The metal grill that Madonna’s been wearing in public lately is not, by almost any standard, flattering. Whether on the Grammys red carpet or on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show, she looks less like Nelly in 2005 than Richard Kiel in Moonraker. Why's she doing it? "It pisses everybody off when I wear my grill,” she told Ryan Seacrest, “so that's why I wear it."
Pissing everyone off has long been Madonna’s M.O., and in the past she executed her stunts in a way that made them into cultural landmarks, forcing important conversations about sex and race and music. Lately, though, it can seem like she’s just out to troll, whether by comparing herself to Nelson Mandela or by humping tables. On Sunday at Coachella, Drake’s reaction to being deep-kissed by her on stage about summed up the cultural reaction to this latest batch of provocations: some struggle, a gasp, followed by “what the fuck just happened?”
The singer’s response as she walks away: “Bitch, I’m Madonna.” That’s a song title from her new album Rebel Heart, both meant to remind people of Madonna’s essential, in-your-face Madonna-ness and to project an air of carefree self-indulgence. But her actions seem anything but carefree. Look at the way that she grabs Drake’s head, and how she walks away in a defiant strut. Everything is purposeful. She’s trying very hard.
Looking like you’re trying, of course, is inherently uncool. Madonna must know this. But she’s on a mission, or so she says. A big part of the backlash against her involves elements of ageism and sexism—the notion that the stunts she pulled in her youth are inappropriate now that she’s 57. To hear her tell it, this is the “last great frontier” for tolerance. Here she is in Rolling Stone:
No one would dare to say a degrading remark about being black or dare to say a degrading remark on Instagram about someone being gay. But my age – anybody and everybody would say something degrading to me. And I always think to myself, why is that accepted? What's the difference between that and racism, or any discrimination? They're judging me by my age. I don't understand. I'm trying to get my head around it. Because women, generally, when they reach a certain age, have accepted that they're not allowed to behave a certain way. But I don't follow the rules. I never did, and I'm not going to start. […]
When I did my sex book, it wasn't the average. When I performed "Like a Virgin" on the MTV Awards and my dress went up and my ass was showing, it was considered a total scandal. It was never the average, and now it's the average. When I did Truth or Dare and the cameras followed me around, it was not the average. So if I have to be the person who opens the door for women to believe and understand and embrace the idea that they can be sexual and look good and be as relevant in their fifties or their sixties or whatever as they were in their twenties, then so be it.
Though it’s dicey to compare people complaining about seeing your rear to racism, Madonna has, in fact, identified one of the last great taboos. On The Tonight Show last week, wearing her grill, she did a standup routine that focused entirely on her habit of dating younger men. The jokes weren’t funny, but that wasn’t the point—the point was that she was transforming "cougar" from an insult to a badge of pride. The Drake kiss is another salvo; the way the 28-year-old rapper played up his disgust is a sign that it’s still pretty normal to act grossed out by an older woman acting sexual.
But it’s also pretty normal to be grossed out when someone appears to force themselves on another person in public. It's normal to be grossed out by blatant attention grabs. With Madonna, bad taste and social progress are basically inseparable, which isn't always a great thing for progress. In a Pajiba post last year, Courtney Elnow summed up the uncomfortable mix of emotions that even her diehard fans often face now, writing "I honestly can’t decide what role, if any, age plays in this or should play. All I know is Madonna just makes me sad." Sad, of course, isn't the same thing as pissed off, and it's probably not the emotion Madonna wants people to identify with her, as an artist, or as a trailblazer.