Pop’s ultimate provocateur is back with a new album, a renewed sense of purpose, and no intention of growing old gracefully. Carolyn Moore wouldn’t want her any other way.
“I don’t focus on my accomplishments, I focus on the things I haven’t done yet,” is the ethos that drives Madonna to keep working, even though, as the best selling female artist of all time, it would be easy to assume that she has nothing left to prove. But 13 albums in, Madonna finds herself at a juncture in her career where she has more to prove than ever. The world has decided that 56-year-old women have no business making pop music, dancing provocatively, or going out in their knickers, and not for the first time, Madonna is out to prove the world wrong.
When BBC Radio 1 decided that her first single from Rebel Heart had no place on its playlist, they pointed to the fact that Paul McCartney is on their playlist as proof that the decision had nothing to do with Madonna’s age. But where they see a justification for her omission, many see just another example of the sexism Madonna has been railing against for three decades, something she sees as being inextricably linked to the ageism she is experiencing now. As she explains it, since men don’t have to deal with it, ageism is inherently a sexist discrimination.
“I find it tremendously unfair that people would have issues with me exploring sexuality or continuing to be sexually provocative in my performances. You’re not allowed to have fun in your 50s if you’re a girl. Mick Jagger is allowed to have fun, but I’m not allowed to have fun.”
What will the Daily Mail say? Working the burlesque pirate look at the Grammys.
From online polls asking “Do you think Madonna should tone down the sexy?” to the tut-tutting of the Daily Mail every time she bares a buttock or exposes too much cleavage, for the last few years Madonna’s every move has been met with a chorus of “put it away”, as the world implores her to grow old gracefully. But as the lyrics of Rebel Heart attest, if you ask Madonna “Why can’t you be like the other girls?” she’ll say “Oh no, that’s not me, and I don’t think that it’ll ever be.”
In her 30-year career, Madonna has been kicking down barriers, stepping over them, and calmly inviting the next challenge. Try as she might, with fillers or Photoshop, she can’t beat the aging process, but in confronting a blatant double standard and speaking openly about the discrimination she’s encountering, she is fixing it as just one more hurdle to be overcome.
Still setting trends – Burlesque pirate catches on.
And as she pointed out to Rolling Stone last month, when it comes to paving the way for others to follow, she has set a strong precedent. “It could be the average one day,” she told them. “That’s the thing. When I did my Sex book, it wasn’t the average. When I performed on the MTV Awards and my ass was showing, it was a total scandal, and now it’s the average. So if I have to be the person who opens the door for women to embrace the idea that they can be sexual and look good and be as relevant in their 50s or 60s as they were in their 20s, then so be it.”
As one of the highest selling artists of all time, alongside Elvis, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles, of that group only Paul McCartney, along with Madonna, is actively producing new music. And while no one thinks to question his right to do that – or to collaborate with younger artists like Rihanna and Kanye West – Madonna increasingly has to justify her place in the industry, even as she remains one of its top earners, biggest live draws, and hardest working stars.
The show must – and did – go on.
You need only look at the reaction to her BRIT awards performance to see the consensus that the dignified thing for a woman over 50 to do is bow out graciously and never be heard from again. “Built me up and I can do no wrong,” she sang, “I let down my guard…” and then it happened. The neck tie on her weighty Armani cape got stuck, and Madonna was yanked off a plinth, landing in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. “… Took me to heaven, let me fall down…” she continued, picking herself up and carrying on as if nothing had happened.
Though the severity of the fall was shocking (premiership footballers have been stretchered off the field for less), #FallenMadonna was trending on Twitter within moments, as millions rushed to pass judgment and make funny quips about grandmas and hip replacements, with a barely contained glee that this topple proved that Madonna was past it. But where was the admiration for the consummate professional, the woman who could take a fall like that and keep going? The woman whose work ethic wouldn’t allow her to quit even if her body was more bruised than her ego?
When I was growing up, I had a videotape of The Virgin Tour that was practically worn out from being played. In the intro I listened as Madonna recalled, “I went to New York. I had a dream. I wanted to dance. I wanted to sing… I wanted everybody to love me. I wanted to be a star. I worked really hard and my dream came true.” I’m not sure how many of today’s stars are advocating hard work as the path to success, but I suspect kids nowadays think dreams come true via TV talent shows and strategically leaked sex tapes.
And yet the message I absorbed from the media was that she probably didn’t write any of her songs, she probably slept her way to the top, and she was really just a glorified attention seeker. It was a narrative that didn’t mesh with the razor sharp focus, pure charisma, and superhuman physical stamina I saw when she performed, not to mention the catalogue of songs that have stood the test of time. She worked with collaborators, but so did Michael Jackson, and I never heard anyone question his talent.
But apparently it was unfathomable that this whip smart, wickedly funny woman – who was told by her University of Michigan dance teacher “You have a gift. Go to New York.” – could propel herself to stardom through raw talent, hard work or sheer force of will. And while Prince could be provocative and still be respected as a musician, the reaction she got was, she says, “Oh, you’re dressing like a slut. You must be stupid. You have no talent.”
The message I got from Madonna was that through hard work and determination I could achieve anything, but society’s addendum to this was “so long as you have a man to help you”. Madonna’s message now is that you can be as vital and creative in your 50s as any other decade of your life, but society’s reaction to her suggests that actually, no, you’re pretty much done when you turn 50.
And so it is that I continue to appreciate her willingness to put herself out there as an example of what women can do and be. I may not follow her down a path of dressing like a burlesque space goth, puffing my cheeks up with filler or dating 25-year-olds – any more than my teenage self was inspired to make a Sex book – but the Madonna I love pleases herself first and lets every woman know that it’s ok for them to do the same, to whatever extreme they wish to take that. And when society tries to stuff her into a box labeled “Done” she’s going to push back against their expectations, hard, just as she always has.
That’s who she is, that’s why she’s Madonna, and her age is immaterial, girl.
This feature first appeared in Like magazine, April 2015.