Some of the events of this past weekend—the size of the protest crowds, the question-free “alternative facts” press briefing—were without precedent. But one was so familiar that it warrants a Groundhog’s Day comparison: Madonna said something controversial, and controversy ensued.
Early in her speech at the Women’s March on Washington in D.C., Madonna gave a message “to our detractors that insist this march will never add up to anything.”
That message: “Fuck you. Fuck you.”
“Yes, I’m angry,” she went on to say. “Yes, I’m outraged. Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.”
“But,” she added, “I know that this won’t change anything. We can’t fall into despair. As the poet W.H. Auden once wrote on the eve of World War II, we must love one another or die. I choose love. Are you with me? Say this with me. We choose love. We choose love. We choose love.”
Her speech has now taken on outsized importance in reactions to the demonstrations, especially among conservatives. Newt Gingrich and Piers Morgan both said Madonna should be arrested. Kellyanne Conway, on the same afternoon where she coined the term “alternative facts,” directed a question about the march toward the pop star:
You have celebrities from the podium using profanity-laced insults. You have a very prominent singer who’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars not going over to a woman’s shelter here in D.C. to write a check, but instead saying that she thought of, quote, “burning down the White House.”
Of course, Madonna’s message was not as inflammatory as it was made to sound: She’s against violence, and she mentioned her terrorist impulses only to reject them. In a statement on Sunday, she further clarified her “one phrase taken wildly out of context,” saying, “I spoke in metaphor and I shared two ways of looking at things—one was to be hopeful, and one was to feel anger and outrage, which I have personally felt. However, I know that acting out of anger doesn’t solve anything. And the only way to change things for the better is to do it with love.”
The entire episode slots neatly into Madonna’s history of causing controversy. It’s not that she stumbles into outrage—it’s that she, as much as any major public figure save perhaps the new president, likes to offend and then tell the offended they just don’t understand. It was this way when the “Like a Prayer” video received the Vatican’s condemnation; it was this way when she used the word “fuck” 14 times on Letterman in 1994; it was this way when she compared herself to Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2015. On Saturday, Madonna surely realized the image of a burning White House would be more likely to raise cries of “WTF” than of “Kumbaya,” but her career demonstrates a preference for drawing attention over avoiding conflict.
After so many years of trolling, why does anyone take Madonna’s bait? This time, there’s a clear, if cynical, rationale for doing so. Conservative coverage of the signs and chants this weekend often emphasized the marchers’ vulgarity and impolite words, implying not only moral lapses but also hypocrisy given the criticism that Trump’s vulgarity and impoliteness has received. Rhetoric like Madonna’s further helps Gingrich, Conway, and other Trump surrogates to paint the opposition as extreme and profane. That the counterargument—it’s not how you say it but what you say—is easy doesn’t stop the argument from getting made.
There’s also the cultural-divisions angle. Not all of Madonna’s fans love her antics, but many recognize those antics are linked to her appeal; she’s great because she expresses herself in a way that defies stigmas, pretensions, and hangups. But for a portion of the electorate that just elected Trump, her explicit language and flirtation with violence seemingly are a symptom of the dangers that come with liberal culture. Celebrities also are magnets for resentment because, with their fame, riches, and airs of importance, they are so clearly not “the people.”
Donald Trump’s team on the campaign trail, in booking the inauguration, and now, have set out to exploit all of these dynamics. “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election!” Trump tweeted Saturday. “Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.” The last sentence may have seemed like a non sequitur—unless you’d heard what Madonna said.