Madonna, forever pop's premier provocateur, has again incited controversy on her latest tour by implying that France's National Front Party leader, Marine Le Pen, is a fascist. In a polemic video montage for "Nobody Knows Me," Le Pen's image flickers alongside the visages of Madonna's other socio-political enemies (Pope Benedict, Sarah Palin, Hu Jintao) but receives the most crushing treatment: it is juxtaposed with a swastika before dissolving into the face of Hitler.
The implications are obvious, and Le Pen is furious. While the shocking image attracted cheers and jeers from Madonna's Parisian audience on Saturday night, Le Pen made it clear she wants to have the last laugh, with a spokesman announcing on Sunday that the National Front Party plans to sue the pop icon for "public insult."
The threat was a long time coming. When Madonna kicked off her tour in Tel Aviv in May, Le Pen became aware of the montage and warned: "If she tries that in France, we'll see what happens." The 43-year-old politician added, "It's understandable when aging singers who need publicity go to such extremes." Madonna, being Madonna, did not cower and provoked as planned when she played Le Stade de France. Whether the impending lawsuit will impede the singer's tour plans remains to be seen, but already the media is speculating that the Nazi/Le Pen imagery may have been in poor taste. "If the singer gets mostly applause from international audiences who identify Le Pen as Europe’s best-known face of xenophobic right-wing politics, she may find herself with fewer allies in France as a result of associating Le Pen with Nazism," notes Time's Bruce Crumley. "The reason? Though Le Pen presides over a reactionary and Islamophobic party, she’s also clearly not a fascist, not a Nazi and not Hitler."
Watch a video of the offending concert footage here, courtesy of The Guardian:
While Madonna's scandal makes headlines, it's worth remembering that the precarious concept of pop stars toying with Nazi imagery and rhetoric is nothing new to visually provocative artists. The Stooges did it, David Bowie flirted with it and Marilyn Manson has built a career on it. Except in cases of a handful of dodgy "Europa"-leaning niche acts, the usage of swastikas, Schutzstaffel insignia and other attention-baiting symbols by mainstream-embraced musicians has almost always been entirely ironic, used to either desecrate their perceived power or to simply provoke further outrage from a public they already deem their enemy. Manson played with this particular loaded gun for years: from comparing rock stardom to fascism in his Antichrist Superstar mid-1990s heyday to exploring the clandestine world of Nazi fetish fashion, he was arguably the biggest American star to imply that spectres of Germany's far right had contemporary relevance. But in the punk and post-punk eras, this kind of Führer-centric reference-dropping was commonplace.
Bernard Sumner of Joy Division admits the band held a "fascination" with Nazi imagery in their early days, and their name held sinister concentration camp meaning, but it was all in context of trying to understand the WWII era their parents survived. Siouxsie Sioux, who used to wear swastika armbands at her early shows, has expressed similar sentiments while admitting an attraction to the Nazi uniform and Germany's Weimar and WWII brothel culture, which continues to fuel left-field burlesque culture and high fashion alike. Bowie made drug-fueled statements about Hitler (later retracted and regretted) during his Thin White Duke phase, when he became obsessed with Berlin's razor-sharp aesthetics and the Nazi occult. Basically, in late 1970s Britain, making any kind of allusion to the Nazis was a great way for angry young kids to get the attention of an establishment they felt had gone way off-course.
The difference between those tantalizing displays and Madonna's latest is that her more deliberate imagery holds an overtly specific and accusatory tone in an era where political statements in pop are few and far between. While it's not clear what Madonna was protesting inside the National Front Party system, aside from its polarizing leader, one might view it as a proudly liberal icon's warning to her global audience, and a rejection of a frightening general revival of far-right politics in Europe. In the context of Madonna's latest stageshow, which celebrates the unity (and tension) of religious and socio-political archetypes, this theory holds weight. As we noted last month, Madonna's "bloody couture" costumes for the MDNA tour clearly invite religious and geopolitical debate: "Madonna is cast as a holy crusader with rifles and a hijab, converging both the militarism of the Reinvention Tour era and the singer's ongoing interest in religious conflict." Is it any surprise her video displays would further emphasize those tensions?
In any case, Madonna is free to express her opinion as she sees fit without being accused of slander. As Crumley also notes, courts will likely "accept Madonna’s anticipated arguments that the video is an artistic expression covered by freedom-of-speech statutes." This kind of frustrated political expression is also not new ground for Madonna, whose much-misunderstood 2003 album American Life (and following tour) cast a cynical eye on the Bush administration, the war and the general post-9/11 climate long before other pop artists were willing to explore that tricky terrain. Whereas Madonna's wheelhouse used to be in challenging gender politics and social norms, she's now more concerned with politics as a whole – and her artistic themes, imagery and even costumes will continue to reflect that. She is one of the few pop stars with the nerve to put her beliefs on the line, right out in public view, for better or worse. Whether you agree with those views or not, you have to applaud her fearlessness. Would Lady Gaga, Rihanna or Gwen Stefani ever be so bold? While there will always be a contingent who believe entertainers should know their role and stick to it, do we really want a world where performers just "shut up and sing?"