A Rhetorical Letter to a Cultural Icon I Once Knew

A Rhetorical Letter to a Cultural Icon I Once Knew

Dear Madonna,

Refresh my memory.  Was it the MTV Music Video Awards where you offered a live performance of the amazing dance number for “Express Yourself?” Or maybe I saw it when I watched Truth or Dare. Regardless of where I saw it, I loved that performance… the walk down the steps; the shaking to the left, to the right; one hand on your hip while the other, held up high as though you were signaling “stop”, moved in front of your body as you sang to me and to young women all around the world who were like me that

“You deserve the best in life
So if the time isn’t right then move on
Second best is never enough
You’ll do much better baby on your own.”

Not only did I believe in the power of your words—that second best is never enough and that I did, in fact, deserve the best in life– I enjoyed that performance so much so that I recorded it on VHS so I could watch it over and over, memorizing each dance step. One night, feeling silly and moved by your music, my very best friend and I “performed” your “Express Yourself” routine on a long staircase (the staircase reminded us of the one you used) just a few blocks from the university of which I was attending and at which I now teach.

I only needed to watch your latest performance once, though.

And as an avid fan—someone who owns every single album you ever recorded; who owns a copy of Sex because I admired it as a piece of art and not “trash” as your critics had suggested; has long wished to see you perform live in concert—I implore you to consider the power you have as an outspoken musician, one who once championed women’s sexuality in a manner that created controversy but made it “okay” for women to embrace their sexuality.

I’m referencing your speech at the March for Women in DC last weekend. 

I do not intend to condemn you for speaking out; everyone has the right to do so and surely that is why you were invited to speak.  But I simply wish that you had been more mindful of your words and their unintended consequences.

In short, your speech sucked.

Please allow me to expand…

Your role as a celebrity, as “Madonna,” gives you some ethos appeal with those women at that march. One could argue that you might have even been a role model for them, simply because you are Madonna, and you have always looked Challenge and Change straight in the eye. I can imagine that had I been there, I would’ve been excited to see you, speaking before me.  Any chance I could get to see Madonna—live and in color—would be welcomed.  I probably would’ve had a similar reaction to those of the adoring crowd who cheered you on as you had them chant that they, too, “[are] ready” for change. So had I been a member of that audience whom shared your views, your speech would probably have been successful in my view, as it obviously was in the eyes of those in attendance.

But I was not a member of that audience, and your speech had a far more reaching spread than the limited one that you’d perhaps intended when preparing your remarks.  I was drawn to your speech from multiple news media accounts that noted your reference to “blowing up the White House.”  Knowing what I know about our flawed and biased news media, I wanted to check the context of that quote for myself.  I became one of your audience members as a result of my own due diligence.

You clearly stated that you are angry, but I am NOT. I am not angry with you or with the current administration or the previous administration. Instead, I am gravely disappointed with your speech; it misses the mark on a golden opportunity to provide direction and inspiration that could encourage actions that could result in meaningful change.

Much of the speech’s “content” (for lack of a better word) relies on poorly used pathos appeals.  The emotional diatribe sent a clear message, for sure: just tell anyone who doesn’t agree with you, “Fuck You.” Great.  That’s different.  So helpful.

For that further-reaching audience—me– those pathos appeals cause me to roll my eyes.  What “tyranny”? What “rights” have you lost? You’d probably argue that we could lose such rights.  Yes, and the sky could fall, too, but let’s not get lost in hyperbole.

You cannot continue to rely on your credibility and relevance as the outspoken controversial celebrity that brought you attention, fame, and fortune in your youth.  You are older now, and with age and experience comes—or at least should come—evolution, mindfulness, and wisdom.  It seems as though you might be resting on your laurels rather than creating an argument of substance.  Showing up just isn’t good enough anymore. The speech suggests that we should all just join in your crusade because you’re Madonna and because you said so.

No, Madonna, I will not join in your crusade because you haven’t clarified what the problem is nor have  you offered any suggestions as far as what we can do about this so-called oppression.  What do you want us to DO? You can chant “We Are Ready” all you want, but what are we supposed to be ready for? What “change” do you want us to transpire? What are we—the maddening crowd—to DO?!? Tell us! Suggest something!

Perhaps you should look to the 2014 TED talk given by Jamila Raqib, executive director of the Albert Einstein Institute.  Raqib acknowledges that public protest CAN be a good thing, but it is only useful if it is strategic and directed.  To elicit real, substantiated change, those who protest must not only organize, but they also must strategize.  What is your suggested strategy? What should women do in order to ensure our rights are not stripped? You said we are going to have to sacrifice, but what sacrifices might we possibly have to make? And by the way—what sacrifices have you or will you be making?

Tell us, Madonna, TELL US! You have long been a voice for women who could not speak (Express) themselves.  You told Papa not to preach, and yet that is all your speech does: preaches.  Women don’t need a sermon.  They don’t need a rallying cry.  They need breakthrough strategies for how to make a difference, how to create meaningful change.

Instead, you rallied the troops, encouraged them to join some nebulous revolution, and responded to Women’s March naysayers with a collective, “Fuck you!  FUCK!  YOU!” you shouted.

Not. Cool. Not. Helpful. Not. Constructive. Not. Inspiring.

Look, I am the first person to admit that I love expletives.  They have so many uses, particularly your obvious favorite one—as a verb, a noun, an adjective, an adverb.  It sometimes serves a purpose (provided it’s delivered to the appropriate audience) of an attempt to be humorous or to emphasize a strong feeling.  I certainly don’t have a problem with cussing.

But it wasn’t kairotic given the context from which you were arguing.

You’ve criticized Trump and his incitant, angry, violent, emotionally-charged language.  You’ve returned his rhetoric with similar rhetoric.  What good can possibly come from telling those who oppose your view to fuck off? You had an opportunity to initiate challenge and change by offering a specific action strategy, and you blew it. As one of your critics of your speech so eloquently suggests, “…liberals should lick their wounds and then set out to methodically persuade them back to their point of view using logic and reason and not emotion.”

Madonna, you were quoted on the red carpet once when you were launching your Hard Candy Fitness Gyms, “My motivation is to inspire people and not get caught up in the noise.”

Take a pinch of your own advice and turn down the political volume. You have it cranked too high. And then get busy about your work that inspires.

Your most recent album is currently in my car CD player.  I bought the album the day it was released because I admire your music, Madonna.  I still admire your music, particularly your earlier pieces.  I think your Ray of Light album was probably your best work. I will remain a music fan of yours.  I will still look forward to the day that I might get to see you in concert.  I still have your “Express Yourself” routine memorized by heart! You have not lost me as a music fan.

As a political activist, though, you suck.  I don’t buy into your politics. Your speech failed. It let me down and hundreds of thousands of women who were looking to you for a coherent answer, or at least a suggestion, as to what you and many like you perceive to be the problems and how to address them.

So until you can offer a compelling speech that will initiate real “change”—please, please, please: stick to singing and songwriting.

Yours Truly,