Madge's meltdown: We look at Madonna's current situation
A rift between Madonna and her son Rocco has seen the Queen of Pop arguably lose her cool in public for the first time. Ed Power reports.
So Madonna really is human after all. Across her seemingly never-ending career, the Material Girl has more closely resembled a robot sent back in time with orders to conquer the charts with extreme prejudice. But the 57-year-old's metallic shell appears to have at last splintered following her public falling-out with beloved son Rocco (15).
Usually fiercely protective of her privacy, on the recent Australian leg of her Rebel Heart tour Madonna didn't so much wash her dirty laundry in public as stride into the audience and invite punters to have a sniff of her whiffy vestments.
She duly arrived four hours late, and apparently five sheets to the wind, for a gig in Melbourne earlier this month, proceeding to break into tears while performing against a giant video montage of Rocco, who has left her side to be with his father, Madonna's ex, Guy Richie.
That she did all of this while dressed as a clown was one of the less noteworthy facets of the performance.
Then came 'boob-gate'. As if seeking to one-up herself, at a later concert in Australia, Madonna dragged a 17-year-old fan on stage and pulled down her top.
The "lucky" punter has described the Madge Mauling as one of the happiest events of her life ("there was no bad intentions, it was just love and fun up there"). Nonetheless, this was an exceedingly odd turn from a star who has traditionally maintained her dignity even when romping about in a cone brassier.
The Material Girl has revealed herself to be suspiciously squishy at the centre.
It's tempting to conclude that Madonna's increasingly eccentric outbursts are reflective of the fact that for perhaps the first time in decades, events are beyond her control.
Being able to bend the universe to her will has long been crucially important to the singer. She was always the one in the driving seat, others scurrying to do her bidding.
But Rocco is not inclined to dance to her tune and this is in all likelihood a huge shock.
At the heart of the present dispute, it appears, are Madonna and Richie's radically different parenting styles. Richie is reported to be the sort of dad who wants to be their child's unofficial best pal. He and Rocco are said to enjoy mucking about together, like a pair of mates on a lark. Madonna, in contrast, is exceedingly strict and is known to keep her children on a tight figurative leash (she has three other children: 19-year-old Lourdes and adopted 10-year-olds David and Mercy James).
Shortly to turn 16, Rocco is, by every account, tired of his mother's controlling ways and exhausted by life in her orbit (he accompanied her on the early legs of the Rebel Heart tour but grew quickly bored).
He is also reportedly fed up at being endlessly doted upon.
The breaking-point - it is rumoured - was when Madonna tied his hair into pigtails and proceeded to post the images on Instagram.
When he was pictured in the UK over Christmas, Rocco's shoulder-length hair had been defiantly shorn. "She doesn't see the resolution of this problem as her simply saying yes to Rocco, 'Yes that's fine, do as you wish, stay on living in London and having a good time'," her lawyer, David Williams, told the London High Court. "That is not her role as a mother."
But Madonna's court application to have Rocco returned to her in New York inevitably ran into legal complications, with the judge appealing to the boy's parents to sort the matter out privately.
Rocco, he pointed out, was on the brink of adulthood. To have his final years of childhood overshadowed by legal wrangles between his estranged mother and father would be a tragedy the scale of which might take years to properly comprehend.
Watching helplessly as a loved one removed themselves from her orbit will have undoubtedly come as a huge shock to Madonna.
She has always been the boss - a stance that has enabled her to persevere in situations where others would have given up.
When she was sexually assaulted after moving from Detroit to New York in the early 1980s to launch her pop career, for instance, she refused to don the mantle of victim.
Rather, she focused the pain and rage into her music and made herself appear stronger than ever.
She owned her sexuality. It did not belong to the thug who had jumped her down a dark alleyway.
"It can be argued that her anger at the attack came out afterwards in a need for complete sexual control," wrote Lucy O'Brien in her 2007 biography, Madonna: Like an Icon.
"Many friends have suggested she used sex to get attention, to get dinner, get a bed for the night. As a young women who felt powerless, it was one way to show men that she was the dominant one and she didn't care. Sex became a mask, a way of psychologically turning the tables on her attacker."
Madonna exhibited the same relentless streak when her mother was dying from cancer. She was appalled to see the women who had raised her to be tough and resourceful abandon an afternoon of housework because she lacked the strength to continue.
Madonna, then one of the biggest stars in the world, confronted her ailing parent and expressed disbelief that she would submit to illness so easily.
"I knew I could be either sad and weak and not in control," Madge would recall later. "Or I could just take control and say it's going to get better."
"She is perhaps the most resilient pop star of all time," Nile Rodgers, co-writer of 'Like a Virgin', once told the Irish Independent.
"Madonna is in her mid-50s and competing with whoever the hot new star is. I've worked with Elton, with Sting - these people are my friends. But they're not competing with Justin Bieber. Madonna is vying with the equivalent.
"It's amazing to think Madonna and Lady Gaga are having a feud. That would be like Justin Bieber and Sting having a feud."
Indeed, such is Madonna's desire to remain in charge, she has faced down even the deep music industry prejudice against older women. "It's still the one area where you can totally discriminate against somebody," she told Rolling Stone, "and talk shit. Because of their age. Only females, though. Not males. So in that respect we still live in a very sexist society."
Yet her determination to forge her own path and not be defined by others does not make her immune to old-fashioned human emotion, such as a mother's love for her child.
Rocco is by every account perfectly happy with Richie and his new wife Jacqui Ainsley and their young family in London (Richie and Madonna divorced in 2008 after eight years of marriage).
Madonna, meanwhile, may remain one of the most potent brands in pop.
But it appears that her heart has been broken and that it will take more than fame, wealth and the love of strangers to make good the damage.