Madonna Studies: The Queen of Pop (Culture) Marks Another Milestone


Madonna Performs At MTV Video Music Awards
BIRTH OF AN ICON: Madonna’s groundbreaking performance at 1984’s MTV Video Music Awards at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall changed pop culture. It was referenced on “The Celebration Tour” with a wedding cake as a part of one of the sets. Photo by Frank Micelotta / Getty Images

In the early days of MTV, legions of American kids, whether they were into music, pop culture or neither, would run home from school to watch the 24-hour music cable channel. The popularity of MTV in the early 1980s represented a seismic shift in how young people were introduced to music. Turning away from radio, MTV brought exposure and opportunities while liberating a whole new class of artists who didn’t necessarily get played on FM radio, where the sounds and artistic images were considered too different, too alternative. FM radio was entrenched in what is now known as “classic rock;” on MTV, however, video after video of assorted artists would air with viewers transfixed, as in a music video trance, perhaps similarly to what doom scrolling on a smartphone is today.

One of the artists, who millions were transfixed by, was Madonna. She led a wave of female empowered pop music, for which she set the template for and has remained a leader in the four decades since. While she is often referred to as the “Queen of Pop,” one could easily amend that title to “Queen of Pop Culture.”

Madonna’s enormous role in popular culture and society at large went far beyond just music to the leading edges of different cultures, mediums and social movements that today might be taken for granted, but were radical in their day. Take for example Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” video from 1989, which featured religious, sexual and interracial imagery, including burning crosses and her kissing a Black saint. The video was too much for some and led the Vatican to urge a boycott of her tour. Pepsi, which was supposed to sponsor that tour, suddenly pulled out.

“So began my illustrious career as an artist refusing to compromise my artistic integrity,” Madonna wrote in an Instagram post last September. That’s when, in a full circle moment that took 34 years and societal mores to change, Pepsi finally agreed to release an ad. “Thank you [Pepsi] for finally realizing the genius of our collaboration,” Madonna continued. “Artists are here to disturb the peace.” Maybe Madonna did lose some battles, but today it looks like she won the war.

Madonna: The Celebration Tour London
40 YEARS LATER… Madonna with FKA Twigs at the Oct. 15 opening shows of “The Celebration Tour” at London’s 02 Arena judging the “Vogue” ballroom. Photo byKevin Mazur / Getty / Allign PR

Yet to remain for four decades in the upper echelons of popular music and culture is a remarkable achievement and testimony in large measure to her dedicated, superhuman work ethic. Forty years is an eternity in today’s digital world of pop culture with artists struggling to remain relevant for four hours, four months, four years, let alone four decades. And in that time she’s achieved far more than most can ever hope to. From her 14 studio albums, 12 tours, 27 films and three plays, Madonna has reinvented herself, her music, image, live performances, geography, activism and how she synthesizes and expresses her art.

Her music continues to blend a variety of styles – pop, dance, electronic, rock, global and more – while collaborating with other leading lights including producers Nile Rogers, William Orbit and Timbaland to artists like The Weeknd, Björk and Maluma. Throughout it all, she’s danced to her own beat and despite any and all controversies, detractors and censorship, she consistently comes out on top with the last laugh, which the huge success of “The Celebration Tour” shows.

With that, Madonna gave her fans, who have aged as gracefully as she has, as well as subsequent generations of fans, an opportunity to celebrate alongside her. For two and a half hours, fans were treated to not only her greatest hits, but also an array of stage sets and backdrops (NYC in the 1980s, the cake from her breakthrough 1984 MTV appearance), video imagery and outfits (thank you John Paul Gaultier) and special guests (from FKA Twigs to Salma Hayek to Donatella Versace to Anitta) who have all combined to create a sort of communal artistic iconography that is Madonna.

In my course on popular music, I touch upon a variety of different music styles and genres from blues to current popular music and beyond. Students of today are blown away by Madonna and see and make connections between her and artists of today and the influence she and her music have had on music, art, culture, societal norms, fashion, politics and more. One of the classic moments in my teaching career was when a student wrote a paper on Madonna, as have many in my course, and for their presentation she came dressed as Madonna of the 1980s. This live “show & tell” was reminiscent of Madonna’s rebellious spirit in music, in life and in her live performances. All get A-pluses.

Madonna ending her “Celebration Tour” in Rio (see page 14) with a record-setting 1.6 million people was yet another stroke of genius and another historic Madge moment in popular music and live performance. Very few artists could ever garner an audience of that size. For her, though, the show was just the icing of a deep, rich multi-layered cake made from a singular and multi-faceted career in popular music in which she has become an icon of popular culture.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of her London stop on the “Celebration Tour” was when she briefly played, as an interlude, an acoustic version of “I Will Survive” popularized by Gloria Gaynor, where she goes from the verse “Did you think I’d crumble, Did you think I’d lay down and die?”…and then she ad libs “No Fucking Way!”