So you hate Madonna. Let’s establish a baseline of criticisms you’ve probably lodged in her direction:
Madonna can’t sing.
Madonna is offensive.
Madonna is irrelevant.
Madonna is a plastic surgery nightmare.
Madonna is desperate.
Madonna hasn’t released good music in decades.
Madonna is derivative.
Madonna is thirsty.
For the sake of argument, let’s accept that all of these things are true. The beauty of media in 2015 is that it’s very easy to avoid the people we don’t like or respect. Ubiquity has become selective: Unless she’s performing in a Super Bowl halftime show, it’s simple to bypass Katy Perry altogether. I don’t follow her on social media, don’t click on stories about her life and career, and don’t listen to her songs on Spotify. If a new Katy Perry song drops, I might give it a listen, and I might not.
Mind you, Katy Perry is one of the strongest forces in the pop music game right now. But that doesn’t place her on my personal radar. Someone could just as easily tune out media about President Obama as one can Taylor Swift, Rihanna or Lady Gaga. As we curate our own media diets, we are not captive audiences to anyone. We have no excuse to groan as often or as loudly as we do, unless we’re seeking those experiences out deliberately.
And there’s no doubt that people do. On the Daily Mail, any story about the Kardashian family is inundated with negative comments, including some that say “I don’t know why I clicked this” or “Stop making stupid people famous.” Haters don’t passively encounter their targets in 2015, or endure them through inevitable osmosis. They make the choice to engage, and participate in raising the profile of the people they profess to loathe.
So if all of those statements about Madonna are true, they should still be of no consequence to the people who believe them. Yet they are, and always have been.
If Madonna has inspired multiple generations of fans, she’s also revved up multiple generations of haters. Granted, her earliest haters, the elderly of the 1980s, have mostly died off at this point. I’m not being morbid, just honest.
In the Madonna ecosystem, life depends on several sets of organisms. There are fans, who defend and genuflect. There is Madonna herself, the creator of content which drives the narrative. There are garden variety haters, who grunt and yelp unintelligibly about age and talent and relevance. And then there are highbrow haters on blogs and opinion pages, who grasp for an in to the conversation attempting to say something new, or complex, or elevated. They couch arguments with “I’m not ageist, but…” or “I’m not a sexist, but…” or “I used to be a Madonna fan, but…” They love the word “problematic.”
A popular falsehood is that there’s a difference between those two types of haters. Madonna’s haters have sworn oaths of office, enjoyed direct communication with God, won their cable news time slots and worn short-sleeved house frocks to baptisms at county creeks. They come from all walks of life.
When Madonna says things like, “I never listen to what people say,” she means all of the people, whether they can boast degrees in gender studies from Barnard or fewer 300 followers on Instagram. It doesn’t matter how big their soapbox is, or how much authority they claim. In fact, the more authority and the bigger the platform, the more useful rage spirals are to promoting Madonna’s brand.
Hate for Madonna is often phrased as a reaction against undue praise—the “overrated” yarn—as if that’s the prevalent attitude. It’s not. Even in a community of young gay men, my devotion to Madonna makes me an outlier.
The suggestion that writing a column about dignity and “aging gracefully” and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is any more sophisticated than calling Madonna a tough old cow is ludicrous. Finding a bookish way to say that Madonna is over is the Everest for haters, who wait for the slightest vulnerability to dig in their ice picks.
As for criticism of her work, there are plenty of artists I don’t get, but I don’t give them my time. Heavy metal will never make sense to me but that doesn’t mean I don’t think Metallica should keep doing their thing. So why, instead of a shrug, does Madonna warrant outright contempt?
When Madonna fell down at the Brit Awards, this ecosystem was put to the test. For about an hour, the conversation was dominated by memes and pot shots that reveled in that moment of indignity. What makes Madonna Madonna, however, is how that turned on a dime. The performance became a very literal iteration of the song’s lyrics, and a testament to resilience and professionalism. There are still jokes, and the Queen has even laughed at herself.
Fans have been treated to 30 years of rigorous self-examination, something of which her detractors seem entirely incapable. People tweet what they want to tweet, click what they want to click, and see what they want to see. Madonna is not the source of the negativity; We are.
These haters make a choice to hate. When Madonna talks about her “Revolution of Love,” she’s not just talking about the schools she’s funded around the world, from Detroit to rural Afghanistan. She’s challenging haters to find merit instead of fault, to live and let live. In the same breath, Madonna thrives on controversy and criticism. She’s admitted, repeatedly, that she’s not the best singer or the best dancer, but she’s unrivaled in being herself.
This is not for lack of women trying to be Madonna.