The Last Days of Disco

Has the Material Girl finally run out of material?

Even as Madonna brings her world tour to the MGM Grand Garden for shows on Oct. 13 and 14, longtime fans will have a sneaking suspicion that she’s already sung her swan song.

It happened in 2001, at the opening of the Grammy Awards. Performing a recent single, the unimaginatively named “Music,” the long-reigning Queen of Pop writhed on top of a car while a screen behind her projected legitimately iconic images from her career thus far—more writhing, in a wedding gown at the Video Music Awards; aping Marilyn in the “Material Girl” video; that whole Sex period. By the time she stripped off her black leather jacket to reveal a T-shirt printed with “Material Girl,” the game was up. It was the end of history for Madonna. Having stolen from New York’s drag queens, the nation of Argentina, Björk and the infinitely patient Camille Paglia, there was no one left to rob but herself. The snake had found its own tail and wasn’t letting go. “Music” was her last No. 1 single in the United States.

The subsequent 11 years have been no kinder to a pop singer who made untold profits by scandalizing the entire population all at once. In 2003, for instance, Madonna restaged the notorious VMAs “Like a Virgin” performance in which she’d mimed masturbation; it was such a sensational act back in 1984 that a worthy callback required the additional services of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, both of whom planted kisses on Mama. The stunt got ink, but felt a little derivative, unworthy.

We haven’t even gotten to the Super Bowl performance, this year, during which the chanteuse came out in a gilded barge, like Cleopatra, to intone “Vogue,” then almost fell off a set of bleachers while performing, once again, “Music.” Madonna did a duet with of-the-moment hip-hop act LMFAO, gave airtime to Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. (who stole the show with a raised middle finger—proving she had learned from the best), and ceded the entire finale to reality-show judge (and future Las Vegas resident headliner) Cee Lo Green, who belted out “Like a Prayer” while the supposed star sang backup. Nothing here was new—not the reliance on the energy of younger pop stars (Madonna has, in the past 10 years, collaborated with everyone from Missy Elliott to Justin Timberlake to Kanye West), not the ostensibly new song she debuted (a retread of flimsy early material like “Burning Up”), and not the dopey “political” edge (her song ended with a plea for world peace).

Madonna’s ongoing world tour, following the halftime show that most of us were inclined to view charitably, has been marred by endless grabs for attention; the well-chronicled political mishmash has featured the comparison of a French politician to Hitler, the onstage brandishing of pistols, a merited-or-not mockery of Lady Gaga, and Madonna’s own fans booing her. And then there was Elton John, who declared, “Her career is over, I can tell you that” and compared her to “a fairground stripper.” Which isn’t to say that John is the most relevant pop star of the moment, either, but he has a point.

Past Madonna tours were controversial; recall how natural she seemed in her 1991 tour documentary Truth or Dare, still discovering her power to provoke. Back in the day, the attention felt somehow earned, if often strenuously so—the Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra said a mouthful, for instance; “Papa Don’t Preach” still carries a frisson; and the apostasy of the Catholic-baiting “Like a Prayer” made up for the relative thinness of the music. It was an equal exchange—she gave us something to talk about, we bought her albums and got up to dance (for inspiration), whenever she commanded.

By comparison, Madonna’s bids for controversy these days come off as desperate, the Newsweek cover stories of Top 40 radio. Her latest onstage spectacle came Sept. 24 in Washington, where she urged everyone in the audience to vote for President Obama, calling him a “black Muslim.” She later said she was being ironic, explaining, “Yes, I know Obama is not a Muslim—though I know that plenty of people in this country think he is. And what if he were? The point I was making is that a good man is a good man, no matter who he prays to.”

Perhaps the pop star’s antics have always been a little too provocative to take seriously. It’s possible that no public act has ever been more calculated than Madonna’s repeated cursing on Letterman—rewatching the 1994 segment today, you can see there is no spontaneity whatsoever. Madonna dropped the F-bomb because she had determined it was time to prove that she could be naughtier than we even believed possible. Her Erotica album doesn’t really sound like the work of someone who’s actually ever had sex (much less cruised the Lower East Side in a limo, hunting for hookups, or partnered with Warren Beatty, Sean Penn, JFK Jr., et al.). The Vanity Fair spread with her newborn daughter invented the current tabloid vogue for baby photos, but the earth-mother shtick felt like as much of a pose as the Hindi-inflected look she threw on at awards ceremonies around the period, or the British accent she would soon pick up. In retrospect, the British accent was when the pose overwhelmed the artist. Until then, it was easy enough to go along with Madonna’s act. Certainly it was more interesting on a semiotic level than just marveling, yet again, at the dully marvelous vocal power of contemporaries such as Mariah Carey and Toni Braxton.

And yet Madonna seemed to grow rageful at the limits of the concord she’d struck with her audience. Her mid-career albums Ray of Light (1998) and Music (2000) got the first legitimately respectful reviews of her oeuvre—and the first Grammy wins aside from a 1992 music-video prize. Having proven herself as an artist and not merely a provocateur, Madonna released, in 2003, a musically interesting, politically moronic album called American Life. A video depicted her tossing a bomb at George W. Bush. This was the album on which she rapped about how dissatisfied she was with her household staff and her “soy latte” with a “double shot-té.” Rightly or wrongly, her discovery of Jewish mysticism—remember “Esther”?—came off as yet another pose, if an expensive one.

Her 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor marked a retrenchment; the music was well regarded precisely because it so closely mimed the spirit of the disco tunes that had initially made Madonna famous (with a bit of international house music mixed in). On tour in support of the album, Madonna ascended a glittering disco cross and wore a crown of thorns, to which the world replied with a mass eye-roll. What, precisely, was she even trying to say about the Catholic Church, 15 years after Like a Prayer? What was there left to communicate? The confessions weren’t forthcoming on Dance Floor, an album about having fun and waiting for boys to call and vaguely pushing oneself toward some undefined goal. (It’s worth noting that Confessions on a Dance Floor sold well, and that Madonna will always be able to count on an avid, if graying, fan base—in particular gay men between 25 and 55 who grew up with her act.)

After a warmed-over hip-hop-ish album in 2008 came this year’s MDNA—a not-so-clever mash-up of her own name and the active ingredient in Ecstasy. One song features a rap bashing ex-husband Guy Ritchie; another bashes “some girls” who don’t have Madonna’s particular je ne sais quoi. There’s “Masterpiece,” a weak ballad from the Wallis Simpson biopic she directed. There’s a tune called “Gang Bang,” and a remix of the leadoff single “Give Me All Your Luvin’” produced by LMFAO. None of this has aged well, and the album came out in the spring.

Given Madonna’s undisciplined message, her buckshot approach to baiting controversy—if you throw every signifier out into the world, one is bound to hit—it’s perhaps no surprise that her lunch has been eaten by a crop of pop stars who absorbed her best moves and subtracted the air of breathless doggedness. Katy Perry has nailed the faux-naïf “Why are you paying attention to me?” quality. Rihanna captures the air of the profane. Nicki Minaj does the whole rapid-cycling-through-personae thing, albeit in fast-motion. And Lady Gaga, whose own popularity waxes and wanes in a Madonnavian manner, has adopted the sense of unashamed artifice, mixing in a bit more humor and perhaps a bit more heart, daring us, as Madonna once did, not to talk about her.

While Madonna performed old material and prematurely stale material, and waved guns and twirled batons and invoked Godwin’s Law at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 6, the world’s top pop acts were in Los Angeles, at the MTV Video Music Awards. While the deal-makers who paid Madonna a reported $120 million over 10 years can count on strong attendance this one last go-round—she’s still Madonna, after all—the Madge business isn’t a growth industry. The last time Madonna performed at the VMAs was to reprise her past material and kiss Britney.

It turns out that Madonna’s 1987 album Who’s That Girl is the most appropriately titled of her career (certainly more so than Music). Some 30 years on, we’re no closer to finding out what makes this girl tick, what interests her beyond the glitter and flash of a camera. At this point, it may be time for her to take her own advice from one of her No. 1 singles, “Take a Bow.” “The show is over,” Madonna sang, back when the future seemed bright, or at least more full of possibility. “Say goodbye.”