Madonna’s moment, which was both deeply personal and unnervingly relevant, came at the Billboard Women in Music event, broadcast on Lifetime on December 12th. Accepting the Woman of the Year award, Madonna, who has never struggled to tell it like it is, delivered a blistering speech about facing sexism and “constant bullying and relentless abuse” throughout her 30-plus year career.
“People say that I’m so controversial,” said Madonna, who remains the best-selling female artist of all time. “But I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.”
The remark seemed to strike a nerve in the twilight of 2016, a year of seismic loss in music: David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen, to name just three. A year when a seeming shoo-in female candidate for president lost to a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women by “[grabbing] them by the pussy.” The election left many raw but apparently ready listen to someone speak about misogyny, about cruelty, about survival, and sticking around. The speech has gone viral, prompting both fans and people who normally roll their eyes at Madonna’s antics to commend the pop star for her candor.
Madonna wasn’t always an activist. Consider how she clawed her way into pop consciousness: squealing through songs like “Lucky Star” and “Holiday” in her self-titled debut album; rolling around in a wedding dress (equipped with the “Boy Toy” belt buckle) while crooning “Like A Virgin” at the first MTV Video Music Awards; impersonating Marilyn Monroe in the video for “Material Girl,” which was supposed to satirize Reaganomics and 1980s materialism but instead became a rallying cry for the decadent decade. “Papa Don’t Preach,” a song about not getting an abortion — even though she was young and in “an awful mess” — was anything but feminist.
Many point to 1992’s Erotica as the best case for Madonna, the Feminist. The album is the pop star’s most controversial — an uncensored exploration of her sexual fantasies and a proclamation of the power of female sexuality. “I was turning my nose up at the whole idea that women aren’t allowed to be sexual and erotic and provocative and intelligent and thoughtful at the same time,” said Madonna of Erotica in her 1998 VH1 “Behind the Music” documentary. The world wasn’t ready for that exploration: the album tanked and Madonna nearly lost her career — a dark moment that she touched on in her Billboard speech.
Erotica didn’t come out of nowhere: the foundation of Madonna’s feminism was laid in Like a Prayer in 1989. The album is her künstlerroman — intensely personal and bold in its lyrics, it explores the loss of her mother in “Promise to Try” (Like a Prayer is dedicated to Madonna’s mother, who died when the singer was five), growing up with an oppressive Catholic father in “Oh Father,” and dealing with the end of her tumultuous marriage to Sean Penn in “Till Death Do Us Part.” It forced the world to see Madonna for who she is: a serious artist.
The experience of listening to Like a Prayer from start to finish is unsettling, since the album’s 11 tracks cover a range of styles. There are the two parental pop ballads that reveal Madonna’s command of her limited vocal range: she can’t belt it out like a young Whitney, but she can still carry a tune. There’s the strange, funky duet with Prince called “Love Song” that the singers produced by mailing tapes back and forth to each other. (In her Billboard speech, Madonna recalled thinking of Prince when she faced backlash from Erotica: “‘Wait a minute, isn’t Price running around with fishnets and high heels and lipstick and his butt hanging out?’ Yes. He was. But he was a man. This was the first time I truly understood that women really did not have the same freedom as men.”)
Like a Prayer features the title track and lead single, with the oft-quoted “I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there.” And, of course, there’s “Express Yourself,” the high-octane dance anthem about female empowerment that begins with Madonna asking us if we believe in love, before declaring that she’s got something to say about it.
In the plainest terms, the singer tells us not to settle for the material pleasures of romance (diamond rings, eighteen-karat gold, long-stem roses, satin sheets) and get what we really want — R-E-S-P-E-C-T, another diva called it — in our relationships. “I’m sure people see me as an outspoken person, and for the most part, if I want something I ask for it,” Madonna told the New York Times in a piece pegged to the album’s release. She went on to say:
“Sometimes you feel that if you ask for too much or ask for the wrong thing from someone you care about that that person won’t like you. And so you censor yourself. I’ve been guilty of that in every meaningful relationship I’ve ever had. The time I learn how not to edit myself will be the time I consider myself a complete adult.”
“Express Yourself” is a complete rebuke of “Material Girl” — a joke few understood anyway. It’s Madonna’s attempt to Lysol her Material Girl image and move a galaxy away from the Cyndi Laupers and Paula Abduls of her time. It worked: the music video revealed a grown up Madonna. “Express Yourself” was directed by David Fincher and had a budget of $5 million, making it the most expensive music video at that time. But Madonna didn’t throw money at the project to make a striking video; she had a bold vision of what the song could stand for on the small screen.
In the video, we’re transported to an ominous urban landscape filled with metal, machinery, railway lines, and smokestacks — imagery explicitly taken from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. We first see Madonna in a tight-fitting black dress, her hair cropped short and died platinum blonde, perched atop a sinister-looking swan statue overlooking her kingdom. We then get a shot of a factory, where Madonna’s shirtless, muscular men slave away as rain bounces off their chiseled biceps and triceps. Talk about a female gaze.
If Madonna wants to dress like a man, wear a monocle, and grab her crotch — she can. If she wants to chain herself to a bed — she can. If she wants to debase herself and sip milk from a bowl like a cat — she can.
“Express Yourself” has endured. It’s even been copied. In 2011, Lady Gaga released “Born This Way,” the title track of her second album, which was fast, catchy, political (the first number-one hit to use the word “transgendered”), sassy (“Don’t be a drag/Just be a queen”) — and complete a rip-off of “Express Yourself.” While Gaga hadn’t lifted any of the lyrics, everything else — the song’s melody, its disco chord progression, its message of empowerment — was an imitation of Madonna’s anthem.
Madonna has spoken out against this perceived plagiarism more than once. In 2012, she reprimanded Gaga during her “MDNA” tour when “Express Yourself” was performed as a mash-up with “Born This Way,” revealing how similar the two tunes actually are. (The set ended with Madonna singing, “she’s not me.”) For six years, the two superstars have feuded, exchanging barbs in the press, like this one by Gaga in October: “She’s the biggest pop star of all time,” Gaga said on Apple’s Beat 1 radio show. “But I play a lot of instruments. I write all my own music. I spend hours and hours a day in the studio. I’m a producer. I’m a writer. What I do is different.”
But even Gaga had to give it up for the Queen of Pop after the Billboard event. “@Madonna your speech at the Billboard Music Awards was inspiring,” she tweeted on Monday. “You’re so brave & strong. Thanks for being that for us girls we need that.”