On Sunday, Madonna and Stevie Wonder paid tribute to Prince at the Billboard Music Awards with a performance of "Nothing Compares 2 U" and "Purple Rain." Social media reacted strongly and negatively. BET even put out an ad for their own tribute at the upcoming eponymous awards with the tagline "Yeah, we saw that. Don't worry. We Got You."
In terms of the performance itself, everyone seems to forget that Madonna and Prince were in fact close friends, as a recent Bustle article recaps. Author Sage Young talks about how as recently as last year the pair hung out at Prince's Paisley Park compound in Minneapolis. Guy Oseary, Madonna's manager, said that the two were considering a joint tour at one point in the 80s. Prince respected Madonna as an artist so much that he appeared on her Like A Prayer album, considered one of the best pop albums of the 80's, if not of all time.
Were there other artists, particularly Black artists that could have done a tribute? Absolutely. The critiques of the fact that Madonna, a white lady, was chosen to pay musical respects to an artist who was so overtly pro-Black seems hypocritical. I think it's certainly important to have Black artists paying tribute to Prince on their own terms (particularly given, as some have pointed out, that Prince reportedly asked for Black women to be involved in any tribute to him while he was alive). But as his close friend, I imagine that Madonna only wanted to do him justice, and would loathe the idea that she was in any way disgracing his memory.
Say it wasn't Madonna. Say that the Billboard Music Awards team asked Justin Timberlake to perform, or Mick Jagger. Say it was anybody else. Would the same sort of vitriol be circulating about their performances, the same constant universal disapproval? Would there be calls for these artists, but in particular Jagger, to retire and go off to a nursing home? Would we be seeing the same Vine of that artist taking an embarrassing onstage fall making the rounds again and again? Hating Madonna is an American pastime -- it's nothing new, and it's certainly not going away any time soon.
Both times that I've seen Madonna live, I've been among the youngest people in the audience. Inevitably, the people around me share stories of how hugely important she was in their lives. Men and women in their forties and fifties talk about growing up with her music, and seeing so many other artists falter in her immensely powerful shadow. Just like I see the influence of Michael Jackson in so many popular entertainers of today, so I see the markers of Madonna. The re-invented looks and provocative performances may not have been invented by her, but she certainly made them the focus of everyone's attention. And now that those practices have become ubiquitous, we've supposedly decided that we're done admiring Madonna.
For how much everyone seems to hate Madonna and want her to go away, she's doing quite well with the American public. Her last tour, which had eighty-two shows on five continents, grossed a whopping $169 million. The MDNA Tour in 2012 grossed more than One Direction's Take Me Home Tour that same year. For a woman who is supposedly so irrelevant, she's selling out stadiums like it's nobody's business.
Musically, she's not doing too poorly either. In 2012 she earned her thirty-eighth top ten single on the Billboard Hot 100, extending her all-time record. Last year she earned her forty-sixth number one single on the Dance Club Songs chart, setting a record for most number ones on any chart ever. Rebel Heart, her latest studio effort, debuted at number two. Meghan Trainor, for comparison, saw her new album debut at number three this week and only has four top ten singles to her name.
But I get it. Music isn't everything. Plenty of musicians are talented, but it doesn't mean they're worth paying attention to. Madonna, for her part, defined much of the 1980s MTV generation with her unique looks and provocative live performances. Remember that time when she almost got arrested at a Canadian concert for simulating masturbation during a show? How about the time when she published a coffee table book called "Sex" wrapped in a condom?
If you don't remember any of those moments, perhaps you've heard of the time where a friend died in her arms from an AIDS-related illness, inspiring "Why's It So Hard" on her 1992 Erotica album. If not, maybe you knew she was close friends with Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. Maybe you're familiar with her charity work for AIDS advocacy and support organizations, or her MTV campaigns to encourage young people to vote. Certainly her sexual assault at knifepoint in a New York City back alley rings a few bells. To have spoken out so openly in support of the LGBT community during a time when such association was political and social suicide was unprecedented, and Madonna was there from the beginning. Not only that, but her legacy with social activism in general, particularly through music and visual media, is a defining one.
Perhaps you've seen the music video for "Borderline", one of the first aired on MTV to show an interracial relationship. "Papa Don't Preach", a song encouraging female reproductive autonomy which received praise from people on both sides of the abortion debate, might be another touchstone. If not, then you've surely seen "Like A Prayer", which lost her a Pepsi deal because of her decision to include a Black actor in a Jesus-esque role.
At 57, Madonna is basically expected to crawl into a corner and die. Her body, appearance, performance style, sexuality, clothing, voice, mannerisms, habits, and everything under the sun are the subject of constant public ridicule. As Amy Schumer so brilliantly pointed out in her sketch of the same name, Madonna has long outlived her "Last F**kable Day", and the public is ready for her to spend the rest of her life in ankle length skirts knitting sweaters and watching 60 Minutes. If you know anything about Madonna, that is not her style. And after a thirty year career of constant criticism, harassment, and vitriol, there is no way that she is going to go out with a whimper.
Besides, if you were her, what incentive would you have? Playing the Super Bowl to a then record-breaking audience decades after some of her supposed usurpers' careers have faded into oblivion isn't exactly a reason to give up and go home. Plus, if we're being honest, you were watching. You begrudgingly acknowledged that it "wasn't that bad", that it "wasn't a complete train wreck". You remembered that in your parents' attic is your dusty copy of True Blue. You had the cross necklaces. You used to vogue while singing into your hairbrush. And when Madonna goes out someday in a blaze of glory, you will sit alongside the rest of the world waxing poetic about her artistic brilliance and bemoaning the fact that no one appreciated her enough for what she was: an icon. Is she imperfect? Absolutely. Is she the greatest anything of all time? She herself would likely tell you she isn't. But is she the woman who has fascinated, captivated, and frustrated the world for the past thirty years? Without a doubt.
So the next time you're going to make a joke with Madonna's arms or age as the punchline, think twice. When you think no one's watching you humming along to "Express Yourself" on your commute to work, deep down you'll know the truth. Hate to love her or love to hate her, this is Madonna's world -- we, and the vast majority of our favorite pop stars, are all just living in it.