Ever since John Lennon was quoted as saying, “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus,” as opposed to the full monologue about Christianity in general shrinking, we’ve been pretty clear on just how out of hand a backlash can get when the wrong person gets a hold of a part of a celebrity’s sentence. It only takes one wrong party to misconstrue what somebody has said, reinterpreting it to suit their own personal agenda: Look no further than the iconic film Spice World, where the muckraking tabloid journalist hides at a party and turns Geri Halliwell’s “Is the Pope Catholic?” comment into the headline: “Spice Girls Doubt Whether Pope is Catholic”.
Perhaps no icon has been as much the victim of her own out-of-context remarks than Madonna, whose latest White House comment from the Women’s March has prompted everything from accusations of left-wing fascism to Secret Service investigations. But it wasn’t the first time. The Queen of Pop has a long history of being taken out of context.
“I’ve always felt oppressed”: The most recent to offend before the White House blow-up mention, this snippet from her latest Bazaar cover story was followed by the addition of the disclaimer, “I know a lot of people would go, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous for you to say that. You’re a successful white, wealthy pop star,’ but I’ve had the shit kicked out of me for my entire career, and a large part of that is because I’m female and also because I refuse to live a conventional life. I’ve created a very unconventional family. I have lovers who are three decades younger than me. This makes people very uncomfortable. I feel like everything I do makes people feel really uncomfortable.” And yes, she continues to prove this very assertion with each passing month.
“I don’t think one should ever aspire to being famous”: Taken out of its original context, this sounds a bit hypocritical coming from the Queen of Pop, a woman who clawed tooth and nail to get to the top. But the larger message she gave in this 2008 interview for Q Magazine was: “Fame is a by-product. Fame is something that should happen because you do work that speaks to people and people want to know about your work. Unfortunately the personality of people has taken over from the work and the artistry and it’s this thing now that stands on its own. I don’t think one should ever aspire to being famous.”
“I’m a control freak”: Though it’s no secret Madonna likes to oversee every aspect of everything she does, this famous quote was in reference to all the pills she received to medicate herself for her post-falling off a horse recovery period back in 2005, months before Confessions on a Dance Floor was released. The full quote was, in fact, “When I fell off my horse, I got tons of stuff: Demerol and Vicodin and Xanax and Valium and Oxycontin, which is supposed to be like heroin. And I’m quite scared to take them. I’m a control freak.” In other words, part of her continued success, and frankly, her ability to live a long life by comparison to her contemporaries, is that she doesn’t fuck with drugs, not even prescription.
“Crucifixes are sexy because there’s a naked man on them”: Though this was said during the peak of Madonna’s controversy-stirring days—1985—she tempered it with the offer of her Catholic upbringing, adding, “When I was a little girl, we had crucifixes all over the house, as a reminder that Jesus Christ died on the cross for us. Crucifixes are something left over from my childhood, like a security blanket. I liked the way they look and what they symbolized, even before they were fashionable. I buy mine in Spanish bodegas, where they have rosaries in lots of colors.” Not quite a blow-softening elucidation, but it’s something.
“In the metaphysical world, I wanted to attach myself to another name”: A.k.a. this was 2004, one of the peak moments of Madonna’s Kabbalism that set off a media frenzy over her allegedly changing her name to Esther. But, like her Catholic confirmation name, Veronica, she doesn’t currently go by it, and never really has. Further explaining her choice to Cynthia McFadden in a 20/20 interview, she said, “I read about all the women in the Old Testament and I love the story of Queen Esther. She saved the Jews from annihilation.”
“I’ve thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House”: The most bombastic and wildly parsed of them all, this comment was followed by, “But I know that this won’t change anything! We cannot fall into despair. As the poet W.H. Auden once wrote on the eve of World War II, ‘We must love one another or die.’ I choose love. Are you with me?” Hardly the words of someone about to pepper the White House with Semtex.
It must be said that beyond Madonna’s mere words, it is her very work that gets misconstrued on a constant basis for being taken so literally. In 1994, just as the “softer Madonna” was coming to light in a post-Erotica era, she told British magazine The Face of the previous record, “I feel I’ve been misunderstood. I tried to make a statement about feeling good about yourself and exploring your sexuality, but people took it to mean that everyone should go out on a fuck-fest and have sex with everyone, and that I was going to be the leader of that. So I decided to leave it alone because that’s what everyone ended up concentrating on.” And then there are the times when Madonna doesn’t need to say anything to get gut-punched by the politically conservative, as with her 2012 MDNA Tour, which featured a screen that projected the image of far-right French political leader Marine Le Pen with a swastika over her head. Le Pen then threatened legal action against Madonna if the image wasn’t removed.
However, there is one quote that needs no context, and it was, incidentally stated by Madonna during the second Bush administration (which saw a rise in her political “outspokenness” with 2003’s American Life) when she stated in an open letter advocating for the presidential nomination of Wesley Clark: “The simple truth is that the policies of our current administration do not reflect what is great about America.”
She added, “If it helps, spread this message on to everyone you know. My opinions have made news before. Let’s make some news in 2004.” Jump forward to 2017, and not much has changed for the always-controversial Madonna, in context or not.