had always been an ace, and most of the world went ho-hum.

Since her arrival in the early eighties, Madonna has proven herself to be a limited actress, a middling singer, a gymnastic dancer, and a peerless provocateur. A Cindy Sherman with a video camera and a beat box, Madonna was unmatched in her ability to conjure one compelling, attention-demanding image of herself after another: some retro, some futuristic, all linked by her underlying determination to succeed. Her great gift was to shock; “I know that I’m not the best singer and I know that I’m not the best dancer,’’ she told an interviewer, “but I can fucking push people’s buttons.’’ At the outset she struck against the dying pop conventions that preceded her: the BoyToy belt buckle and bridal lingerie of “Like A Virgin’’ struck at the seventies-era Joni-Carly-Carole folk rock feminism that had played itself out, and the cold ka-chinginess of “Material Girl’’ was one of the theme songs of the Predators’ Ball, aligned perfectly with the rising market-worship of the Reagan-era. Afterwards, however, the elements of her theatricality were conventionally avant-garde targets of religion and sex. The crucifixes that accompanied her bandana and fingerless gloves to create her first signature look, and which appalled the Church, showed up again in her 1989 “Like A Prayer’’ Pepsi commercial, which appalled the Church, and again in her 2006 Confessions tour, which appalled the Church, and again for her Interview magazine cover in 2010.

Yet religion wa hardly the far sacred cow that sex proved to be. Hardly the first performer to recognize the power of the sex, Madonna could have written the Harvard Business School Case Study on how to exploit it. Beginning with the studied application of underwear as outwear, to the propitious appearance of early nude photographs in Playboy and Penthouse, to fellating a water bottle in the Truth or Dare documentary, to the strip club in “Open Your Heart’’ and the teenage sexuality subtext of “Papa Don’t Preach’’ to the nude scenes in the lamentable thriller Body of Evidence to the conical Gaultier bra for the Blonde Ambition tour, to the images of S&M and bondage in the “Justify My Love’’ video to tongue-kissing Britney Spears at the MTV Awards, on and on, Madonna has always known that a bit of juice from a forbidden fruit can be depended on to jazz up any ordinary entertainment snack. Her greatest single miscalculation was her photo book Sex that she did with Steven Meisel. Full of nudity and sexual situations, it was too much, too raw, all nightmare and no dream, and it cost her, not her career, but her preeminence. Before Sex, she was seducing us, inviting us to join her in some mysterious, exciting place, exhibiting a creativity and a playfulness and an insolence that said it would our loss if we didn’t join her. After Sex, the mystery was gone, and only the insolence remained. Her hardness revealed, Madonna has worked hard for two decades to convince us that the playfulness is still there.

Now, after decades in which she has been a star, actress, activist, mother, wife and businesswoman, Madonna is back on tour, and once again, sex is still her message, with Madonna’s breast on center stage. Is this once again a case of media manipulation, a reliable trick to rouse the attention of a drowsy media? If so, it’s rather a lot to ask of what, after all, has been an unusually well-aired nipple in a boob-saturated environment. Or maybe the 53 year-old singer is making a case for the sexual vitality of the AARP adult; if so, she’s about a decade late to the Viagra-fueled party. Or maybe it’s just her way of signaling to her fans that her playfulness remains, a fleshy wink to emphasize that her greatest hit was always an attitude, never a song. Whatever the reason, it’s too bad that at this late date, such an original seems to have run out of things to say.


Most of my liberal friends (yes, true, that’s practically the only people I know) are mystified by the success of Sarah Palin. They don’t like her positions, they are condescending about her background and preparation, and they are disdainful of her intellect. For what it’s worth, the more I think about politics, the more I’ve come to believe that intellect is the at once the most essential attribute a political leader must possess, and the most overrated. Intellect without the ability to connect with people is the set-up for failure. “First class temperament, second class intellect,” was Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.‘s famous assessment of Franklin Roosevelt (although Richard Posner argues that Holmes was actually describing Theodore Roosevelt.) I think Holmes undervalued FDR’s intellect, but it’s really his point about temperament that matters.

Whatever: back to the mystery of Sarah Palin. First, there shouldn’t be any mystery. She’s an attractive woman with a good figure and good legs. One can bemoan and belittle the significance of that finding, but let’s face it: a woman with those credentials possesses bona fides that earn her a seat at any table in America. (All right, maybe she wouldn’t be welcome at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. And maybe she won’t keep that seat for very long in some cases. But you get my point.)

But Palin has a larger gift. In an excellent article on The Daily Beast today, Howard Kurtz puts it as well as anyone: “Palin is, if nothing else, a master controversialist.” That’s an excellent way to phrase it. Controversialists don’t usually have the most talent or the greatest ability, but they are usually shrewd, and they always possess the gift of being able to say and do things that excite people, capture attention, and force people to react, usually on a visceral level. That is the knack that Palin possesses, the knack for interjecting herself into conflicts, for brazening her way through with a soundbite or a tweet, and for dunking on her adversaries with sharp line. I don’t think liberals like to admit it–I don’t like to admit it–but her “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ for ya?”, delivered in her smug, snide, Mean Girls chirp, was just devastating. It was a high school-worthy line, and it induced a high school- worthy cringe.

The most gifted controversialist of my era has been Madonna. Madonna was an average beauty–good-looking but no knockout–and a very ordinary singer. But right from the start and then repeatedly, throughout her career, she seized the public’s attention. “Like A Virgin” was an electric phrase that she helped elevate by rolling on the floor in her lingerie; “Material Girl” was a forgettable ditty that caught attention when she appropriated the mantle of Marilyn Monroe for her video. “Dress You Up” infuriated Tipper Gore. “Papa Don’t Preach” defiantly punched the teenage pregnancy button. “Like a Prayer” angered the Catholic Church and Pepsi. She used Sean Penn to advance her Hollywood career, tamed Dennis Rodman, bewildered Warren Beatty, and as she smoked a cigar and giggled, called David Letterman “a sick fuck.” Until she jumped the shark with The Sex Book, she was invincible.

And so on. Madonna shocked people; she traded on the shock. In a different way, Palin is also trading on shock–the shock that she is succeeding, the shock that she is overcoming expectations. And she has her fans who will carry her a long way, perhaps all the way to the GOP presidential nomination. I don’t think she can go farther. Madonna could sell a lot of records and get movie roles and sell out a lot of concerts even when a huge part of the audience didn’t like her or didn’t care about her. But presidents still need a majority of the voters (or a number close to it), and I just don’t think Palin’s shock appeal will go that far. If she wins the nomination, she will be the Republican McGovern. But as any sports fan will tell you, underdogs sometimes win the title.


Is It the ‘Roids or the Records?

I don’t like cheaters and I don’t like perjurers and I couldn’t care less if Alex Rodriguez spends the next nine years getting booed (if you’re sympathetic, envision Madonna giving him a nightly cuddle to soothe his bruised ego and saying “Now now, Alex, it will be all right. Here, count some more of your money.”) But does no one find it unusual that less than two weeks before we began bewailing the Shame of A-Rod, we celebrated the biggest day of the sports calendar by crowning the champion of the National Manifestly Juiced-Up League? How is it that we don’t care if the bonecrushing behemoths of the gridiron build themselves up to the size of rhinos, but every time we find out some baseball player has been using, we act like we’ve just lost our virginity. To Santa Claus. Who also shot Bambi’s mother. And, we’re told, doesn’t really exist.

Perhaps it’s the records. The quarterbacks and running backs and receivers of today are not so dramatically eclipsing the achievements of their hallowed predecessors that we feel we’re being made fools of when we cheer. But when Roger Clemens wins six Cy Young Awards and says he’s clean, or bulky Barry Bonds passes Hank Aaron and credits exercise, the insult to our intelligence is just too great. It’s embarrassing enough to hero-worship these self-absorbed jocks, but it’s outrageous to be scammed.


Last July, when Christopher Ciccone published his gosspy memoir Life With My Sister Madonna, I paged through it to see if I would be mentioned. Not because of that torrid romance Madonna and I had when I was one of her back-up dancers–that was really just a big rumor–but because in the summer of 1993, when I was at Us magazine, I wrote an article called “Immaterial Girl”, which maintained that while Madonna would no doubt go on to have many hits, she had nonetheless reached her peak as a cultural figure. It was kind of a no brainer point to make–nobody stays hot forever, and by that point Madonna had kind of played her last card with her Sex book, a lousy, cheaply made book that degraded her and robbed her of her mystery. Well, long story short, there was no mention in little brother’s book. But now, thanks to, we know that Christopher, at least for a while, was blogging about all the stuff that was left out of the book. Take it away, Jossip:

“Now that he’s exhausted all avenues of publicity — namely, Good Morning America and Chelsea Lately — Christopher Ciccone is taking his book tour to the web. As if there aren’t enough places on the information superhighway trashing Madonna, Ciccone’s started a blog to add to the fray where, he says, some of the material that lawyers kept out of the book appears. Which means you will find tales of Madonna pooping herself and Madonna sucking a guy off while the guy blows Christopher. Lawyers indeed! But our favorite part of Ciccone’s blogging so far? Madonna whining, in August 1993, about a savage Us Weekly article: Continue reading “I MADE MADONNA CRY”