The Queen of Pop has sparked a new generation of provocative successors. But they’re not the ones you think they are.
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Madonna “dropped in” on Miley Cyrus’s MTV Unplugged show on Thursday night—it was hardly a surprise, what with a press-release blast to the media earlier in the week—the elder stateswoman of pop mashing her song “Don’t Tell Me” into the younger star’s “Can’t Stop.” It was a rousing number, jammed with acoustic guitar riffs, rhinestone-cowboy getups, and, of course, lots of girl-on-girl hip thrusts.
Theirs is a collaboration that makes a lot of sense, and not just because their songs complement each other well. It has become a tradition over the past ten years for critics specifically and the media in general to find among the young female pop stars, “the next Madonna”—and Cyrus is just the latest among them. But this time, Madonna is demonstrating her approval, coming out to anoint her. Which involves a lot of flirting, as we recall from the last time Madonna anointed her hopeful successor, a decade ago, when she kissed Britney Spears (and Christina Aguilera, though no one ever remembers that) at the 2003 Video Music Awards. (Apparently the ability to be Madonna is passed through saliva, or at the very least, via intimate bodily contact.) But that coronation proved premature and superficial: Britney was a pretty blonde with great dance skills, an okay voice, a great ear for catchy singles, enough money in the bank to hire the best producers, and an impressive record on Billboard. What she lacked was what made Madonna worth noting: a provocative spirit, a vision, something to say. Britney’s significance was accidental, as an unwitting sex symbol and a demonstration of fame’s tolls. She’s never been in control; she is, if anything, the undoing of everything Madonna did with purpose.
So Madge’s crowning of Miley this week seems to be take-two: Hey, maybe this former child star–turned-wannabe-provocateur will do something truly interesting with her career. Someday? If so, Madonna seems to be saying, I will not let that happen without my having rubbed my Madonna-ness on her.
However, this performance, perfectly delightful in a vacuum, underscores the unbaked nature of Cyrus’s attention-getting antics, not to mention the hollowness of Madonna’s recent years. Granted, it’s hard out there for a female pop star, whether she’s 20 or 50. But the best of them—starting with ’80s and ’90s Madonna—do more than sing catchy songs, dance, and shock us to attention. They use all of those tools to say something, often to change perceptions of women. Right now, Madonna and Miley are two peas in a pod, but it’s not the pod they think they’re in: It’s the pod that continues to demand our attention and take up our bandwidths without provoking any productive conversations.
Our searches for “the next” singular female talents in the pop culture realm are relentless: If we’re not looking for the next Madonna, we’re looking for the next Julia Roberts. We rarely find either. Next singular dominant male talents, incidentally, are rarely a priority. Someone may be described as “the next Prince” or “the next Michael Jackson” in a review, but we are not so desperate to find them, which implies that we still think there’s room for just one woman at the top, but many and varied men.
So yes, there’s far more pressure on female stars, particularly pop stars. Since Madonna first crashed the pop music party in the ’80s—in that wedding dress, writhing around on MTV (see video below)—our female pop stars have been expected to follow suit. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The last year in particular has featured a string of feminist-or-not moments for our biggest female names. Taylor Swift declared she was not feminist (even though I still believe she’s great for girls, regardless). Lady Gaga and Beyoncé both hemmed and hawed when initially asked the question then later, presumably after some research, both declared themselves proudly feminist and backed that up with songs and action. P!nk leaves no doubt where she stands, given her endless stream of anti-harassment, pro-empowerment, anti-airhead, pro-sex anthems. Lorde exploded onto the scene this year by calling herself a feminist, fingering those of her contemporaries who are not feminists, and—holy crap—appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone this week fully clothed. (Look at their cover archives, and you’ll see that a female star under 30 appearing dressed from head to toe is a rarity achieved only by the likes of Taylor Swift, Adele, and Jennifer Lawrence.)
Is this a fair amount of pressure to put on our female pop stars? Probably not. No one’s worried about what Bruno Mars stands for. Justin Timberlake needs be nothing more than pro-sexytime and pro-formalwear. But women are also dominating the charts these days, and that has at least a little to do with the ardor they inspire—an ardor that comes from more than just singing nice songs to people. Going to a Beyoncé show means more than just a fun night with a lady who sings pretty. It’s a spiritual experience, a sharing in her goddess glow with hundreds of other women. Going to a P!nk show means partying with one badass chick, and hundreds of others who value badass-chickery.
I want Miley to get this. I think she has potential. But she’s not there yet. So far, the past six months of Miley fever has produced one collective freakout after another without a hint of what she wants to actually say to us. She actually “came out” as feminist, like many of her peers, and even took it one step further, saying with pride that she is “one of the biggest feminists.” (Ah, warms my heart.) That’s awesome, truly. But feminism is more than running around without clothes on and doing vulgar stuff that upsets parents who liked you as Hannah Montana. Though I’ll grant you that kind of defiant spirit is a start, which is why I want more for her.
This brings us to one of the biggest problems with our current child-star farm-team system. For the past few decades, we’ve gotten a large portion of our pop stars (and Saturday Night Live cast members, and actors) from the Disney/Nickelodeon system. We all know this presents a sizable adjustment problem for many of them. (See, currently: Justin Bieber.) But even those who make the transition take up so much of our time simply trying to prove to us that they’re grownups, they don’t realize that’s not enough: In reality, most of us don’t really care, beyond the entertainment of idle gossip, whether these kids have grown up. Their rebellion isn’t nearly as interesting to us as it is to them—though the inordinate amount of tabloid attention paid to such rebellions is, indeed, a confusing factor.
Madonna, on the other hand, seems to have come full circle. She showed up onto the pop charts to change what women were allowed to do and be and say. Now she faces, in some ways, the same problem these kids do: She changed the world so much in her earlier days, at a time when we needed her most—during the AIDS crisis, particularly—that simply being shocking, sexual, or shockingly sexual doesn’t quite do it anymore. (It would seem that Miley and her peers are struggling with this: They appear to believe that imitating ’80s-era Madonna is enough, but that’s been done many times over now.) So Madonna tries to stay in the conversation by cavorting with the young folks who are circling her throne. She shows up for supporting roles in showy mass Grammy wedding ceremonies, wears grills (I mean, wear what you want, I guess, but what’s up with that?), names her albums after club drugs, and uses the N-word on Instagram—to describe her white son. I love Madonna and support her doing whatever she wants at whatever age she wants. She’s earned it. But her antics lately seem as ill-conceived, empty, and attention-seeking as Miley’s, a disappointing coda to a revolutionary career. They’re rendering each other meaningless.
Then again, maybe we don’t need a new Madonna. Maybe we have lots of them already, doing their thing in their own ways. Their diversity is a testament to the woman herself: Beyoncé, particularly on her latest album, brings home Madonna-like messages about the pain of the beauty myth, about women’s sexuality, and about her own struggles and triumphs, with the bonus of superior musical prowess. (My friend and colleague Heather Wood Rudulph aptly called Beyoncé “the new Madonna and the new Prince” on Twitter.) P!nk keeps her punk spirit alive, Lorde brings her outspoken tendencies to a new level, and Taylor Swift is proving herself at least as tough as Madonna, with songwriting talent to boot. And there are artists like Janelle Monae, a performer with a startlingly clear vision, vocal and dance talent galore, and a distinctive look with a story behind it—she can not only take up a part of that Madonna-sized hole in our culture, she can also take young, female fans in entirely new directions.
Perhaps we’ve got all the Madonna we could possibly need. It’s time to make room for new talents who honor her legacy in its truest spirit.
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