Madonna: Defying the Critics
A thorn in the side of a mainstream media, Madonna feels like an artist that has always been with us, a constant part of our lives and of our popular culture.
Born in 1958 – a significant time considering that fellow legends Prince and Michael Jackson were born in the same year – Madonna feels like an artist that has always been with us, a constant part of our lives and of our popular culture. Many of her fans today grew up with her music, captivated and drawn in by her energetic live performances, visually rich music videos and successful studio albums. She is, quite simply, the quintessential female pop star: beautiful, intelligent, stylish and groundbreaking. She cannot be compared to anyone else, although the imitators have numbered many over the years. Undoubtedly, acts such as Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani owe her a lot – Madonna's influence an undeniable presence in their own careers and image.
What is it, exactly, that has given Madonna the power to do what so few females have managed in the music industry? How is it that she has not only held onto her career after so many years (her first release was 1983) but continued to thrive; seemingly as energetic and inspired to create as she was back in the early days of her career? In a society still not entirely comfortable with females who are empowered and who dominate, Madonna has truly done the unthinkable: she has achieved a career so successful that she belongs to the annals of pop music history and culture along with other significant legends such as Prince, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson. She is a woman making an impact in a music world that was – and still often is, at times - male-dominated.
She is the thorn in the side of a mainstream media who would like to see her sidelined by younger acts, a media who like to print photos of her as she ages and make a headline of it, as if her numbering years have any reflection on the quality of her output. Could it be that within some of the criticism towards Madonna, exists an underlying discrimination against a woman of older years expressing sexuality in such a confident way? Whilst performers in very recent times - such as Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga – all seem to enjoy success and acceptance with being sexy, kinky and provocative, it appears that audiences create a distinction between when this is acceptable and when this is not, and it appears that age is the clincher.
In May of 2019, she told Decca Aitkenhead reporting for Vogue magazine, “People have always been trying to silence me for one reason or another, whether it’s that I’m not pretty enough, I don’t sing well enough, I’m not talented enough, and now it’s that I’m not young enough. Now I’m fighting ageism, now I’m being punished for turning 60.” One could agree with Madonna's thinking: we still live in a society that fetishises youth. Pop singers, especially female, are sought out in what we perceive to be their “prime.” Yet what happens when the truly talented finally age, as we all must do, and time passes? Madonna has proven herself an exception to the rule. She has survived. She remains - she still has her voice; she won't be silenced and certainly won't submit to any expectations. However, where her male counterparts have been continually awarded the respect they deserve, Madonna still fights to receive praise from media and her critics. They make her earn it again and again and again - yet how many times is enough?
“In the beginning of my career,” she told Kathleen Hou of website The Cut, “I got so much flak for using sexuality as part of my creativity and was called a sexual provocateur. Now, all the challenges that I had to face 20 years ago seem ludicrous. What I am going through now is ageism, with people putting me down because I do things that are considered to be only the domain of younger women. I mean, who made those rules? I’m going to keep fighting it.” And fight it, she does. Having just released her latest studio album, Madame X (to much praise and success), she has highlighted for the world yet again that she is unstoppable, with the music impressing her fan base as much as ever.
While some of her male peers who also began in the '80s had (or still have) a lengthy, successful career alongside her, there have been few of them subjected to the same treatment that she has. Criticisms of her appearance, attitude to sex, costumes and relationships with men have all come under fire, yet when men in the same industry go on stage without a top, date younger women or sing about sex, society celebrates them and applauds them, perpetuating the double standards that still seem to ring throughout the industry as a whole (and the media bias). Stories abound of older male rock stars dating young women, and one doesn't need to look far to see the acclaim many men in the music industry gain as they age (without question or criticism), with artists like Paul McCartney, Axl Rose, Bowie and Jagger given their legendary status and respect without questions regarding appearance and age. The double standards abound, it seems.
Whilst the media may expose the cruel side of ageism – and sexism - in the entertainment industry, Madonna is one star who will not take the issue lying down. As proven in the past, she is an artist who enjoys pushing boundaries, and ageism is another bullet she will fire back at the world for as long as the guns of discrimination remain loaded in society. After her recent performance on the Eurovision song contest, Madonna received an unprecedented backlash. If it had just been a case of critiques of the performance itself, that would be unremarkable, however the comments aimed at her were loaded with undisguised discrimination both by media and viewers. Trawling through social media, some were unforgiving in their summation. “Madonna is past her best and is embarrassing,” chided one social media user. Another states, “What a mutton dressed as lamb.” “Time to hang up the costumes, Madonna. Your glory days are gone,” said another account holder.
What remains remarkable is that there is usually no public calling for men to retire, to step down from their career, as they advance in age. Nobody makes such demands about Mick Jagger or Axl Rose, despite their advancing years and the fact that they too, are no longer as young as they were when they first released music and performed on stage. Why the double standard? To drive the point home, songwriter Diplo (who wrote the track Ghosttown for Madonna's Rebel Heart album), said “Her song ‘Ghosttown’ was a guaranteed Number One for anybody else, but she [Madonna] didn’t get a fair shot... She sold out her tour in minutes, but no one seems to want her to succeed – ‘Madonna, we’ve been there, done that, now we’re about Kim Kardashian.' Diplo's comments allude to the fact that a star like Rihanna would have made a hit of the same track, whereas Madonna wasn't played on radio or given the same exposure, and as a result the song wasn't a big success for the singer. The truth of this is staggering when one considers that Madonna's talent and charisma often outshines younger stars (even when she is double their age) yet she now struggles to get the same airplay as them.
All of this follows in the wake of Radio 1's decision not to play Madonna's singles from her previous album, Rebel Heart, because they were trying to “get the average age of the listener down.” The station admitted they wanted a listening audience in their 20s. The result? Certain older artists apparently don't cut it any more.
Many music legends have experienced this with the passing of time. Great artists continue producing great work, but are pushed aside by the music industry to make way for upcoming, “fresh” talent, many of whom simply don't compare. One only needs to take a look at the highest grossing tours of the last five years and the highest-paid headliners at Glastonbury and Coachella, and it indicates which generation of artists have the real pulling power and ability to draw in the crowds... it's the big names, the legends, the ones who have earned their position as giants of the industry. Many music fans can see this, and often demand it by paying large sums to see big acts live on stage – so what will it take for the music industry and media to revise their attitudes? Why are older acts not always included on popular radio playlists? Why should a song given to a younger woman be given more media exposure than the same song given to an older artist? Why should an entire full page article be given over to analysing Madonna's ageing appearance instead of her latest album?
There has to be a time when we say enough is enough. When an artist of Madonna's calibre – who is still producing original, influential and vibrant music – has spent a lifetime proving herself, she has earned every moment on the radio, every inch of shelf space in record stores... she more than deserves her place, and has a right to it.