Madonna has spent the past thirty years as an avid political activist fighting for equality all over the world, and she hasn’t finished yet.
During the Confessions tour in 2006 Madonna made the following comment:
‘We are Christians, we are Muslims, we are Jews, we are everything you can imagine. But we are a family. We are together. We are gay, we are straight, we are human beings! And this very last sentence, human beings, is the most important one, and in fact the only one that we should refer to each other as…OK?’
Madonna has been considered to be one of the greatest figures in music and one of the most influential women in history. She has long been a voice for equality on the global music scene and has spent much of her career fighting for the political underdog and disenfranchised minority.
In the last week, Madonna’s name has once again become synonymous with political activism, something that her fans and global authorities should be fairly used to after three decades of controversy.
Her name-check to the Russian all-woman punk band Pussy Riot at her concert in St Petersburg last week is just the last in a long line of political acts that have enraged the religious community, and conservative politics, since the mid-1980s.
Speaking of the Blond Ambition tour in 1990 Madonna explains:
‘I know that I’m not the best singer and I know that I’m not the best dancer. But, I can f*****g push people’s buttons and be as provocative as I want. The tour’s goal is to break useless taboos.’
Rolling Stone called the tour an ‘elaborately choreographed, sexually provocative extravaganza’ and proclaimed it ‘the best tour of 1990.’ The tour was met with strong reaction from religious groups for her performance of Like a Virgin, during which two male dancers caressed her body before she simulated masturbation. The Pope asked the general public and the Christian community not to attend the concert. What followed was a stand-off between Madonna, her dancers and the Italian police who warned that if Madonna touched her crotch during the performance that she would be arrested.
In response, Madonna said: ‘I am an Italian American and proud of it … The tour is for open minds and gets them to see sexuality in a different way. Their own and others’; she declared that the Church ‘completely frowns on sex … except for procreation.’ The video release of the tour won her a Grammy.
Shortly after the tour, Madonna’s video for Justify My Love also attracted a lot of attention. The video featured scenes of sadomasochism, bondage, same-sex kissing and nudity rendering it too explicit even for MTV.
‘Why is it that people are willing to go and watch a movie about someone getting blown to bits for no reason at all, and nobody wants to see two girls kissing and two men snuggling?’
Madonna’s provocative imagery and political candour continued throughout the 1990s. During the Girlie Show world tour she enraged Puerto Ricans when she rubbed the island’s flag between her legs. In 1994 she swore on The Tonight Show with David Letterman and asked him to smell her panties. Her message of equality and justice for all seemed to be falling prey to her public image as a sexual deviant and renegade. In 2003, at the MTV Video Music Awards, Madonna kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera suggestively during her performance of Hollywood, triggering a tabloid frenzy.
In 2006 Madonna used religious symbols, such as the crucifix and Crown of Thorns, in the performance of Live to Tell on her Confessions tour. It caused the Russian Orthodox Church and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia to urge all their members to boycott her concert. The Vatican once again protested the concert, as did bishops from Düsseldorf. Madonna responded:
‘My performance is neither anti-Christian, sacrilegious nor blasphemous. Rather, it is my plea to the audience to encourage mankind to help one another and to see the world as a unified whole.’
In 2012 Madonna has risen to the political fore once again. The MDNA Tour, which began in May 2012, has been plagued with controversy since the opening show in Israel. Billed by Madonna as a ‘peace concert’, hundreds of tickets were offered to various Israeli and Palestinian groups, but this offer was rejected by Anarchists Against the Wall and the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity group. One activist said, ‘no one is talking about dismantling the privileged regime or of ending the occupation. They talk of peace as a philosophical thing, without connecting to things happening on the ground and that concert is going in that direction.’ The offer was accepted by the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum. Madonna’s performance was criticised by a group called Boycott from Within as ‘a blatant attempt at whitewashing Israeli crimes’ and Author/Activist, Omar Barghouti said that ‘by performing in Israel, Madonna has consciously and shamefully lent her name to fig-leafing Israel’s occupation and apartheid and showed her obliviousness to human rights.’
In July, the French National Front announced that it was suing Madonna for insulting their leader, Marine Le Pen, at a concert in Paris on July 14, 2012. Part of the concert had a video briefly showing Le Pen with a swastika imposed on her face, and though the video has been used throughout her tour, this was its first use in France. The National Front stated that it was ‘unacceptable’ to associate their leader with fascism and that they needed to defend their supporters.
Pussy Riot is currently on trial and Madonna voiced her support of them, saying: ‘I know there are many sides to every story and I mean no disrespect to the Church or the government, but I think these three girls have done something courageous. I think they have paid the price for this act and I pray for their freedom…I know everyone in this auditorium, if you’re here as my fan, feels they deserve the right to be free.’
Madonna followed her comments by handing out pink wristbands so that her fans could support LGBT rights at her St Petersburg concert. With the continuation of the tour, plagued by threats of violence, opposition from the church and right wing political organisations, Madonna’s increasing political visibility is unlikely to wane in the near future.