Madonna is the original queen of pop media. Naturally she reigned on the radio, but, as she made her name, her print and TV interviews were also incendiary. Then, as the MTV generation’s breakout star, she helped define the concept of the modern pop video.
Even when the internet was becoming popular she found a way to own it and have fun with it. Her 2000 webcast from the Brixton Academy in London – during which she namechecked the white hot online forum Popbitch – broke viewing records at a point when most fans were still on dialup. In 2003, when her American Life album was being shared on peer-to-peer networks, she uploaded a fake file asking pirates: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
Media training is a part of any sensible new popstar’s pre-launch fitness regime, but Madonna didn’t need it. She wrote the bloody book on it.
Then about eight years ago, social media came along. For some time, Madonna was conspicuous by absence. Her reluctance to get involved was, in its own way, incredible. But one still wondered: how amazing would be if Madonna one day simply appeared on Twitter?
One day in 2012 she did just that. By the following year, her Instagram account was also in full flow. At times, her updates have been brilliant. One picture, from May 2013, came with the caption: “Cleaning up before the Met Ball”, and showed a fully glammed-up Madonna wielding a vacuum cleaner in her bathroom.
More recently, though, with a new album on the horizon, Madonna’s social accounts have become a hashtag-strewn, meme-littered jamboree of misfires through which the image Madonna spent three decades refining has begun to unravel.
All eyes were on Madonna just before Christmas when more than 20 demos for her next album, Rebel Heart, were leaked online. Most were works in progress; the release of Rebel Heart hadn’t even been announced. It was an unprecedented security breach for an artist of Madonna’s stature. But when she used social media to liken it all to rape and terrorism, she began to test even fans’ patience.
Suddenly, the pop icon who, little more than a decade earlier, faced leaked music in a way that was funny, smart and aggressive, was uploading a picture of a broken iPod as “a symbol of my broken heart”. Madonna, pop’s most brilliant control freak, was no longer in control. Rather than asking, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” and windmilling her way into a fight, she was assuming the role of victim.
This weekend, things got even worse. After the Rebel Heart leaks, Madonna had begun flooding Instagram (and Twitter) with images of history’s “rebel hearts”. Echoing Madonna’s new album’s artwork, faces were doctored so they were covered in black straps. Marilyn Monroe, Jesus and Salvador Dali mingled with Homer Simpson, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, each figuratively (and graphically) roped into Madonna’s social media marketing campaign whether they liked it or not. Then, on Friday night, in one eight-minute burst, Madonna uploaded defaced images of Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley and Martin Luther King, and social media decided enough was enough.
Many were offended by the most recent trio of images: Madonna was racist, they said, and this was just another example of Madonna hijacking black culture to flog records. Cultural appropriation, a topic Madonna didn’t have to deal with during those heady days when normal people couldn’t make their voices heard, was suddenly an issue.
Meanwhile, Twitter being Twitter, other users opted to tweet their own “rebel hearts”, including Deirdre Barlow and Lisa Scott-Lee from Steps, as well as latticed desserts (#rebeltart) and fish (#rebelcarp). Interestingly, even from many of those making accusations of racism, Madonna’s social media missives hadn’t prompted much anger. Instead, the response was a global, rather weary social media eyeroll.
Some Madonna fans are claiming this is nothing new, because Madonna has always been shocking. But once upon a time it was the people she shocked who looked stupid, and Madonna did what she did on purpose. She knew what she was doing with the lyrics of Papa Don’t Preach, with the video for Like a Prayer, with the Erotica era, with the Sex book. Accidentally blundering into cultural appropriation rows isn’t controlling the media, any more than accidentally shitting yourself in the queue at Tesco is displaying masterful bowel control.
Many of Madonna’s fans, who once had revelled in the star’s ability to make an older generation huff, tut and shake its collective head, have now turned into their own parents: they’re not angry with Madonna, just disappointed. And it is slightly heartbreaking that Madonna, an artist who made her name through an intuitive grasp of almost every major trend and zeitgeist fluctuation, is so crap at social media.
TEXT WRITTEN BY PETER ROBINSON FOR THE GUARDIAN