Madonna goes mainstream, M.I.A. goes fringe.
At the Super Bowl, gargoyle Madonna performed alongside British “singer” M.I.A. To most everyone’s surprise, the show was relatively tame, with the stiff-looking 53-year-old prancing around with her oddly-clad team of backup singers, including a weird guy doing tricks on a wire (not Guy Richie). The most amusing part of the performance was Madonna disappearing into the stage, Wicked Witch of the West-style; as Jim Geraghty of National Review hilariously tweeted, “Wow, Bane got her in the end.” (For those of you who aren’t Batman aficionados, Bane is a Batman villain featured in the upcoming Christopher Nolan flick The Dark Knight Returns, who collapses a football field.) Personally, I thought it was just the earth finally swallowing up the scarlet woman for her prior blasphemies.
There was a bit of controversy, though: at the end of her cameo, M.I.A. flipped off the crowd. What was the point of that little gesture? M.I.A. is nowhere to be found for comment, but the rationale is pretty clear: nobody would have cared about M.I.A.’s appearance had she not decided to tell Americans to screw off. It was an attention getter. And it got attention. Mission accomplished.
This is how we do celebrity in America. Bad behavior gets you noticed; as you age, you go mainstream. M.I.A. is simply a less talented Madonna (if there is such a thing), 20 years younger. Undoubtedly, M.I.A. will eventually mainstream herself, and we will pretend she was never a problem.
She can follow Madonna’s path in doing so. When the Material Girl first popped on the scene with “Like a Virgin,” she shook up the world with her ability to shock. When she released “Like a Prayer” in 1989, people understood that her lyric – “When you call my name, It’s like a little prayer, I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there” – was a veiled reference to fellatio, and that the song was supposed to transgress boundaries between the holy and the sexual. The Vatican actually condemned the music video. On Sunday, Madonna sang the song before an entire country, complete with backup choir, as though it were a plain spiritual.
America’s forgiving nature is wonderful. But that forgiving nature means that we’re often taken advantage of by celebrities, who act out in an obnoxious way and then demand our forgiveness over time. In fact, America is so forgiving that we don’t even bother asking our celebrities to apologize for past transgressions – we just assume they’ve matured. Madonna’s old now, but she’s just as nasty as she ever was – yet we treat her like a musical Judi Dench.
There is a problem with this attitude. It means that we end up rewarding the most transgressive people while punishing those who stick to the straight and narrow. Break a few rules, and we’ll take notice; milk that fame for a while for money and power; age, and we’ll forgive you. Fame means never having to say you’re sorry.
It could be argued that no one is hurt by these cycles of offense and forgetfulness. But our culture is perhaps imperceptibly but certainly degraded. The repentance of public figures never equals their sin. Bill Clinton’s tearful apologies never undid the nation’s newfound tolerance for presidential hanky-panky; Candace Bergen’s later admission that Dan Quayle was absolutely right about Murphy Brown legitimizing unwed motherhood didn’t undo her part in forwarding the societal acceptance of unwed motherhood. Once the culture has been wounded, no amount of salve will prevent scarring.
There’s no need to overstate the case, of course. M.I.A. flipping off Americans ranks somewhere below Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage in the pantheon of important cultural events. But culture is the air we breathe. The pollution that poisons it day by day is cumulative in its effects.
Hence Madonna. All of those 1980s teenagers who saw Madonna as a rebel and now accept her as an artifact ignore the fact that she did her little part to poison the air. But she and all her vulgar celebrity accomplices know that they do a little bit of damage every time they perform. That's the idea, after all.
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