Saturday 22 October 2016

What Katie Did Next: In which I wonder of Queen of Hype can stay relevant

Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne
Madonna and Drake
Katie Byrne

I feel sorry for Madonna. This pity, I hasten to add, is not because of the unreciprocated kiss she landed on Drake at Coachella -although I imagine her ego was fairly bruised afterwards. Neither is it because of the tumble she took at the BRITs - although I imagine her arse was fairly bruised afterwards.

I feel sorry for her because she's fallen victim to the marketing machine of her own creation. She blames the cape that she was wearing at the aforementioned awards show for causing her to lose her footing, but we all know that she didn't trip over her rig-out so much as get hoist by her own petard.

The following day, countless news organisations wondered if the tumble was a cleverly orchestrated PR stunt by the singer, 56 (yes, most of the headlines referenced her age because apparently you shouldn't be on a stage after the age of 30).

Some say her fall dovetailed a little too coincidentally with the lyrics that she was singing: "Took me to heaven, let me fall down."

I don't buy it. Perhaps I'm naive, but it looked to me like she cheated spinal cord paralysis. Nonetheless, the fall received more suspicion than sympathy and, like the boy who cried wolf, the woman who sang 'strike a pose' had lost her credibility.

Madonna is the Queen of Hype, but the levers and pulleys of her marketing machine are becoming clunky. She used to get away with even the most unashamed and odious machinations. There was her 'date' with Michael Jackson who, God love him, looked like he had to down six Valium and a Xanax chaser to do what his marketing people told him. People magazine duly led with a front-page story of the pair, along with the headline 'The Oddest Couple'.


Then, there was the saddest celebrity photo in the world, which was taken the night she and ex-husband Guy Ritchie stepped out wearing apparel that promoted one another's upcoming releases. Madonna's T-shirt read 'Snatch Coming Soon'. Ritchie pulled the short straw. He was wearing a skin-tight red string vest heralding her upcoming Music album. He was also double-deniming [see left] - which I believe is illegal in three states in the US - and wearing what looked like an American flag on his belt buckle.


The ill-advised clobber fades into insignificance when you see the expression on his face.

This is what emasculation looks like: defeated, castrated and tormented by the thoughts of what the lads down in the pub will say.

But alas, Madonna, yet again, emerged from this PR shambles relatively unscathed. Maybe the post-modern gender-bending helped - certainly, the lack of social media at the time played a part too.

Fifteen years later, it's a difficult photo to find on Google, but I urge you not to be deterred. Go forth and find it. You will be rewarded.

Mick Jagger once described Madonna as "a teaspoon of talent in an ocean of ambition". This isn't entirely fair. The woman is a marketing mastermind, with a canny ability to piggyback trends. More impresario than artist, she wrote the book on engineering controversy and commodifying the zeitgeist.

Some artists have a direct line to the source; Madonna has a direct line to these artists. Vogueing, krumping, Ali G, Austin Powers... Madonna is on the scene with a chequebook just before they hit the mainstream.

Her staying power is rooted in her ability to sniff out trends and distribute them to the masses - only now she can't keep up with the pace of a direction that she dictated.

Trend cycles have become lightning quick. High-street shops update their rails every week; today's hashtag is tomorrow's Twitter spam.

Is this why Madonna has become ever more desperate? Her attempt to get down with the cool kids by asking "has anyone seen Molly?" (slang for the drug MDMA) while on stage at a festival in the US was a new low.

More recently, she did her bit for new feminism by posting a photograph of her armpit hair on Instagram.

The pressure to appeal to fans with shorter attention spans and many more communication channels would certainly explain her almost vampirical thirst for young blood.

She launched herself on Drake with an intensity that suggested she was trying to absorb his very essence. At least Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears were more compliant, but if she really wants to break boundaries, she should kiss a woman her own age instead of pandering to pornographic stereotypes.

That's the other problem. The Queen of Hype is the originator of the 'sex sells' philosophy. The next time you see two bikinied Irish models standing beside a lawnmower, remember that Madonna was there first.

Only, yet again, she can't keep up with the pace. What's more, she's now competing with young women that dry-ride just about every stage prop they can get their hands on. Her new song S.E.X references "handcuffs, blindfolds, stringer pearls", but in a sexually desensitised age, it's about as risque as a white v-neck FCUK t-shirt.


Ordinarily, incidents like the BRITs fiasco would augur an image overhaul for Madonna, but reinvention is another brilliant marketing trick of hers that has been embraced wholesale by her competitors.

Today's female artists reinvent so often that they've had to create alter-egos to absorb the relentless diversification. Her tricks have been turned on her.

"Too much creativity {is} being crushed beneath the wheel of corporate branding and what's trending," she said recently. It should be noted that she said this with absolutely no sense of irony.

Even so, it raises some interesting questions: what do you do after you've gleaned every sub-culture and hijacked every trend?

How do you find fresh content in a world where everyone is grappling to be the first to share on Twitter and Instagram? How can you survive when you realise you're competing against your own agenda?

This is a crucial career crossroads for the Queen of Hype, and I look forward to seeing which road she takes.

'Madonna is a marketing mastermind with a canny ability to piggyback trends'

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