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.