Toward the end of the 1991 documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare, the young superstar confides that she knows she’s “not the best singer and not the best dancer.” But, she says, she’s not interested in being the best. “I'm interested in pushing people's buttons, and being provocative and political.” Coming at the end of nearly two hours of footage of her scandalizing everyone in sight—Toronto cops who threatened to arrest her for faking an orgasm on stage; her own entourage who didn’t expect that she’d commit quite so eagerly to deep-throating a glass bottle—it’s a welcome acknowledgement that Madonna has always known exactly what she’s been up to.
Notice that last part of her mission statement, though: She wants to be provocative and political. Political, really? You can see it, if you squint. She caused a revolution in pop music, and influenced attitudes outside of it, by publicly flaunting her sexuality. Her Catholic blaspheming was a stunt for attention that also dramatized the way that many people struggle with religion’s repressive aspects. And she has loudly championed gay rights and international freedom. If you really wanted to take her political aspirations seriously, you could say she’s been an all-purpose culture warrior for the left, using dance tunes and cone bras and flagrantly inclusive dating habits to assault old ideas about what people, especially women, are allowed to do.