Madonna, the inveterate Queen of Pop who turned 60 last week, is no stranger to controversy. The abrasive star has been making headlines ever since she first donned a wedding dress and humped the stage of the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards.
Her ongoing legacy of controversies can be divided into two categories. On the one hand, there’s innovation - boundary-pushing antics that help propel culture forward. Then, of course, there’s scandal, which often has more to do with sexual misconduct, racism or poor judgement than it does with pushing the envelope.
Madonna has straddled this line on many occasions in the past 35 years since her debut album, and continues to do so with impressive regularly.
Most recently, the star came under fire at the latest edition of MTV’s Music Video Awards, when she made what many thought to be a tribute to Aretha Franklin all about herself, wearing an outfit that could easily be considered cultural appropriation (see above). This clearly falls under the second category.
There is plenty about the Material Girl that is worth celebrating...but what’s the fun in that? Instead, let’s take a look back as a few of her most memorably objectionable pop-culture faux-pas.
Oh, the Reinventions. Madonna has rebooted her image so many times, she earned herself yet another nickname as the ‘Headmistress of Reinvention.’ Is it a dogged pursuit of her creative whims or a desperate attempt to stay relevant? Wherever you stand, we think it’s safe to say that not every iteration of Madonna’s career has quite panned out.
While there is something to be said for an artist who’s always shaking things up and changing her image, but for every new No. 1 album or cone bra phenomenon, you’re just as likely to get a lazy country riff like "Don’t Tell Me," or an embarrassing rap anthem like "Bitch I’m Madonna."
Her 1998 'Ray of Light' performance
Yup—the VMAs again. This time, she was slammed with accusations of cultural appropriation of sacred Hindu images, particularly the way that she juxtaposed with some pretty sexually explicit dance moves
Rather than apologize or defend her creative license, she instead fired back at her detractors, saying, "If they’re so pure, why are they watching MTV?"
This, we dare say, might be the least divisive controversy in Madonna’s illustrious career, considering there probably isn’t a person alive who thinks she’s any good at it. Madonna’s acting career had been noted for provoking NC-17 ratings and providing awkward cameos, but mostly it is remembered just for being bad.
For a while there, however, she really seemed to be making a go of it. Remember when she married film director Guy Ritchie and inexplicably picked up a British accent for a while? Yeah, with the exception of her mention in the opening of 'Reservoir Dogs', and maybe some of 'Evita', if we're being generous, it’s probably best to forget her contributions to film entirely.
The Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera Kiss
Back in 2003, Madonna provoked some outrage at yet another VMAs award show when the then 45 year-old star planted two big ol’ kisses on Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during a performance. The younger stars were 22 and 23 at the time, respectively, so, like, maybe she was passing the sex-symbol torch or something?
Whatever the intended result, it certainly drew a lot of attention, most of which was negative. Critics suggested that the act was both desperate and completely out of touch with the times.
Clearly, Madonna did not learn her lesson, however, considering she repeated this controversy again in 2015, although this time it was Drake who was the subject of her unprompted kissing, leading us to wonder…who’s next?
The Whole Pepsi Thing
The soda brand quickly latched onto the 1989 hit “Like A Prayer,” producing a glitzy commercial featuring Madonna dancing and singing to the song while a kid slugged back a can of the toxic sugar water. This would have been all fine and dandy, financially speaking, had the label not produced another video for the song.
The official music video, which is still pretty awesome, features Madonna dancing in front of burning crosses and having erotic interactions with a saint. The video provoked a great deal of ire from religious groups, even prompting the Vatican to call for a boycott of all PepsiCo. companies, including Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. We hear the Pope even excommunicated that poor Taco Bell chihuahua.
Then, in a stunning display of support for artistic integrity…Pepsi quickly cancelled the campaign and severed ties with the star.
Actually, come to think of it, maybe this makes Madonna even more cool, not less.
Long live the Queen.