“Madonna is dead?”my daughter recently asked me while we were dancing like idiots in the kitchen to Vogue. After spending a few months inoculating my child with Madonna’s back catalogue, I realized I hadn’t told her anything about the woman herself. My daughter is still young enough to have no interest in the age of the singers she listens to – living or dead is generally enough information for her. If only we all felt that way.
Pop music is an unforgiving place for the older woman. Few know this better than Madonna, who turns 60 on Thursday, and whose every move in the past 15 years has been accompanied by a grim chorus of “Put it away, grandma”. That the entertainment industry is among the worst culprits when it comes to fading out women – note in comparison the scores of male actors and musicians carrying on into their 60s and 70s unimpeded – is especially depressing since it’s a business that directly influences how we think and live. But we can take heart that, as with so many aspects of the female experience, Madonna is doing her damnedest to put it right.
“Do not age, to age is a sin,” she said in a blunt speech in 2016, after accepting an award at Billboard’s Women in Music event. “You will be criticised, you will be vilified and you will definitely not be played on the radio.” But being criticised and vilified is all in a day’s work for Madonna. So is adjusting expectations and redrawing boundaries, all the while pleasing herself. These are the things she does best. She hasn’t so much smoothed the path for those who have come after her as hacked her way through the undergrowth, and done battle with monsters, in order to make it walkable for the rest of us.
Madonna has been in my life for pretty much as long as I can remember. I have watched her in her various incarnations – gobby, rosary-draped urchin, corset-clad dominatrix, wayward cowgirl, hot yoga mom – with a mixture of curiosity, amusement and awe. As well as her successes, I have observed her failures and humiliations, and admired how she ploughs on regardless, doing what she wants and never apologising, even though her pain is clear. Having had her in my peripheral vision for 35 years, I now look on her like one would an unusually free-spirited relative: unpredictable, occasionally misguided, frequently inspiring, forever up for new adventure. That so many people, from Mary Whitehouse to the pope to Piers Morgan, have wished her to be quiet, or invisible, has made her all the more compelling. Rubbing people up the wrong way is one of her many talents.
You might have thought that all these years in Madonna’s company would have rendered the world impervious to her antics – yet her transgressions apparently continue. Now her mere existence as a woman (almost) in her 60s means, for some, that she has outlived her usefulness. At her age, she should be quiet and amenable. She should stay at home, cut her hair short and keep her upper arms covered. And those hands! “Why do Madonna’s hands look older than her face?” inquired the Daily Mail in 2006 in a particularly venal piece that has been redrafted pretty much every year since.
It’s not just the press that has turned Madonna-shaming into an international sport. In a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter last year, the academic and social critic Camille Paglia derided her for her “pointless provocations” and her “trashy outfit[s]”, and urged her to be more like Marlene Dietrich “who retained her class and style to the end of her public life”. Madonna? Provocative? Where have you been, Camille? Even Elton John has had a pop – “she looks like a fairground stripper”, said the man who once rocked up at a party with an Eiffel Tower on his head. Right now, one of her loudest detractors is that expostulating foghorn Morgan, who believes women should be equal to men just as long their wardrobes meet his exacting age-appropriate standards.
But this is Madonna. She doesn’t do quiet and she doesn’t do amenable. In the face of criticism, she reacts. Well, why wouldn’t she? When she is told that she should slow down, step back and act her age, she protests in the only way that she knows: in the public gaze. So she does a topless photoshoot – rather beautiful, as it happens – in Interview magazine. She gets her arse out at the Met Gala, essentially pulling a massive moony at the world. This month, she put on suspenders for a Vogue photoshoot. You can just imagine her assembling her outfit with her team: “So guys, what can I wear that will given Elton a bloody hernia?” That’s our girl. So all hail to Our Lady, still fighting, still hacking away at the undergrowth, still clearing a path and changing the world for the rest of us.