Two days later, I find myself doing my daily Google search. Two workers died in an accident at her stage in France; she’s broken up with Jesus Luz; also, the Poles are protesting because she’s performing on a Catholic holiday. She’s collaborating with the New York artist Marilyn Minter! A greatest-hits album drops this fall. And bloggers are examining her upper arms for indications of “bingo wings.” Then I follow pointers on Twitter and find myself watching a YouTube clip of “Hung Up” from the 2006 Confessions Tour—one of many recent songs, I suddenly notice, studded with ticktock sounds and countdowns—with Madonna doing seductive pelvic pops, then reaching out, drawing from her fans the eerie chant “Time goes by! So slowly … ”
And hearing the roar of the faithful brings me back, all over again. Because, perverse as it sounds, the tougher Madonna gets, the more she invokes protectiveness and a kind of pride. In the eighties, during those endless debates about date rape and porn, she was our sacrificial anti-victim, jumping into the slut-pit before she could be thrown, magnetizing contempt: She’d play the tease, the porn star, the dominatrix, eager to control that imagery rather than let it swallow her. She predated and predicted Girls Gone Wild culture, blogs, reality TV, the whole exhibitionistic brand-me wave of modern female culture; she surfed over and then tried to surf past it. If she’s hardened in the process, maybe that’s because she was the first to step up and take it; she was a shield. Now she’s catalyzing a new set of insults, that cougar-MILF catcall, with its attendant put-downs—she’s “desperate,” “pathetic,” “trying too hard.” And maybe she is. Sometimes I think she is. But while other female icons fade, fold, or fossilize into camp, for better or worse, Madonna seems determined to do something unsettling and new: spin to the center of the dance floor, till the end.