It’s almost ironic that Madonna, who turns 60 on August 16, has come to be associated with the word scandal. Scandal befalls a person who is not careful — the result of a stray camera drawing unwanted attention, a clumsy lie. Scandal ends in a damaged reputation or a cringe-worthy media apology tour, which gradually eclipses why a person was ever renowned to begin with.
Sure, Madonna’s spectacles in the ‘80s and ‘90s attracted the same media flurry that a quintessential scandal might. The Pope denounced her, the Toronto police threatened to arrest her for pretending to masturbate during a concert, and long before the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial disaster, Madonna was involved in her own Pepsi ad campaign-related brouhaha. But if an attention-grabbing event is deliberately constructed, if it’s on purpose, can it really be a scandal? If you look past the controversial religious imagery, the writhing on the VMAs floor, the Sex coffee table book, there it is — tinny, hard, undeniable and admirable ambition.
After all, Madonna didn’t go from a child of eight in a working class Detroit family to one of the most famous, lasting, and influential pop stars in the world by responding to a Craigslist ad. Her success is the result of one long, determined calculation — not necessarily just the manifestation of talent. In the documentary Naked Ambition, Pearl Lang, Madonna’s dance professor at the University of Michigan, attests that if Madonna hadn’t become a pop star, she would’ve become a professional dancer. But what set Madonna apart was not her capacity for dance or her ability to belt a song. It was her knack for creating memorable moments — and she was well aware of this. “I know I’m not the best singer, and I know I’m not the best dancer,” Madonna said in her 1992 tour documentary Truth or Dare. “But I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative. In being political.” Her fame was cobbled together through explosive moments.
Looking back, many of the “scandals” that made Madonna famous now seem almost tame. Yet by pushing cultural boundaries — actually, by knocking them over entirely — Madonna made space for us to catch up and join her in the new normal. In recent years, though, Madonna has lost careful control over her PR machine. She doesn’t get headlines because of intentional stunts, but rather for texting during Hamilton, or off-color remarks.
Through looking at her most famous “scandals,” we peer closely into the fame machine that created Madonna, the machine that Madonna created — and the machine over which she’s gradually lost control.