At Billboard’s Women in Music 2016, Madonna took the stage, spreading her legs in defiance of convention — or maybe because of it. Convention has always been an ugly word to her, something she likes to thwart and thrash, letting us know she doesn’t give a fuck — although you know she does. No woman living gives more of a fuck. She’s a give-a-fuck specialist.
Madonna started her speech off with a customary joke, one directed at the subject of the night — not women so much as the misogynistic assholes who held her back, who doubted her, who called her a “whore.” So it was really to them she said “I always feel better with something hard between my legs,” hoping the women in the audience knew she meant plastic.
It was an emotional speech — at least for Madonna. The tears were quickly held in abeyance — not brushed away but shushed away with, “Stop it.”
She stayed strong, telling the audience she’s been through the mill. In her younger days, sure, she posed for nude photos (to make money), but she was bored and, besides, she’d also been robbed and raped on a rooftop with a knife at her throat. As one woman wrote later, “I was never that into her music until I heard last night what she went through.”
If Madonna’s anything, she’s a sly manipulator. Getting a “Woman of the Year” award was just another soapbox. Crafting her speech, she must have made little notations: “A tear goes here.” If, as she said, the most controversial thing she ever did was “stick around,” you know she’s a hard-butt optimist.
Women of The Year are rarely there promoting anything. They’ve done it all, accomplished more than most. Madonna decided she’d take one more kick at the proverbial can, calling her strength the result of doubters and naysayers, all men, all misogynistic assholes. But the operative word was “strength,” which anyone with any perspicacity would know means “still saleable.”
It played well to the feminists in the audience. More importantly, it played well to her own self-marketing ambitions. Madonna doesn’t miss a chance, peppering every sentence with her own first-person singular. She didn’t mind being bold with “the daring woman you see before you,” or humble with “I’m not the owner of my talents. They’re a gift from God.”
You can’t go wrong with God references, or pointing out that you’re “daring.” And surely having Anderson Cooper standing behind her was more prop than parody. He’s gay and Madonna doesn’t mind gay men one little bit. They’re so, well, unobtrusive, and they don’t mind you calling men misogynists. They’ve called a few men misogynists as well, just not as vocally.
Nor should it have escaped notice that she mentioned Sean Penn, someone she’s since shown “renewed interest.” As she said “Sorry, Sean,” there was a little twinkle in her eye, letting Sean know she wasn’t sorry at all. If Sean wants back into the boudoir, all he has to do is admit she’s a “keeper.”
But the overriding theme remained bad men, the sexists, the abusers. They still make up the male-dominated music industry — the industry that laughed at her, held her down, forced her to accept the conventions of chauvinism. She mentioned David Bowie (the only male influence), who told her, “There are no rules” but, just as quickly, she added “There are no rules — if you’re a boy.”
“Prince could walk around in fishnets and his ass hanging out,” she said, but that was okay. He was a male. If a woman did it, she was a whore. Why did Prince get a pass and not her?
There’s no question double standards exist, even she had to admit those same double standards gave her “strength.” But she might also have mentioned that both Bowie and Prince didn’t get a “pass” because they were “boys.” They got a pass for being extremely gifted artists, writing classics without the gimmicks Madonna has used throughout her career.
Their songs will go down in history, while the best we can say about Madonna is she’s a “marketing genius.” She made a product of herself and did very well as a single-minded promoter. By “single-minded” I mean she’s only sold one thing, and that’s her. I’ve never heard of Madonna “marketing” anyone else.
It’s also customary in these speeches — besides mentioning influences — to acknowledge those who helped along the way. Where was the nod to Mark Kamins, the DJ and record producer who introduced her to Sire Records. Or John “Jellybean” Benitez who co-wrote some of her early hits.
There’s no question Madonna has earned the title of “most successful female artist of the twentieth century,” if you base that strictly on record sales. By the same definition, it’s not surprising that Jewel is the most successful poet of the twentieth century.
But could Madonna be compared to, say, Carole King or Laura Nero? Let’s be honest here. Their level of musicianship and songwriting surpasses anything Madonna has written — or ever could write.
Madonna’s success is strictly dollars and cents. And while she can attribute that to the young teenaged girls who bought her albums, and certainly hold her up as a “model fighter,” the “units sold” paradigm responsible for making her a household name was established by — you guessed it, male chauvinists.
Is that an irony or not? You don’t hear Madonna complaining. She played by chauvinist rules, beating men at their own game. For that she deserves credit. Whether she deserves all the credit remains suspect. It’s one thing to play to an audience, it’s another to gather accolades without nodding to the many who helped along the way.
At least she mentioned God. That’s what a good Catholic does. God’s been good to Madonna in more ways than one, but even God only got one mention — same as David Bowie. The rest of her male counterparts, the co-writers (including Stephen Sondheim), the producers, the choreographers, the dancers, the directors, etc., well, they’re men, right?
And clearly, when you’re Billboard’s Woman of the Year, you stick to script. You talk about blatant misogyny, sexism and abuse. That’s what the audience wanted to hear, and Madonna always gives an audience what they want.
But in the end, she proved she’s not just a “Bad Feminist” — she’s a bad friend.
Robert Cormack is a novelist, blogger and freelance copywriter. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.