It’s a powerful thing when a superstar cries.
We demand their blood, sweat, and tears on their way to song-and-dance perfection, but we don’t ever want to see that blood, sweat, and especially tears. It’s why the media reacts on a spectrum from awe to deeply unsettled when we do.
It’s a visceral reminder that these icons aren’t only commodities and characters, to be exploited and picked apart and celebrated and judged. They’re also humans.
Beyoncé cried once on stage while accepting an MTV Award while holding her daughter and kissing her husband, after the media had whipped up a hurricane of hysterical reports about their impending divorce. It made her seem, for the first time in a long time, like a real person.
It was an early indication of a terrifying psychological and emotional freefall that was to come. It was also a wake up call to the tabloid birds of prey that had circled the vulnerable pop star: there’s a human consequence to acting like vultures.
Lady Gaga cries a lot. It’s her cue to us that something is “important.” Adele does, too. It’s a reminder that those emotions she belts about are genuine.
But it’s Madonna—the icon that begat all the other artists mentioned above, the untouchable Material Girl and still, quite possibly, the most famous entertainer in the world—that has us flummoxed.
Madonna is the Queen of Reinvention. And recently, if countless headlines are to be believed, her latest reinvention is a bit of a mess.
Those headlines are, of course, crass, baseless, speculative, and sexist. But here’s what they are in response to.
Earlier this month, Madonna cried on stage in New Zealand while talking about her 15-year-old son, Rocco. “There’s no love stronger than a mother for her son,” she said, breaking down. She then addressed the “challenging times” she was going through—a reference to the ugly custody battle over Rocco with her ex-husband Guy Ritchie—and dedicated a performance of “La Vie En Rose” to her son.
It’s interesting to compare the reaction to that incident to the one after Adele did the same exact thing. Just last week the British singer broke down in tears on stage after acknowledging that her son, Angelo, was in the audience watching her perform for the first time.
Adele was greeted with the Internet’s chorus of awwws. Madonna faced a firing squad of WTFs.
Of course, context matters, and it’s not just the crying that has everyone intrigued.
Madonna is in the midst of one of those horrific, very public—and therefore even more horrific—custody battles that tabloids salivate over and that celebrities are raked through the coals over.
It’s been occupying headlines since December, when Madonna began fighting to have Rocco return to New York City, where he attends school and lives with his mother.
Rocco had been traveling with Madonna, who was crisscrossing the globe on her Rebel Heart concert tour, when he followed his own—excuse the pun—rebel heart and decided he’d prefer to stay with his father, reportedly because he preferred his more casual parenting style and missed his British friends.
A U.K. judge agreed that the legal battle could be moved to the U.S., which is considered a win for Madonna, but admonished the parents for fighting and wasting the last years of their son’s childhood arguing over custody.
“As I observed during the course of the hearing, summer does not last forever,” the judge said. “The boy very quickly becomes the man. It would be a very great tragedy for Rocco if any more of the precious and fast receding days of his childhood were taken up by this dispute.”
Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour wraps this weekend, and its $1.31 billion in ticket sales cements the singer’s status as the top-grossing touring solo artist in history. But rather than cross the finish line to the cheers such an achievement warrants, she’s being greeted by a media controversy over a supposed custody battle-induced public meltdown.
In recent stops on the winding leg of the tour, Madonna has started numerous shows late, a whopping three hours behind schedule at stops in Atlanta and Australia.
Reports that she seemed intoxicated at certain performances were only amplified when she drank a cocktail on stage. (Madonna firmly denied ever being under the influence while performing.)
And then there’s the most recent incident, in which she pulled down the top of a 17-year-old fan at a concert, exposing her breast. (The teen called it the “best moment of my life.”)
All of this might ordinarily be written off or even celebrated as trolling concert antics from a pop star seasoned in the art of causing of a stir, were it not set against the backdrop of a child custody dispute—a setting that has given the media apparent carte blanche to make innuendo about Madonna’s mental health, and even her worth as a parent.
(He claims his case argues that she was an “embarrassing,” not “bad” parent. The unforgivably misogynistic and hearsay content of his article proves otherwise.)
Madonna, in an act more powerful in proving her humanity than crying, is actually responding to critics, calling them out on the inherent sexism of their takedowns.
Following the reports that she was performing drunk, she commented on Instagram that it was all an act and part of a character in her show, and then argued, “Underlying all of this is sexism and misogyny which proves that not only do we not get equal pay but we are still treated like heretics if we step out of line and think outside the box!”
What we’re seeing, then, is an intense reaction to glimpses of vulnerability and even a bit of woundedness from a person who, though she’s essentially already exposed every inch of herself physically, is exposing for the first time her internal struggles as she acclimates to the new reality of her life as a mother in the public eye.
It’s being confused for weakness, and even mental illness. Really, it’s humanity.
We’re accustomed to scandal, outrage, and purposeful titillation from the singer, which probably makes it harder to perceive any earnestness from her as authentic—to the point that we’re positing that she’s in the throes of a meltdown.
Late this week, Madonna was in the headlines again, this time for nothing to do with her concert antics or custody battle over Rocco.
She had—I’d like to add, hilariously—attempted to keep people from parking in front of her New York apartment by painting a yellow line on the curb in front of her house and putting up signs that parkers would be towed.
This is unofficial and illegal. And it’s also kind of awesome.
Responding to the hoopla the report had caused, she again turned to Instagram. “Yes Bishes I am Madonna and that is my driveway,” she wrote. “If people park in front of it I can’t drive in my driveway! So sorry the city doesn’t like the color yellow! We will paint a nice dull grey to keep our neighbors happy! Sorry! I’m saying 3 extra Hail Mary’s this Easter for this transgression!”
It’s a perfectly Madonna response to something controversial.
Her latest career reinvention is the “Unapologetic Bitch.” It fits what we used to know about Madonna, and it fits how she’s soldiering through what is obviously a rough personal time in an intensely public space.
She’s being unapologetic about her feelings, and unapologetic about her vulnerability. We’re not used to seeing such things from Madonna. That doesn’t mean she’s melting down. It means she’s being human.