There's an evolution to shocking and controversial news items these days. It's been this way since the rise of social media. An event happens; it spreads like wildfire, becoming a social and internet meme; new memes spring out of the original meme; then, in short order, a backlash to the original event comes, with think-piece after think-piece suddenly sprouting up from the growing number of websites that make up the professional umbrage industry. Typically, the goal of each of of these pieces is to remind us that we shouldn't be laughing at something, or haven't fully appreciated the offensive and retrograde identity politics on display within it, or simply need to view the item through whichever unprivileged lens that particular writer insists it should be seen. There's a formula for this crap and once you know it's there you can't not notice it.
We're apparently at stage three of "Kissgate," the scandal involving 56-year-old Madonna macking on 28-year-old Drake during his performance on day-three 0f Coachella last weekend. By now you've probably seen the video or at least pictures of this thing, with Madonna seeming to suck Drake's soul directly out of his mouth and a stunned Drake then recoiling in horror like he'd just been shown pictures of dead babies. The incident lit the internet on fire and brought out social media's always-vigilant million-member snark brigade, which immediately sharpened its collective weapons and dug deeply into Madge for molesting a child as part of her tired, and these days deeply unsettling, sex-kitten act. The whole moment was tailor made for concentrated mockery, but now along come the internet's self-appointed hall monitors to spoil everyone's fun.
In an article published over at Vice's Noisey site, writer Moya Lothian-McLean complains that the reaction to the Madonna kiss represents "shitty ageist misconceptions" about how women in the music business mature in contrast to their male counterparts. There are some really good points that deserve to be made about how young women in the music business are often expected to be sexy and how that dynamic eventually meets with the reality of getting older. But the laughter and ridicule that ensued over Madonna's decision to play seductive succubus to Drake wasn't simply the product of watching any aging female pop star -- or really any aging woman at all -- flaunt her post-menopausal sexuality with a younger man. It was exclusively the fact that it was Madonna doing the flaunting.
While the Noisey piece bemoans the number of comments that concentrated on the "loose skin hanging around Madonna’s jugular because, ew gross, she’s old," it kind of misses the point. Nobody looks at Madonna and thinks she's gross because she's old. If Betty White had been there and grabbed Drake and kissed him it would've been fucking brilliant -- and she's 93. The issue is that Madonna is still, at the age of 56, attempting to shock people with her sexuality. It's been a fundamental feature of her shtick for decades and after a while it simply becomes a stale act. There's always been much more to Madge than merely her desire to present herself as the world's foremost sexual being and what's interesting about her career is that as it began moving out of its pop tart phase, she seemed to mature flawlessly. Her music got better. Her look got better. She handled getting older perfectly. Bedtime Stories and Ray of Light were brilliant albums. They were confident, mature records -- the kind of music most artists a decade-and-a-half into their careers dream of making.
But, yes, you can't cheat the clock and as she moved into the new millennium her unwillingness to accept that the times had changed and that her only way to still be influential was to grow as an artist hurt her drastically. For a while she seemed to want to reinvent herself as a disco diva, then as a too-clever-for-her-own-good molly-promoting EDM queen, but every move felt like a misstep because every move felt forced and inauthentic. The Guardian's Peter Robinson wrote a really interesting column a couple of months ago that argued that Madonna lost her legendary PR mojo when social media became a thing because she simply didn't understand how young people thought anymore. As Robinson says, every attempt she's made to "be down with the kids" has fallen flat because she's simply "out of touch" and refuses to admit it to herself. And that's what the Drake kiss was -- an attempt to shock again, to be the "Bitch I'm Madonna" horseshit she declares on her dreadful new album, Rebel Heart.
The jokes about Madonna's age were easy, but that's only because she continually grasps so hard at cultural relevance, because it's so important to her and her brand, that almost every move she makes drips with desperation now. Yeah, Drake's face was classic and may very well have been an expression of distaste at being latched onto by a 56-year-old, but it was Madonna's insistence that the years haven't passed and she's still exactly who she was 30 years ago that was really worthy of a good hard cringe. And while the Noisey article seemed to dismiss the notion that "aging gracefully" is applied equally to men in music, a hell of a lot of male performers who made their acts all about sex were forced to tone it down as they got older. There's nothing controversial about this. Rod Stewart was just about Madonna's age when he permanently hung up the red leather pants, stopped doing Do Ya Think I'm Sexy? and started recording standards. He got old. It happens. If he were trying to make out with young pop stars onstage, people would be just as creeped out. More so actually.
That brings us to another piece that's getting some circulation, from Arthur Chu over at -- wait for it -- Salon. Chu's column is titled "Leave Madonna's Age Out of It: Nobody Gets a Free Pass To Grope at Will." If you can get past how terribly written it is -- and it is sincerely one of the worst things I've ever seen at that site in terms of structure and syntax -- you'll find a central point about how an older woman kissing a much younger man isn't "gross," but to "nonconsensually 'surprise' someone" onstage with a kiss is "super gross." Chu takes great pains to tie Madonna's dumb kiss, made during a musical performance that was in theory supposed to be sexy, to the need for "consent" for every human interaction. He brings up old movies where men or women kiss someone unexpectedly as being another example of the problem -- he thankfully doesn't call it problematic -- and ties it all, miraculously, into rape culture. Somehow, within the 32 haphazard paragraphs Chu spits out, we manage to go from an act of cheap theater by Madonna, to ageism, to rape culture. It's like a game of Millennial Activist Bingo.
What Madonna did was dumb precisely because it was an act of theater, one designed to do nothing more than get people talking about her. That it did. But like so much she does these days, it drew more confusion than anything else. Yes, she's a post-menopausal woman who made-out with with a guy who hasn't hit 30 yet. But the reason for the laughter and the big eye-rolls wasn't her age necessarily. It's more her shtick that's gotten old.