Being a pop-culture icon is tough work. The rare Brando type aside, most of them don’t ever want to give up the spotlight they’ve earned, and that tends to involve keeping up with what the kids think is cool these days. And since that grows logarithmically more difficult with every passing year, it often ends in tragedy.
Madonna’s been struggling to keep up recently, working with producers who seem to McConaughey-ishly stay the same age as she keeps getting older, dropping embarrassingly clumsy drug references to try and appeal to a dance music crowd she shouldn’t even have to court, and basically squandering several decades’ worth of legendary coolness for the sake of a failing personal brand.
Her most egregious attempts to maintain her relevancy are on her social media accounts. There, her frequent missteps are usually just the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from any middle-aged mother of four with an Instagram account, like posting flagrantly bad Photoshop jobs and meme images that are visibly worn out from having taken a lap around the Internet already, or showing off familiarity with recently-past-its-prime slang. Most of it’s just sadly thirsty, like she’s hocking her past triumphs in a losing game to seem hip—why bother referencing Warhol and Haring in hastily Photoshopped ads for your new record when the two of them actually collaborated on a piece about you back in the day?
Today, though, she’s decided to step things up a notch with a series of posts in which photos of dead political revolutionaries are edited (again, badly) to overlay their visages with the bondage-y cords wrapped around her own face on the cover of her upcoming Rebel Heart album (images below). It’s distasteful on a multitude of levels. The obvious one is that Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t make his “I Have a Dream” speech in order to promote a rich white woman’s record a half century later. And the fact that she’s co-opting the images of three of the most influential figures in the modern struggle for black liberation—King, Nelson Mandela, and Bob Marley—while America struggles to reckon with its history of systematic racism is bafflingly tone deaf, to say the least.
But her mini-campaign’s most disappointing element is how unoriginal it is. Advertisers have been using King as an unwilling pitch man for so long that the concept’s become an ad-world cliché. Apple’s Think Different campaign, which Madonna’s tweets seem designed to echo, already used Mandela. Madonna built an empire off her willingness to push the envelope, but her revolutionary aspect seems to have lost as much of its spark as her music. She can still push our buttons, but it’s no longer clear why she’s doing it, or why we want her pushing them.