In Defence of Madonna: Why the Media Conversation Needs to Change

As Madonna kicked off the Australian leg of her Rebel Heart World Tour last week, the media took a breath from its usual preoccupation with Madonna’s age and focussed instead on her frequent lateness showing up on stage.

That was until the morning after her second performance in Brisbane when the news exploded with reports of Madonna exposing a fan’s breast on stage. Headlines buzzed, commentary sizzled with outrage; one Australian media blog reporting “Madonna SEXUALLY ABUSES a fan“, another US entertainment site describing the event as a “random sexual harassment of a fan” concluding it was part of Madonna’s ongoing “meltdown”. Of course there wasn’t an article commenting on the breast incident without mentioning the singer’s current record of tardiness. The really in depth stuff also cracked the usual chestnut, taking aim at Madonna’s age in a negative context of a her sexually charged performance.

Special mention of poor media coverage should go to the New Zealand Herald who’s article “Madonna’s Brisbane Show Could Be Her Most Shocking Yet” contained at least 3 clearly incorrect statements in the opening paragraphs including labelling Madonna as “the UK pop singer.”

madonna rebel heart stage

Yes, Madonna did accidentally reveal a fan’s breast on stage, but let’s look at everything else that was going on at that point. A young woman, Josephine from Queensland’s Gold Coast, was pulled onstage to dance alongside pop royalty in front of a packed stadium. She had a once in a lifetime experience that a few people in the world have had the opportunity to do and there wasn’t a second of it when she didn’t look like she was having anything but a thrill ride of joy. It wasn’t sexual harassment and Josephine’s later statement to the media in defence of Madonna confirmed it.

As a lifelong fan waiting decades for Madonna’s return to Australian stages, I’ve been trawling the news and media in the lead up to her Aussie shows. I can count on one hand the positively geared articles being published in mainstream news about the performance.

MONTREAL, QC - SEPTEMBER 09: Madonna performs onstage during her "Rebel Heart" tour opener at Bell Centre on September 9, 2015 in Montreal, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation) *** Local Caption *** Madonna

What I saw in Brisbane on March 17 was more than two and a half hours on pure art and entertainment. I saw an absolute professional at the top of her game. I saw a woman who has been harangued for years, told that she’s too old to put on a sexually provocative show when the reality is that, behind the millions of touched up photos out there making Madonna look like some freakishly ancient love child of Skeletor and Iggy Pop, Madonna has an incredible and stunning body capable of physical feats that defy amazing. And yes, she can and should still dance sexy. She is sexy! I saw an entourage of young dancers who not only possessed bodies that represent the ultimate in human fitness but whose individual performances were more than a worthy underline to Madonna’s consistently impressive 35 year career. I saw nearly three hours of astounding visual art in video, in lighting effects in costuming. I saw a perfectly balanced set list showcasing classics and new releases and an encore that once again proved my long running theory that ‘Holiday’ is the most perfect pop song ever written, capable of adapting to any era of pop music while remaining the same song that blew up the charts in 1984.

As I wrote in ‘Acting her Age: Madonna, Gender and Age in Popular Media’ the barrage of negative press Madonna has received in recent years stems from the simple fact that the media and news audiences simply don’t know how to react to a middle aged woman pop star who’s still relevant in her field. Where dozens of long ago pop icons may either fade into obscurity or less, or like Madonna’s 1980s contemporary, Cyndi Lauper move over to more apparently age suitable material in jazz standards, Madonna keeps making sexy pop music. And as the careers of Tom Jones Mick Jagger are testament too, it’s not her age that’s the problem, it’s her gender.

Madonna

The conversation needs to change. In an article titled ‘Dear Madonna: One Fan’s Plea During a Controversial Australian Tour’, journalist Andrew Mercado wrote “All this unfortunate carry-on distracts us from what is meant to be important – your music.” He has a point. It is hard to focus on why her music needs to be celebrated but that’s only because no one talks about it. Mercado’s article itself was guilty of misrepresentation of facts and sensationalised reporting of events with barely a mention of the real qualities of the show and her career. If anyone, especially a well-known journalist in one of Australia’s most influential news outlets, wants to shift the focus from the public persona of Madonna as “unapologetic bitch” onto her art, then we have to start talking about the art. Mercado gives a one sentence thumbs up to her music 1983 – 2005 and then proceeds to slam everything that came after. I’m the first to admit her shift to more electronica and rap oriented sounds hasn’t always sat well in my ears, but there’s always been at least a few songs on an album to defy any criticism that the best days of her music are behind her. He goes on to criticise Rebel Heart as covering familiar ground, quipping “Seriously Darl, it’s time to move on.” Seriously, Andrew, did you not notice the retrospective reflective nature of an album that sees her taking stock of her career? There’s a reason it’s a bit familiar. You’ve defended Madonna’s age and gender as a performer, likening her to Shirley Bassey who is “still going strong at 79”, but then proceeded to plead with her to stop performing in the way her art has evolved in the last decade.

Madonna "Rebel Heart" Tour Opener - Montreal

How are we going to recognise popular art worthy of celebration when even the voices claim to be championing a Madonna fandom are just another negative commentary based on ignorant judgement and double standards?

What would the story be as a celebration of an artist instead of a criticism of a woman? How would the news change if we looked at the rarity of a public figure like Madonna who has always stood for individualism, personal strength and integrity and freedom of expression. An icon who has been a long time campaigner of gay rights, health and social justice. Let’s talk about the woman’s personal work ethic and drive, her artistic vision and the millions of lives she’s touched, the enjoyment her music has brought to the world. Let’s talk about the fact that Madonna effectively defined and invented everything we know about pop music as a standard. Let’s change the topic and defend what should be celebrated instead of inventing scandals and perpetuating bland celebrity worship. It’s just credit where credit is due.

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Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.
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