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Madonna gives herself too much credit for the sex-positive freedom artists have today

Forty years-plus into the game, and Madonna can still court controversy. The latest arose on Saturday, when the singer took to Instagram to commemorate the 30th anniversary of her controversial “Sex” coffee table book. “Now Cardi B can sing about her WAP. Kim Kardashian can grace the cover of any magazine with her naked a– and Miley Cyrus can come in like a wrecking ball. You’re welcome b—-es,” the artist posted on an Instagram story, with a clown emoji at the end. 

Numbers don’t lie (Madonna is one of the bestselling pop stars of all time), but they don’t often tell the whole story. That’s why her recent comments suggesting she is responsible for younger musicians and public figures being more sexually explicit is questionable. If you engage in a little fact-checking, you’ll see why.

Numbers don’t lie (Madonna is one of the bestselling pop stars of all time), but they don’t often tell the whole story.

While her fans uncritically defended her flippant remark, I was more attuned to the erasure embedded in Madonna’s assertion and, subsequently, her supporters’ unqualified statements about her impact. I don’t expect devoted fans to be reasonable when it comes to defending their favorite artist, but historical inaccuracies that diminish the effect of multiple marginalized communities such as Black women and Black and Latinx queer and gender-expansive people need to be addressed.  

Without question, I view Madonna as someone who pushed the boundaries of overtly and unabashedly sexual performances in popular culture. But I also know she was by no means the first, singular, or distinctively influential to some of the women she named as heirs to her carefully crafted, libidinous throne.

Like many stories of pop superstardom, there are genealogies, predecessors and legacies that demand acknowledgment. But Black artists often get excised from predominating narratives about U.S. popular culture. And if someone is making insouciant remarks about deserving recognition for the path she blazed, it’s only fitting that we set the record straight about who begat what. I am a firm believer in receipts, so let the record show that when it comes to women, sexual expression, U.S. popular music and commercial viability, that conversation begins with Black blues women of the early and mid-20th century. 

Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith and others sang and gained popularity for their sexually evocative lyrics. Smith, for example, sold a contemporaneously unprecedented number of records. Although styles varied among these formidable women — some favored insinuation and flirtation while others preferred overt references to sexual satisfaction and a voracious and fluid sexual appetite — what conjoined these trailblazers was a refusal to adhere to prevailing gender and sexual norms. 

Despite contending with damaging racist and sexist stereotypes about Black women being lascivious, hypersexual and undesirable, Black blues women reshaped popular culture by their insistence on being seen and heard as sexual subjects. They boldly tantalized audiences and became blueprints for future generations of popular entertainers who sought to commercialize their sexual expressivity.

The house that Black blues women built was foundational for singers and girl groups such as Millie Jackson, Betty Davis, Donna Summer, Tina Turner, Grace Jones, LaBelle, Salt N’ Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Trina, Missy Elliot and many others. Individually and collectively, these acts continued to push the boundaries of sexual expression in popular culture. And though women of all races in the music industry endure sexism and misogyny, Black women additionally deal with anti-Blackness and the convergence of these distinct but interconnected oppressive forces in their careers. If the stakes for women in the music industry were and are high, they were and are even higher for Black women who belong to a community historically and derisively stereotyped as hypersexual.

Like many stories of pop superstardom, there are genealogies, predecessors and legacies that demand acknowledgment. But Black artists often get excised from predominating narratives about U.S. popular culture.

Madonna’s impressive decadeslong career is not only indebted to the tremendous careers of the sexually explicit Black women who came before her or were among her earliest peers. Her body of work also relied upon the innovation, dynamism and creative genius of Black and Latinx queer cultures of the late 20th century. Most people now know Madonna didn’t invent voguing, and yet people willfully ignore and actively undervalue how much of her performance style and erotic aesthetics derived from her appropriation of and self-declared proximity to Black and Latinx queer spaces. LGBTQ+ communities’ work during the sexual revolution created a space from where a cisgender white woman could publish a book titled “Sex,” which featured nudity and queer sexual acts. 

Of course, we know that Madonna was judged harshly by many for this book and for her body of work that focused on sex and pleasure — just as many Black women before her were. She, however, wasn’t criminalized in the ways LGBTQ+ people were for their sexual expression, nor was she reviled to the point where her performances became evidence of all white women’s inherent sexual depravity.

The risks were much higher for the Black women and the Black and Latinx queer people across genders who chose to be sexually provocative entertainers. This reality doesn’t invalidate Madonna’s place in pop culture history. It calls for a more comprehensive and expansive recollecting of how we got to the mainstream popularity (and accompanying controversy) of a song such as “WAP.” Madonna is a part of the popularization of mainstream media’s embrace of the erotic, but the throughline among Black women and Black and Latinx queer people is indisputable.

Shortly after a few since-deleted tweets from Cardi B responding to Madonna’s viral comments, a private conversation between them occurred. Afterward, the two expressed love for one another and the social media dust-up became yesterday’s news. 

While I am happy that happened — there appears to be mutual love and respect — I can’t help but think about all those Black women and Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people who have never received their just due for paving the way for a growing space in popular culture for women to explore sex and sexuality. To them all, we owe an enormous and erogenous debt.

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