The most shocking thing about Madonna's appearance on Late Show With David Letterman-a night that will live in infamy for, oh, at least another 15 minutes-wasn't that she said ''f -- -'' 14 times or that she resorted to an incredibly corny that-microphone-looks-like-a-penis joke. No, what was more unnerving was that, for the first time in this brazen hussy's tough-minded, frequently revolutionary career, the primary emotion she inspired was pity.
Here, after all, is the '80s star who, more than any other, built her inescapable image around notions of power and control. She gleefully exploited herself as a sex object, coming on to us at various times as everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Marlene Dietrich to all-purpose shot-on-video porn star. Yet the point of every persona was that she was mistress of her own destiny. Madonna was not about to be used-by men or by the media-and she was hell-bent on making every garish pose a witty hoot set to catchy dance-pop melodies.
No more. Madonna's career in the '90s has stalled and sagged. Once she was the Last Pop Superstar-Bruce Springsteen had abdicated the position; Michael Jackson never grew up enough to accept the responsibility; it's doubtful Axl Rose could even spell it-but she stopped making music that mattered. After she appeared in a string of uneven films, the movie industry just chewed her up; tough Tinseltown wasn't about to allow her to exert the same control she'd had over her albums. Heretofore a deep-dish provocateur, she's been reduced to superficial media stunts: the flaccid Sex book, the sapphic frisking with Sandra Bernhard.
The Letterman appearance was another such stunt, a way to keep her name in the papers in lieu of actually producing some sort of creative work. And it was a shrewd choice, since, for better or for worse, David Letterman is mass America right now. (Looking at Letterman's Madonna ratings-his highest since his premiere week-NBC must have been mortified that it had just banned naughty-talking Martin Lawrence from The Tonight Show.) But Madonna made a crucial mistake: She didn't seem to realize that her public feels increasingly alienated from her at exactly the moment when Letterman is really connecting with his own huge audience. She strode out on March 31 assuming the audience wanted to see her kick Letterman's butt, but quickly found out the crowd was cheering for Dave to kick hers.
At a time when one of the hottest songs in the country carries the refrain ''I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me,'' Madonna's perennial stance as an indomitable winner seems outdated, if not deluded. As a feminist culture hero, she can't muster a critique of sexism that's as cogent as the ones offered by the women in bands like the Breeders and Bikini Kill. Face it, Madonna: Riot grrrls are tougher than material girls.
Letterman has a running joke, one he repeated this night: ''I have a theory about Madonna: I think that Madonna loves to shock us!'' This is a perfect '90s remark, since it reduces the notion of shock, of creative disruption, to something worthy of ridicule. The confidence and power that Letterman so effortlessly exudes these days are precisely the qualities Madonna now lacks. Her once-exhilarating bravado and impudence have curdled into a sullen, crude rebelliousness.
Besides, what was most offputting about her Letterman appearance wasn't the obscenity spew that supposedly rattled Dave but, rather, Madonna's adamant refusal to converse-there was no content to her dirty, ditzy blather. Who'd have thought we'd ever see the day when Madonna turned into Shelley Winters with a Susan Powter hardbody?
To me, nothing better symbolized Madonna's feelings of betrayal by, and antagonism toward, her fans than the fact that this star, who during her brilliant 1985 Like a Virgin tour used to ask her audiences if they wanted to marry her, refused to give an admirer in the Letterman studio crowd the kiss on the forehead he was begging for.
The next night, CBS ran prime-time promos with Dave crowing happily, ''You can tune in safely-she's not on tonight!'' Which goes to show that when she wasn't looking, Madonna missed the zeitgeist boat: In the mid-'90s, her notions of danger and controversy are a lot less hip than Letterman's idea of safety.