Madonna is scheduled to perform shortly after the conclusion of the second quarter of today’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.  I saw Truth or Dare when I was in 8th grade and remember all the controversy surrounding her persona when she first came out, most of which had to do with what her persona meant for feminism.  Little to none of it had to do with race.

I revisited the issue in 1992 after Ron at Fast Forward Records in Providence gave me a box of shitty cassette singles sent to him by a major label and asked if I wanted to overdub my own stuff on to them.  I said sure, (and thanks!)  The opportunity felt timely.  I had been listening to Madonna’s “casssingle” “Justify My Love” repeatedly.  It was the first time I had been introduced to this latest throw away form of wonder/hell pop music.  (Little did I know at the time that I would one day be in a band that had a [shitty?] cassette single on sale at my local CVS one day.)  I thought of my first cassingle as a critical commentary on my conflicted feelings about Madonna’s tape. Back in ’92, I knew I loved Justify My Love on an immediate level, even as I thought it was culturally destructive.  But I don’t think I could have done a very good job of explaining why.

Sometimes you run across a piece of writing that makes you wonder how you could fail to notice something that seems patently obvious about a cultural artifact.  That’s the way I felt when I read bell hooks’ great article  “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?”  about four years ago.  You can find the essay in her book “Black Looks:  Race and Representation.”  (You can read it online as well.)  It has an added resonance today now that the success of Lady Gaga has established Madonna’s persona as a stock character that can be reiterated ad infinitum, a la Elvis.  I had a professor in school (Pierre St Amand) who once summarized the Madonna phenomeon as “de nouveau, Marilyn Monroe.”  Now, it seems, we are listening to a copy of a copy.)

Here’s an excerpt from hooks’ article that focuses on the Madonna film that  I saw back in grade school.

“Eager to see the documentary Truth or Dare because it promised to focus on Madonna’s transgressive sexual persona, which I find interesting, I was angered by her visual representations of her domination over not white men (certainly not over Warren Beatty or Alek Keshishian), but people of color and white working-class women…That she made people who were dependent on her for their immediate livelihood submit to her will was neither charming nor seductive to me or the other black folks that I spoke with who saw the film…

After choosing a cast of characters from marginalized groups–nonwhite folks, heterosexual and gay, and gay white folks–Madonna publicly describes them as “emotional cripples.” And of course in the context of the film this description seems borne out by the way they allow her to dominate, exploit, and humiliate them..

“Some of us do not find it hip or cute for Madonna to brag that she has a “fascistic side,” a side well documented in the film. Well, we did not see any of her cute little fascism in action when it was Warren Beatty calling her out in the film. No, there the image of Madonna was the little woman who grins and bears it. No, her “somebody’s got to be in charge side,” as she names it, was most expressed in her interaction with those representatives from marginalized groups who are most often victimized by the powerful.”

(note:  having technical difficulty getting the font size right in above quote!  but the game is about to start…)

In a more recent appearance, hooks – sounding like a classic record collector – argues that while Madonna’s early work showed some commitment to feminist issues, her realignment with patriarchy, racism, and the right has only grown stronger over the years.  For hooks, it’s the main tool the Material Girl has used to keep her career in the music business going as an aging female pop star.

The interdependence of the progressive – (being able to perform at the Super bowl at age 53) – and the regressive – (telling Spin magazine that black men are the most sexist of all, even after having been married to the abusive Sean Penn) – is sadly more the norm than the exception.  (See Barack Obama’s (re?)election and his promotion of the agendas of Wall Street and The Pentagon.)

A footnote re Lady Gaga:

Steve Albini was asked in a recent interview what he thought about the Lady Gaga phenomenon.  As a rule, I don’t typically agree with or like his broad dismissals of pop music, which can sometimes sound like “my way or the highway,” a posture that can lead one down the slippery slope towards Disco Demolition Night in Detroit.  (An event while Nile Rodgers compared to a Nazi Book Burning rally.)  But I did like reading what he had to say here, even if I wouldn’t put it the same way myself:

“I’m an exceptionally lucky man in that I’ve never heard a note of Lady Gaga’s music and you could sit her on my lap and I wouldn’t recognize her. I know that she’s a cultural force at the moment but I’m quite satisfied in having dodged that one. It’s like a truck drove by spraying shit from a nozzle over the entire neighborhood and I happened to be under an awning. You know?… There was a period there, in the ‘90s, when people who were my friends even, started trying to rationalize an appreciation of mainstream pop music. Bullshit like Madonna and that fuckin’ Cher single that was everywhere…“Believe.” Right. Shit like that, people would pretend that it somehow lessened me as a person that I had no connection with this shit that I despised. Saying that this stuff is culturally significant, that it’s going to influence arts and letters for decades. Well I’m not going to read any of those letters then and I’m certainly not going to watch any of that art.”

Post Script, February 18 2012

Since writing this post, I read an article by Horace Campell of Syracuse University that presented an entirely different take on Madonna’s appearance at the Super Bowl.  In the interest of giving space to divergent views, here’s the piece.  I read it on the website of Pambazuka News, a weekly newsletter and journal for social justice in Africa.  I recommend the site, in particular because they often publish pieces by Mahmood Mamdani, whose books Saviors and Survivors and Good Muslim, Bad Muslim I highly recommend.  I’m not saying this piece changed my mind about what I wrote, btw.  Just another point of view.

Mega-super star Madonna’s campaign for world peace

Horace Campbell

2012-02-16, Issue 570


cc B R
There was no mistake about the message that Madonna wanted everyone to take away from her Super Bowl performance in a society that is gung-ho on war. But did the warmongers get the point?

On Sunday February 5, 2012 one of the biggest spectacles in the US entertainment and sports world took place, Super Bowl XLVI, the annual championship game of American football. It was during the half time show when over 111 million spectators watched when the world famous songstress, Madonna unveiled her statement of World Peace. These two words were released as a puff of smoke after she sang one of her more well-known songs, “Like a Prayer.”

The Super Bowl half time show is one of the most coveted slots in the United States’ entertainment calendar. Remarkably, this artist was able to sing a medley of 8 songs in ten minutes. In these ten minutes Madonna brought out a performance that must have taken months of rehearsing, using the most advanced technology and working with the circus entertainment company, Cirque du Soleil. Drawing on the talents of other younger radical and anti-imperialist artist M.I.A, the unclear Nicki Minaj along with others such as LMFAO and Cee Lo Green, Madonna brought out collaboration. With her “World Peace” statement, she intended the halftime show was to make a statement to the US society to get off its militaristic path. There are sections of the militaristic wing of the United States which is currently in a fever pitch of discussion about ‘Will Israel Attack Iran’?

There is not a day where there is not speculation in the media whether the Israelis will blackmail Obama into joining Israel in an attack on Iran. Ira Chernus in his submission, “New York Times Hypes Israeli Attack On Iran” has drawn attention to how mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post are hyping the question of war against Iran. The Madonna message was presented in the midst of this media pressure for war.

Will the society listen? I don’t know. But I was listening, and I want to share what I took away from her performance.


American Football is a game similar to rugby football in which two teams attempt to get an ovoid ball into each other’s territory. Called football in the United States and Canada and American football elsewhere, it is an aggressive contact sport.

At the end of the season (which is usually played in the winter), there is the main championship game between the winners of the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Professional football is distinguishable from the games played at the college level, called Bowl games. Whether at the college level (which is supposed to be non-professional), or at the Professional level, this sport is a multi-billion dollar business.

In this 2012 championship match, the game, played in Indiana, was between the New York Giants (NFC) and the New England Patriots (AFC). Much like the annual cup final which is played at Wembley Stadium every year in England, this championship show is moved around different locales in the United States, but it is consistently viewed by more than 100 million individuals, the biggest TV event of the year. This game played on a Sunday is one where the society basically shuts down.

American football, like the society is a violent contact (some would say militarized) sport. It forms an important link in the chain of the armaments culture where the patriotism is called forth by the rendition of the national anthem before the game. All major sports events in the United States are preceded by the singing of the anthem but somehow at Super Bowl games there is an added emphasis on patriotism and support for the militaristic traditions of the USA. Roger Cohen in his commentary in the New York Times on Super bowl 46 entitled, ‘The Puzzle of Two Footballs’ had this description of the US game in comparing US football to soccer in the rest of the world:

“A rugby-style game was formalized and militarized with the introduction of painted lines on the field, the scrimmage confrontation rather than the free-for-all scrum, the forward pass, and drives (“March, march on down the field,” was how Yale serenaded it) orchestrated by a quarterback playing general and masterminded by a hands-on coach cast as generalissimo. A New York Times analysis of six months of coverage of the National Football League on two ESPN shows revealed that “coverage is often cast in battleground terms.” ESPN sportscasters used the word “weapon” at least 123 times.”


Every year for the past thirty years, the half time show of the Super Bowl has featured popular recording artists and other well-known celebrities. This half time show represents a fundamental link to United States popular culture and the performer at this show is supposed to be at the top of the list of entertainers. This year the performer was Madonna, the well -known singer, actress, artist and activist. Madonna is 53 years old and the performance drew from the depth of her skills to make a major statement. There is enough written about her illustrious career so that it is not necessary to go over the highlights. Suffice to say, she is what is called a mega-super star in the North American entertainment business.

First, it was the entrance. Madonna enters the field on an angular golden throne, which is pulled across the 50-yard line by a group of dancers whose costume is that of a legion of Roman Centurions. Was Madonna bringing to the attention of this vast audience the imagery of Roman Centurions in a country that posits itself as the Roman Empire of modern times (USA)? The entire spectacle was presented in a brilliant piece of technical wizadry that brought out the best in 21st century technology where according to one commentator:

“The ground beneath their feet begins to change; not just onstage, but on the field too. Suddenly the floor appears to be made of hundreds of squares which flip over and morph into covers of Vogue magazine, an image of Madonna looking out from each of them. These images aren’t stationary, though. They are continually overturning, rearranging, pulsating, and alive.”

The image of the ground moving beneath their feet was the backdrop to the voice of Madonna chanting, “Don’t just stand there,” as she sang, “Vogue.” This was the only song that she performed solo. The projection mapping, that is, transposing 3-D visual effects over physical spaces, was used to bring on hundreds in a music and dance performance that was supposed to entertain, inspire and inform the possibilities of cooperation and collaboration across many different artists and professionals in far flung places.


From this song “Vogue” she went into a medley of songs. With a cast of more than 200 dancers, Madonna at 53 years old brought forth in a wonderfully choreographed performance with LMFAO. There was the kind of dancing with high wire balancing and acrobatics which was itself symbolic of the high wire cultural statement that Madonna was making. This was in the hip-hop mode replete with break-dancers — and an impressive tight-rope walker. This is when she performed “Music,” accompanied by the duo LMFAO who with Madonna offered the hit “Sexy and I Know It.”

The well-known rap artists Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. then joined Madonna set to a cheerleader theme., Madonna teamed with Nicki Minaj and M.I.A in singing of the song, “Give Me All Your Luvin.” These three performers danced as cheerleaders, complete with golden pom-poms and marching band. Again the choreography was outstanding and was as spectacular as the main artists. Younger readers of Pambazuka will know of the strong anti-imperialist positions of artists such as M.I. A (Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam) who supports the cause of self- determination of the Palestinian people. With a heritage from the war torn society of Sri Lanka where the Tamil people have been fighting for dignity, M.I.A has given voice to that section of Asian society.

Nicki Minaj is another young artist from the Caribbean whose heritage is of both Africa and India. Nicki Minaj is not yet clear in her politics and has signed on to a recording company that exploits sexual deviancy. Last year at her Grammy performance she simulated an exorcism of Roman, a clear reference to is Roman Zolansky, considered a code name for Roman Polansky who has sought refuge in Europe for committing child abuse. Nicki is talented but unlike M.I. A who sends out clear positive anti-imperialist messages, her message to young teenage girls is confusing.

That Madonna chose to sing the song “Give Me All Your Luvin’” with these two artists whose youthful energy and power were in and of themselves another statement of collaboration and support. Collaboration is a commonplace feature today’s music industry and is rarely done to advance the spirit of unity. It is usually a profit driven marketing strategy where veterans like Madonna are paired with the hottest and most popular artists of the day to increase sales, tap a larger market share and expand the audience of all parties involved. In this collaboration, Madonna seem to be turning the sales strategy on its head, tapping into a larger audience to promote a peace message in a society where the Lords of Finance consciously mobilize religion, art and culture as tools for social and political control of the mass society.


The scenes of cheerleading and singing was quickly changed to another set depicting a serious religious scene. Fusing together gospel music with hip hop culture, Madonna sang “Like A Prayer” as a duet with the rapper Cee-Lo Green, who was dressed in the ministerial garb of a pastor, representing a leader in the Christian faith. The 3-D technology was now being utilized to the maximum as the stadium flickered with white lights while Cee-lo Green brought out the best of the gospel traditions of African American life and sang, “Like A Prayer,” black and white singing together challenging the old taboos. It was not by accident that the music videos for this song had the background of a burning cross.

Green brought forth the vigor of black talent as Madonna sang on and off on her knees, until she disappeared in a blast of smoke, crooning , “I hear you call my name and it feels like home.” The stadium was illuminated with thousands of tiny lights, concluding with the words “World Peace” set against the darkness of the field — and Madonna disappearing in a puff of smoke.

There was no mistake in the message that Madonna wanted everyone to take away from this Super Bowl in the midst of a society that is gung-ho on war.

The corporate media choose to ignore this clear call for peace and instead worked hard to focus on a gesture of M.I.A. who during the performance of “Give Me All You Luvin,’” displayed her middle finger at a point when most people did not see it. This media furor over M.I. A was to serve two purposes, it was to discredit the strong positions of M.I.A as well as to divert attention from the fact that Madonna was calling for world peace.


One could not end this commentary on the performance of Madonna at the Super Bowl without joining with millions around the world in mourning the passing of Whitney Houston. As one who enjoyed the music of Whitney Houston over the years, I received the news of her transition at the age of 48 with genuine sadness. Houston was a tremendous singer, whose best performances contained energy, vibrancy and inspiration. In joining the ancestors at the young age of 48, the last years of the life of Whitney Houston was one of profound challenges and struggles. And, now that Houston has passed, the corporate media machine is going into overdrive to discredit her contributions without grasping the kind of pressure cooker world that artists such as Whitney Houston had to inhabit. Whitney Houston was an artist that inspired Nelson Mandela, a leader who stood for peace and Ubuntu. When Houston performed at the White House for Mandela, Mandela paid her the highest tribute. Whitney said at the Rose Garden in 1994, “This performance is very special to me because in 1988 I sang in honour of Nelson Mandela the inmate and tonight I sing for elected president, Nelson Mandela.” Whitney Houston paid attention to the injustice of apartheid and wanted peace.


Super Bowl 46 was played on February 5, 2012 in an environment where the mainstream media are cheerleaders for war against the people of Iran. Into this armaments culture, Madonna entered onto the stage and in ten minutes incorporated songs, dance, music, technology, artistry to redirect the attention of the more than 112 million viewers to the idea of peace. There were many statements that Madonna made in this performance and those who want to get the message can study the video on You Tube. This was an intentional statement where the creativity and voice was being beamed as an intervention against the militarists in Israel and the United States. Madonna was born into a Roman Catholic family and for decades has been associated with the sexpolitation of Hollywood. From Catholicism, she has since converted to Judaism, and has been forthright in her desire for a peaceful resolution to the question of self-determination for the Palestinian peoples. Her fan base in Israel is not inconsequential and many of the youths there instinctively grasped the importance of her message of peace.

Madonna has been seeking to develop links in Africa, especially Malawi. She has been a forthright advocate for Ubuntu. This sentiment was clearly articulated in her film, “I Am Because We Are,” a film about the impact of HIV AIDS in Malawi.

Madonna is now standing along with another super athlete who has positively identified with world peace. Last year the NBA player, Ron Artest of the Los Angeles Lakers officially changed his name to Metta World peace. The first name is a Buddhist term meaning “loving kindness. With the words World Peace printed as his name on the back of his Lakers jersey, every time this athlete jumps to make a shot he wants the world to think and reflect on world peace at all levels.

(Revised 16 February 2012)

* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka NOW and help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT! Pambazuka Friends.

* Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University.

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