Is Madonna, the onetime queen of pop-music controversy, now passé?
Has the woman who used to command headlines at every turn and ruled the radio airwaves and record sales charts worldwide been surpassed by Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and avowed Madonna fan Lady Gaga? (By coincidence, Madonna’s ongoing “Rebel Heart” concert tour features her version of the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie En Rose,” a song Gaga has also covered.)
Even with a segment in her current show that features her cavorting on stripper poles with dancers dressed as nuns, and even with a stage repertoire that includes the new songs “Bitch I’m Madonna” (which features a rap by Minaj) and “Unapologetic Bitch,” Madonna - at 57 - is no longer the envelope-pushing provocateur she once was.
Yes, her new album features collaboration with top DJ and producer Diplo, but this teaming stirred only minimal interest with young EDM fans. And, yes, social media briefly went crazy when Madonna planted a big, wet kiss on Drake, after suggestively straddling him during his April 12 headlining performance at the Coachella Valley & Music Festival in Indio.
But his reaction, like that of many in the audience (and in the world of Twitter and Instagram), was decidedly mixed. The fact that Madonna is 29 years older than Drake may have been a factor. Ditto her happily flaunting her sexuality, as this middle-aged mom did in her derriere-exposing performance during this year’s Grammy Awards telecast.
“I’m in good shape,” Madonna told the New York Daily News in a subsequent interview. “I can show my ass when I’m 56, or 66 - or 76. Who’s to say when I can show my ass? It’s sexism. It’s ageism. And it’s a kind of discrimination.
“People have always judged me, and given me (flak) about one thing or another. Now they’re giving me (flak) about age. It’s bull----. And mostly I hear it from women. I feel I should be hearing support (from them), like, ‘Good for you.’”
With or without such support, if Madonna hoped to boost her “Rebel Heart” album sales when she recently posed topless in Interview magazine, her tactic fell flat, even though her remarkably toned body did not. Bare breasts just don’t make the impact they once did, particularly at a time when millions of women post topless photos of themselves on a regular basis.
Undated publicity photo of Madonna.
In the pre-Internet era, Madonna masterfully used her sexuality to manipulate the media and the public alike, all the while furthering her lucrative brand. But such manipulation is virtually impossible now. Witness Playboy, which has featured photos of Madonna in the buff on more than one occasion. The magazine this month cited the ubiquity of nude images on social media in its decision to stop running photos of fully naked women in both its print and online editions.
How much all these developments have diminished Madonna’s relevance is, much like the veteran star herself, open to debate. After three albums in a row that have failed to ignite commercially, including this year’s ballads-heavy “Rebel Heart,” she may be pigeonholed as a heritage artist who still appeals to some fans who grew up on her music, but not to a new generation.
Then again, it’s been 32 years since the thin-voiced Madonna scored her first U.S. Top 40 hit with “Holiday” in 1983, and 31 years since she scored her first chart-topper with “Like a Virgin” in 1984. Expecting her to still shock and titillate audiences today, let alone produce massive hits, seems no more realistic than expecting Gaga to mount a jazz standards album and tour with Tony Bennett.
Oops. Scratch that last part.
Madonna, with Michael Diamond
When: 8 tonight
Where: Valley View Casino Center (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena), 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., Midway District
Tickets: $170 and $355 (plus service charges)
Phone: (888) 929-7849
But please note, for the record, that Madonna does have an entire entire big-band jazz album under her garter belt. She released “I’m Breathless,” the brassy soundtrack to her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty’s 1990 movie “Dick Tracy,” when Gaga was 4 years old.
Madonna’s current “Rebel Heart” tour stops tonight at Valley View Casino Center (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena). It’s part of a 64-date global tour that, depending on the source, is selling at - or below - expectations.
The fact that tickets are still available for her show here may reflect the steep prices as much as her popularity reaching a plateau. The cheap seats (if $44 and $94, plus service charges, qualify as cheap) are sold out. The more expensive tickets, which have a list price of $174 and $359 each, plus service charges, are still available. By comparison, ticket prices for Madonna’s concert in late 2008 at Petco Park ranged from $58.50-$353.50 each, plus service charges.
The changes since then in the music industry, if not Madonna’s career, have been dramatic.
Her three most recent albums - “Rebel Heart,” 2012’s “MDNA” and 2008’s “Hard Candy” - have sold a combined 1.5 million or so copies in the U.S. That’s about 200,000 less than her 2005 album, “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” sold in this country alone, and about 3 million less than 2000’s “Ray of Light.”
That decline reflects in part on Madonna’s music. It no longer captures the public’s imagination the way that it did in past decades, when she ruled the charts with such pervasive hits as “Material Girl,” “Express Yourself,” “Vogue” and “Justify Your Love.”
But her diminished sales also reflect on the record industry itself, which is battling to survive in an era when free and paid online music streaming services dominate the playing field. It’s a sobering reality that, in recent years, has seen once-multimillion-selling recording artists struggle to sell just 100,000 or 200,000 copies of their latest release. The few notable exceptions - such as Adele and Taylor Swift - seem to be a dying (and younger) breed.
Consequently, like other pop-music legends whose careers ignited in the last century and continue now, Madonna must rely on touring to increase her fortune. Her two most recent tours, “Sticky & Sweet” in 2008 and “MDNA” in 2012, brought in a reported $408 million and $305 million, respectively.
Her current “Rebel Heart” tour marks Madonna’s third and final concert trek in her 10-year partnership with Live Nation. In 2007, the company (which owns San Diego’s Sleep Train Amphitheatre and House of Blues nightclub) paid her a staggering $120 million for what was called a “360" contract. It gave Live Nation a percentage not just of all her concert earnings, but also of any Madonna movies, videos, books, theatrical projects, corporate sponsorship deals and merchandise of any kind.
Live Nation’s cut of Madonna’s tour earnings may have almost paid off. But its 360 contract stipulation that all her albums between 2007 and 2017 be released on Live Nation’s record label surely has not met the company’s expectations. (U2, Jay Z and, to Live Nation’s likely regret, the now-defunct Jonas Brothers are other artists with which the company also signed 360 contracts).
In the meantime, the perpetually well-toned Madonna has made it clear she has no intention of aging gracefully. Or, as the single mother of four wrote earlier this year, in a comma-free post on her Instagram page: “Shut up jealous bitches! I hope you are as fun loving and adventurous as me when you’re my age!!!! Hahahhahaha let’s see.”