To those of us who grew up with her as a constant barometer for the zeitgeist, her professional existence has never been marked by anything so practical and banal as the ageing process we all go through, but by the revolutionising movements she always represented, and in many cases pioneered. I vividly remember dinner table discussions as a child revolving solely around whatever social barrier Madonna had set her fearless sights on bulldozing over next. The “Erotica” album comes to mind and its subsequent Girlie Show, the VHS of which must have played every afternoon in my household in 1993, topless dancers and all.
In her work, she summed up the history of the female and male gaze and taught these generations not only to be defiant, but why. From the Virgin Mary to Marie-Antoinette and Marilyn Monroe, she created an inimitable sense of edutainment, liberally drawing on the historic significance of others to construct her own. By the mid-1990s, it had earned her the oft-used tag of reinvention.
Ten and twenty years on, however, the adoring audiences that fell in love with her as a rebellious young popstar and since hailed her as a spiritual and societally perceptive singer-songwriter from “Ray of Light” onwards, seemed to be unable to cope with her midlife cause. Much has been written about it: Madonna’s unapologetic fight against the ageism she started to experience around her “Confessions on a Dance Floor” era, when she donned a leotard at 47. And the increased scrutiny that’s followed her in the social media decade only gets a mention in my tribute to her because I’ve loved nothing more than observing Madonna’s continued middle-finger to ageism at this point in her career. While I agree this playful defiance doesn’t always translate into music (even though “Rebel Heart” was overall a great record), I admire Madonna’s resilience in the social battle that defines her revolution at age sixty.
I love her in a skimpy outfit. I love her twerking on Instagram. I love the mischievous little-girl smirk that always paints her expression. And I love the untouched, unfiltered selfies she puts up of her sixty-year-old face as an open invitation to anyone who wants to gossip about cosmetic procedures and whatever else fills the tabloid press.
What exactly is she expected to do, anyway? Hide in an uptown apartment for a decade like her idol Marlene Dietrich, who didn’t want to be photographed in her grand old eighties? Or simply follow the preconceived rhythm of women in showbusiness, swapping upbeat choreography for ballads on a bar stool once she turned fifty? No one wants to go to a Madonna concert and not dance to “Like a Virgin”. She knows this, and it’s her greatest ammunition. When she cheekily turned that track into an emotional ballad for her MDNA Tour a few years ago, twisting and turning on a grand piano in little more than a bra, she ingeniously put all of the double-standards of her audiences – old and new – in our face. And, of course, showcased her unfairly scrutinised ability as a live vocalist while at it.
There are few living public profiles, who continue to reflect, represent and fight to shatter what Hillary Clinton refers to as “the glass ceiling” more comprehensively than Madonna, simply for the fact that she is still paving the way as only Madonna the eternal frontrunner could. In decades to come, I won’t remember when Madonna turned sixty, but I’ll remember what she stood for in 2018. Whenever I come across the casual Madonna bashing, which has perhaps always existed in the public forum but seems to increase as she gets older and more defiant, I think of her fellow 1958er Michael Jackson, who would have turned sixty on August 29th. The outpour of adoration that unfolded after his death in 2009, following decades of public ridicule, was textbook hypocrisy. Here was a man so otherworldly his audience turned against him, called him a freak and crucified him, only to worship him once they lost him.
Madonna may be a rhinoceros-skinned provocateur, but let’s not mistake that for invincibility. In a world less roamed by larger-than-life superstars than ever – Jackson, Prince, Bowie – we should count ourselves lucky that Madonna still walks amongst us.