In 1995, Madonna was on top of the world.
Her first three records had set a formula, playing with sex and R&B and religious iconography. Then Like A Prayer had taken that formula to its natural endpoint, spawning hit after hit and coating her career in platinum.
But refused to stay still. Erotica came next, and blew that early formula up, a collection of soulful bangers released alongside of coffee table book of nudes. The press was in a stir. But even then, Madonna kept moving. Before the impact of Erotica had been measured, the singer dropped Bedtime Stories, one of her biggest commercial successes ever.
It was Bedtime Stories that sealed the deal. The press that for so long had treated her with snooty derision could deny her no longer. She wasn’t just a popstar — she was the popstar, as big as musicians got. Everything she did made news. Which is why when she and Courtney Love messily crossed paths at the ’95 VMAs, it wasn’t just an interview gone wrong. It was a moment in the culture.
Courtney Love’s 1995 was very different. Her band Hole had just released their masterpiece, Live Through This. But Love didn’t have the respect of Madonna. She was seen as trouble, perpetually in the process of falling into new scandals and tabloid blow-ups.
Love appeared to relish that chaos, too. Her reputation in the press was as an antic mischief-maker. She was the person you called up when you wanted an easy, loud headline. If Madonna was the artist, stunning the public with her work, then Love was the anarchist, dredging up dirt and sewing trouble in her wake.
Of course, both of those reputations were somewhat artificial. Madonna could make her own kind of trouble — the Erotica coffee table book proved that — and Love was a talented and heartfelt singer-songwriter. A track like ‘Violet’ was as complicated, intelligent and soulful as commercial radio of the time ever got. And all the tabloid nonsense distracted from that.
But still, those were the two personas that came crashing into one another that fateful night at the ’95 VMAs, when Madonna sat on a balcony, chatting with MTV’s Kurt Loder, and got a compact thrown at her.
“Hi Courtney,” Loder says in a video of the incident, turning to see the Hole frontwoman in the crowd below, the culprit who had slung the weapon. “That’s Courtney Love, everybody’s favourite –” He doesn’t finish the sentence. But the aborted description does all the talking for him. “Everybody’s favourite” what? You can fill in your own blank.
Almost immediately, Madonna looks uncomfortable. “Courtney Love is in dire need of attention right now,” she says. But Loder presses on.
“Come on up, Courtney” Loder says, presumably sensing an opportunity for more trouble. And so Courtney Love does.
The rest of the interview is chaos. Poking fun at Loder, Love apologises for the interruption, calling herself “feisty”. But she doesn’t leave. Instead, she and Madonna circle each other, half in an argument. Love says being a rockstar isn’t working out for her, a brief moment of vulnerability that sours into a dig, when she asks Madonna if the ‘Like a Virgin’ singer even counts as a rockstar anyway.
“You dip into the population, as Michael Stipe would say,” Love says to Madonna, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
A little later, after more attempts to start a disagreement, Madonna asks them to compare which one has better shoes. Eventually, perhaps sensing that the interview is more awkward than conversation-generating, Loder ushers them both away.
“Thanks Madonna,” he says, sounding almost bored. Love stays up on the platform, talking to Loder. But the camera strays down, into the crowd, watching Madonna and her silk jacket walk off, disappearing into the throng.
The clash allowed the mainstream press to strengthen the stereotypes of both women. It made Love look trashy, they wrote; Madonna look aloof and somewhat alien. Neither of the popstars got out with their reputation improved.
That was very typical of the music press at the time. Talking heads like Loder didn’t understand women unless they could cast them as either a Madonna — literally, in the case — or a whore. You could either be a diva or a danger to society, nothing in-between. PJ Harvey, an artist with an aesthetic that deliberately combined both images, was utterly incomprehensible to journalists of the era. All anybody asked Harvey about was her wardrobes and outfits. Anything beyond that was totally alien.
That’s clearly what Loder thought he was going to get when he invited Love up to the platform — the Two Kinds of Women, at war with each other. Which explains his disappointment. For all their surface level differences, the pair of performers share a lot in common. Both use their music to explore a vulnerability that their public personas don’t allow. Both have a rich and nuanced sonic vocabulary. And both were being put into a box and used by a shallow industry.
Indeed, that similarity between the two is only clearer now. Love tried to make fun of Madonna for not being a popstar. Now, such ersatz distinctions fail to exist. The “mainstream”, whatever that means, is more multitudinous now than ever before. We listen to pop; rock; rap; whatever. The faultlines that Loder thought he was tip-toeing across by pushing the two women into conflict either didn’t exist, or would stop existing in a matter of years.
Now, watching the clip back, it feels almost quaint. It’s nothing on the level of Cardi B and Nicki Minaj and their scrapes, or Minaj asking Miley Cyrus what’s good. It’s the sight of two personas rubbing against one another; the machine of the ’90s music industry and the sexism that lay under the press of the time turned inwards. And awkwardly. There are no sparks, and the interview inadvertently revealed why Loder shouldn’t have even expected them — because such distinctions were fake. Madonna and Love weren’t two polar opposites. They only seemed that way because of failures of the imagination of powerful men.
THE TREATMENT OF WOMEN IN THE PRESS IS STILL EMBARRASSINGLY REDUCTIVE.
The music industry still has artificial battle lines drawn, of course. The treatment of women in the press is still embarrassingly reductive. But the non-starter of Madonna and Love’s chat proves that we can and should continue to question how we make such distinctions. The things we hold as gospel now — the compartments we put popstars in — will seem silly in decades. So let’s start unpacking them. Things will be more fun if we do.
That, in fact, the joy of the Courtney Love and Madonna clash. Not that those two women hated each other. But that so many people — mostly men — had so much riding on the myth that they did.
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