Madonna’s Top 11 Controversies (And How They Helped Her Succeed Commercially)


Madonna‘s MDNA is set to take the top spot on Billboard next week by selling an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 copies. This will be her fifth consecutive album to debut at No. 1 and her eighth overall. According to Billboard, MDNA‘s sales have been bolstered by a promotion tied to her world tour — fans who buy concert tickets in the U.S. may also buy the album as part of their purchase. But we wonder whether controversies tied to MDNA — albeit, relatively small on the Madonna Controversy Scale — have helped with the sales spike.

If anything is in Madonna’s “DNA” (the stated inspiration for her album title), it’s stoking controversy and using the press as a marketing machine. This time around, the pop provocateur had her “Girls Gone Wild” video, featuring shirtless men grinding in mantyhose, age restricted by YouTube for nudity and implied masturbation.

Some have also taken offense to the album’s title, thought to be a nod to MDMA (a drug found in ecstasy). This speculation looked more likely after Madonna made a comment interpreted as glorifying ecstasy on stage last weekend. The comment infuriated Deadmau5, who argued the 50-year-old was trying too hard to be “hip” and “trendy” with the EDM set. Madonna denied that she referenced drugs at all (read her convoluted explanation), but it became one of the gossipy stories of the week — and coincided with the release of her album.

It’s impossible to tie Madonna’s controversies to commercial success in any quantifiable way, and you can’t deny she usually has some reasoning backing up her provocations — pushing gay culture towards the mainstream, attacking religious or political hypocrisy, fighting for peace, exposing poverty and AIDS among African children. But let’s take a chronological look back at The Material Girl’s most controversial moments in relationship to the material success of her albums, songs and tours.

1. Touching Virgins Is Exciting (1984)

Controversy: The song “Like A Virgin” alone was enough to spark controversy in 1984 as premarital sex wasn’t the usual fodder for bubblegum pop. Then Madonna crawled around lewdly in a whorish wedding dress at the MTV Video Music Awards, and “family values” still haven’t recovered.

Commercial Success: The album debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 3 and reached No. 1 a few months later. It has sold 21 million copies worldwide.

2. She’s Keeping Her Bastard Baby (1986)

Controversy: Planned Parenthood (of all organizations!) beefed with Madonna upon the release of True Blue‘s “Papa Don’t Preach.” It believed the song conveyed an anti-abortion message. Catholics were also unhappy about anyone having sex out of marriage.

Commercial Success: True Blue debuted disappointingly on June 11 at No. 28 on the Billboard 200 but reached No. 1 on August 16.

3. The Catholic Church Hates Madonna’s “Prayer” (1989)

Controversy: The video for “Like A Prayer” features a lingerie-clad Madonna getting frisky with a saint, dancing around burning crosses, and the scars of the stigmata on her hands. The Vatican cried heresy and Pepsi backed out of an endorsement.

Commercial Success: Like A Prayer, the album, debuted at the relatively low spot of No. 11 on the Billboard 200, although the song “Like a Prayer” became one of the best-selling singles of all time.

4. Justify My… Porn? (1990)

Controversy: The video for “Justify My Love,” from Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection, caused an international stir due to its sexual content. Who would have thought an S&M-themed, bisexual orgy in a hotel room would have been likened to porn? Yet, MTV banned the video.

Also in 1990, Madonna kicked off her “Blond Ambition” tour, which was considered revolutionary in terms of its creativity, but sparked an outcry among Catholics (the Pope called for a boycott of the Rome show) as it juxtaposed Catholic imagery with Cardinal Sins of the lust variety — gay themes and simulated sex and masturbation.

Commercial Success: Selling over 30 million copies, The Immaculate Collection is one of the world’s best-selling albums of all time. The video for “Justify My Love” was a bestselling video single on VHS.

5. Sex, Sex, Sex And More Sex (1992)

Controversy: Madonna timed the release of her sexually-charged album Erotica to the publishing of her book Sex. The sexually-explicit imagery in the book — bondage, gay erotocism, etc. — sparked more controversy than the album itself. The book featured an often naked Madonna getting it on in many varieties of positions with the likes of Vanilla Ice, Naomi Campbell, Big Daddy Kane and Isabella Rossellini.

Commercial Success: Despite positive reviews, Erotica has sold a mere 5 million copies worldwide, small by Madonna standards. Maybe controversy doesn’t always equal sales.

6. Letterman Is “A Sick F*ck” (1994)

Controversy: Madonna appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman on March 31 1994, and not only called him “a sick f*ck” but also used f*ck an additional 12 times. Her foul-mouthed stunt resulted in the episode being the most censored in network talk-show history. And do you recall her giving Dave her panties and insisting he smell them?

Commercial Success: Madge did not have a new album out at the time. Bedtime Stories was released in late October of 1994. It had a relatively mild commercial start, debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and selling 145,000 copies in its first week. The March 31 episode of Letterman, however, was its highest-rated ever.

7. Holy Hindus Don’t Hump (1998)

Controversy: At the 1998 Video Music Awards, Madonna’s peformance of “Ray of Light” seemed relatively benign to most American viewers. Not so to Hindus, who took issue with Madonna wearing Hindu facial markings that symbolize chastity and purity, and shows dedication to God. The World Vaishnava Association said it was offensive for Madonna to use the marks while simulating a sex act and wearing a see-through tank top that exposed her nipples.

Commercial Success: Ray of Light debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, selling 371,000 copies in its first week. It was beat by the Titanic soundtrack. Ray of Light went on to sell 20 million copies worldwide.

8. Banned For Violence (2001)

Controversy: MTV banned Madonna’s violent video for “What It Feels Like For a Girl,” a single from her Music album. Directed by then-husband Guy Ritchie, it features Madge stun-gunning and robbing a man at an ATM, running over a bunch of random men with her car, and finally killing herself (and an elderly woman). The video was meant to put a spotlight on how violence is accepted in videos by men, but not women.

Commercial Success: Music debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, selling 420,000 copies in its first week. The album has sold more than 11 million copies worldwide.

9. Madonna Is Anti-American, And She Makes Out With Girls (2003)

Controversy: Madonna released the anti-war song “American Life” (and accompanying video) for her album of the same title just as the U.S. waged war on Iraq. Many Americans took offense, interpreting the video as anti-American, and a radio ban took effect.

Later in the year, Madonna’s flirty performance with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards climaxed with some open-mouthed kissing.

Commercial Success: American Life debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold 241,000 copies in its first week.

10. Who Does Madonna Think She Is? Jesus Christ? (2006)

Controversy: Madonna once said, “I want to be like Gandhi, and Martin Luther King and John Lennon… but I want to stay alive.” She should have added Jesus Christ to her list. Because Madonna performed “Live to Tell” on her “Confessions” tour while crucified on a cross. She wore a red blouse, velvet pants, and a crown of thorns. The Catholic church saw the act as an act of hostility. Many Jews and Muslims were also outraged. A Protestant bishop said, “maybe the only way an aging superstar can attract attention is to offend people’s religious sentiments.”

Commercial Success:  “Confessions” was the highest grossing tour by a female artist at the time. Confessions on a Dance Floor debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, selling 350,000 copies in its first week. It also peaked at No. 1 in 40 countries, topping charts in more countries than any album in history.

11. MDNA or MDMA? (2012)

Controversy: Read top of article.

Commercial Success: When the deluxe edition of MDNA was available as pre-order on iTunes, it reached No. 1 in 50 countries and became the largest one day pre-order of any album in iTunes history. It’s also expected to land at the top of Billboard’s albums chart.

[Photos: Getty Images]

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