I was 12 when I got my first Sony Walkman. I won it participating in a fundraising walk-a-thon. It’s probably the only sports achievement that I will ever earn in my life, unless shopping becomes a competitive sport. Shortly after, I joined Columbia House (You remember them, right? “Get 12 cassettes for 1 penny now!” Then you paid about twenty bucks a pop for the other 8 you had to buy once the shipping was factored in.) and in that first batch of cassettes, in addition to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad and some other titles I don’t remember, was Like a Virgin, True Blue, and You Can Dance—the album which started the brief, late-80s trend of pop stars filling out their record contracts with remix albums. I proudly signed on the dotted line as a Madonna fan, despite the fact that this was often greeted with something along the lines of, as she herself once said while playing a Jewish New Jersey grandmother on a segment of Mike Myers “Coffee Tawk” on SNL, “Ugh, that Madonna is such a whooooorrrreeeee.” It’s that pronunciation of “whore” that’s actually two syllables: “hoe-rah.” It’s to emphasize the fact, in case you weren’t getting it from the curled lip and the tone of voice, that the speaker finds your taste in music deplorable. Of course, the statement says nothing about the music. It says something about a perception of her sexuality. Curious how that works, isn’t it?
That’s been the Madonna counter-narrative almost from the beginning, right? “No talent, can’t sing, whore, just uses controversy to stay in the spotlight, can’t dance, can’t act, why doesn’t she just go away?” At the beginning, the critics posited her as the flash-in-the-pan, and the much more talented Cyndi Lauper as the true, long-term superstar. Of course it had to be a competition, right? Women can’t possibly coexist within a theater without somehow being pitted against each other. Women are like Highlander—there can be only one. Forget male territorialism—when women step into the spotlight for anything, it has to be a duel to the death, especially in music. Since Madonna vs. Cyndi, we’ve had Debbie Gibson vs. Tiffany, Britney vs. Xtina, Beyonce vs. Rhianna. (Note to Beyonce—apparently you lost, since Microsoft Word refuses to recognize your name as being a word, but has no problem with Rhianna.) Some critics, it seems, are still in shock that Cyndi Lauper has fallen out of the mainstream (sadly, because she is a brilliant singer and songwriter) but Madonna has somehow endured.
At 12, I didn’t know how to answer “Ugh, why do you like her?” I just did. I liked her music. Obviously, I wasn’t digging on her as the subject of masturbatory fantasies (some of her backup dancers, maybe, but not her). I also had trouble putting words to why other people didn’t like her. Not so much why they didn’t like her, but why they seemed to so passionately hate her. For god’s sake—she’s just a pop singer. But when you encounter someone who is not down with Madonna, it’s not just “Meh, I’m not into her.” It’s usually accompanied by a diatribe of every horrendous wrong she seems to have personally afflicted upon the person. I don’t remember people having this kind of reaction to Paula Abdul. Madonna-ire seems, at times, to rival even Yoko-rage. What is it that people find so threatening about Madonna that they have what seems to be a visceral reaction to her?
Yes, she’s known for controversy, but that’s hardly been the central focus of her entire career. In her first three hit singles (“Lucky Star,” “Borderline,” “Holiday”), it would be difficult to find something to object to. Being in love? Being in love with someone who pushes you too far? World peace? Good god—call out the National Guard. She must be stopped!
Ironically, much of her image was cemented by her second album (Like A Virgin), which by even her own account is the album in her career she had the least involvement with. In the midst of acting, touring, and promoting the first album, which was still charting well so late in the game that Warner Brothers actually pushed back the release of the second album, she stepped back from producing and song writing, and allowed many more voices to come to the front. “Like a Virgin” was not written by her—the first single she released that she had no writing credit on. In fact, it was written as a ballad for a man to sing. The Kelly/Steinberg writing duo (who would later pen “True Colors” for Cyndi Lauper) were not happy about Madonna recording the song (though that likely changed when they got their first royalty check). “Material Girl,” likewise, was not written by her. In fact, of the four singles pulled from the album, only “Angel” had a Madonna writing credit. So the point in her career in which so much of this enduring image—hyper-sexualized, gold-digging, attention whore—was cemented was mostly done with material that she had the most minimal participation in (in fact, the two biggest singles from the album were penned exclusively by men). It wasn’t until True Blue that she really took control of her recordings back into her own hands, co-writing and co-producing the material.
Looking back, with a bit more education and experience under my belt, it’s likely that one of the draws I had to Madonna in the beginning was the hyper-sexuality that was the central distressor for so many of her critics. Madonna’s sexuality in her videos and concert performances was a brand of sexuality that had not been seen in the mainstream before. In its assertiveness, it was fundamentally, stereotypically, “masculine,” yet, for the most part, it was directed at men. In essence, Madonna was the embodiment of queered sexual identity. As a budding young gay boy, who didn’t even realize yet who he was, there had to be something incredibly powerful and even instructional about the idea of this woman desiring men but not subjugating herself to them. When Madonna put a man in a leather harness and led him around with a leash, she was doing something that men had been doing for decades (centuries, possibly, depending on how you qualify your imagery), but she was usurping the male power of the construction. She was not the bound. She was not the object. In “Open Your Heart,” when she plays the most stereotypically disempowered vision of a woman—the peep show sex worker—it’s made explicitly clear that she is the one in control of the setting, as the screens drop down on the assorted perverts watching her seemingly at her command, and she escapes the confines of the theater to run away with the young boy who has been waiting for her outside, while the owner yells after her in subtitled Italian to retorno! In “Express Yourself,” when she is depicted chained to the bed, that chain disappears before the man ever enters the room, and in a subtle, but clear, demonstration of power at the end, while he may sweep her naked body up from the bed, she’s the one who pushes him down to the floor. All of this after, essentially, sending her black cat familiar into the factory setting beneath her apartment to “fetch” him.
Madonna taught me that you didn’t need to be submissive to want a man.
And wouldn’t THAT piss a whole bunch of people off?
Today, of course, Madonna has gone further than ever in infuriating the public. She’s crossed the line into the unforgivable. What she’s done now is so grotesque, so over-the-top, so beyond the boundaries of good decorum and social propriety that we are likely to never forgive her for this most disturbing and horrible of transgressions.
She’s not only aged. She’s aged without “acting her age.” Bear in mind, she’s only 56 years old. Cher, at 68, put out a club album last year which featured a picture of her naked on the cover, but you didn’t hear the same collective roar of disapproval that you hear when Madonna comes up in conversation or when you read through the internet chat boards beneath any article about her. You’ll see descriptors such as “decrepit,” “hag,” “wrinkled,” and various references to how loose/wrinkled/dry her pussy must be. You’ll see vehement complaints about how she’s trying to “act young.” You’ll hear/read people decry her for “trying to be relevant.” Most of these will be appended with the phrase “at her age.”
Keeping in mind that the most recent estimates about the carefully guarded secrets of her assets are that she has around one billion dollars of net worth, even after the acrimonious split with Guy Ritchie in which he walked away with over 50 million dollars (that’s right—Mr. Big Shot, artistic, macho-man director is the one who pleaded for alimony in that split), I don’t think she personally gives a shit about what people think about her or her “desperate attempts to be young/relevant/20/whatever.” But I think we should all be concerned about those types of opinions, because they say something much larger about our cultural beliefs than they do about Madonna. Madonna, after all, is just a pop singer. Yet people get furious with her, even when she’s not burning crosses, baring her breasts, humping golden retrievers, or advising teenage girls to “keep their babies” (seriously—Conservative had a fit over a song with a pro-life message in it. Pick a side, losers.).
What does it mean to “act your age”? What does it mean that the central verb in that phrase is “act,” as in to feign, pretend, put on? How does one “act” 56? And since she’s supposedly a bad actress, then why does anyone expect her to put on a good act?
(On a side note, an interjection about Madonna as an actress: Madonna has made some terrible movies. Some of them, in fact, could easily be described as “excrement.” There is, however, a difference between making bad movies and being a bad actor. People seem to forget that she received great reviews for her first major motion picture, Desperately Seeking Susan, though those reviews have now been dismissed as “she was playing herself.” Go back and watch the movie now and tell me Susan is/was Madonna. I’d venture that Who’s That Girl?, Evita, and A League of Their Own all make arguments that Madonna is not a bad actress. She’s not likely Oscar-caliber, but she can act. The last act of Body of Evidence, a movie so bad she was trashing it as she was making it, is actually watchable, because it’s the point where she finally gets to be a bit more natural—when the mask of the killer comes off. But ignore the movies, and I’ll give you two pieces of the best evidence of her ability to act. 1) Every music video she’s made. People seem to forget that music videos are mini-films. Watch her ability to express emotion in scenes where the closest thing to dialogue is lip-synced lyrics. Watch “Bad Girl” (directed by David Fincher) and see her play the fuck out of the role of a self-destructive woman, out of control, searching for her own death, holding her own in scenes with Christopher Walken. That video is, in fact, so cinematic that the first several times I saw it, I wondered what movie the clips were taken from and was surprised she was finally making something good. 2) Her on stage, in concert. She actually received great notices when she appeared on Broadway in David Mamet’s Speed the Plow and decent reviews when she played in Up For Grabs on London’s West End. But you can’t go see those now, so look at her tour videos. Look, most especially, at her performance of “Like a Virgin” on her most recent MDNA World Tour. Every night, for 88 nights, she had a “breakdown” while singing the song—part of the emotional arc of that section of the performance (for those of you not in the know, most of her tours since Blond Ambition have been constructed in several loosely narrative “acts,” like performance pieces). This was so convincing that at the beginning of the tour, the press was riddled with stories about her “nervous breakdown” which was so bad she “needed to be carried from the stage.” Except she did it every night. It was part of the show. It was over a week into the tour before someone in the press finally realized that it was what was “scripted” for that performance. Sounds like a decent actress to me.)
Madonna gets a great deal of flak for not acting her age, but what do we open ourselves up to when we participate in it? How are we going to be expected to act when we are 56, 60, 63, 67? What do you think you should be mandated to give up in order to “act your age”?
Much of the criticism leveled at Madonna comes around to her being so firmly rooted in dance music. Madonna came to NY in the late 70s. She was in the final wave of Andy Warhol’s “club kids.” While she had a very, very brief flirtation with punk music (if you get a chance, search for “Shine a Light” or “On the Ground”), her heart, as a dance student in her time at Michigan State University and a student in the Alvin Ailey School of Dance where she studied under Martha Graham for a time, her natural attraction is going to be toward dance-centered music. As someone who’s foundational introduction to making music occurred in the height of the disco era, when even punk bands like Blondie were giving themselves over to electronics and street-beat centered compositions, she’s going to be a dance artist. She started as a dance artist. At what point are you suddenly too old to make dance music? The biggest hit of Cher’s career (“Believe”) was a dance song, and she was 54 when it was released. Is there somewhere in those two years between 54 and 56 where a line is crossed and you’re expelled from dance school? What type of music is Madonna supposed to make at 56? Is she supposed to morph into Barbra Streisand (keeping in mind that Streisand’s genre has been pretty much the same since she debuted)? In a culture where the universal opinion seems to be that “the bitch can’t sing,” why is there the sudden expectation that she is supposed to re-direct her career toward a musical style that is steeped in the need for vocal technique? (As far as “can’t sing,” the vocal for “Live to Tell,” a song many singers with far more reputable chops have confessed is a difficult song to sing, was done in one take for the demo and ported directly over to the final mix. If you track down the demo, you’ll find out the reason the finished song actually fades out is because her pitch wavers on the very last line of the un-edited version. In a pre-auto-tune era, she knocked out a perfect vocal take on the first try. Beat that Xtina.) Furthermore, when the bulk of her back catalogue is rooted in dance/club music, and her touring constitutes the bulk of her income, how would she transition from a dance singer to a balladeer and still perform hits on tour? I saw her in Yankee Stadium for the MDNA tour, and she danced non-stop for 2 hours. I’m 16 1/2 years younger than she is, and I don’t have that energy. “Act your age” indeed.
The recent leaking of un-retouched photo shoot outtakes fueled complaints about her “desperation to look young.” The un-Photo Shopped photos show you what you’d expect—a 56 year old woman who is in pretty good shape, but is still 56 years old. 56 year-old women who are “desperate to look young” do not look 56 in un-retouched photos. They look like Joan Rivers. Their skin is pulled back until they smile like Cher. It’s questionable as to whether or not they can blink. Yes, Madonna’s photos are air-brushed. Welcome to 2014—everyone’s photos are airbrushed. Women in magazines are not allowed to have wrinkles. They aren’t even allowed to have pores. They are meant to look as though their skin was fashioned from the finest latex, stretched over a bone frame, then shot full of Restalin. This isn’t an issue about Madonna. This is an issue about a social expectation that women in the spotlight are expected to nip, tuck, stuff, suck, inject, stitch, fill, stretch, laser, chemically peel, and Botox every fiber of their physical being while their male counterparts are allowed to look “distinguished.” Much like I do not have a time in my life when I remember there not being a Madonna, I also don’t have a time in my life where Mick Jagger’s face didn’t look like a clutch purse that had been used to carry a bowling ball after being dropped in a mud puddle. Keith Richards posed shirtless for the cover of Rolling Stone only a few years ago, and looked like the lead for the next Mummy film. Elton John now looks like a Chucky doll mated with a mannequin, and Billy Joel is in danger of having to be wheeled out behind the piano because he can’t walk to it anymore. Yet all these men get a pass. Meanwhile, 18 year old women are air brushed until they look vacuum formed. What the fuck is up with that?
Double standards for men and women aren’t new. I’m not making pioneering criticism here. But there seems to be this idea that we’ve somehow moved away from that—inched at least a little more towards being understanding, and that’s horseshit. People can complain all they want about air-brushed Madonna, but imagine an album cover where she appears untouched. Annie Lenox’s album Bare featured her with no makeup and no air-brushing, with explicit liner notes about how this was a new era in her life where she was no longer going to hide behind the masks associated with those trappings. That tactic worked so badly that she ditched it before the next album, and Annie Lenox is one of the strongest feminist figures in contemporary pop music. If she can’t resist the pressure to look “not her age,” who can?
Show me an album cover post-2000 where the female artist has not been air brushed or otherwise messed with in a Photo Shop program, and I’ll show you an album by an indie artist who had no budget and no management with final say on what was released. Even Joan Jett gets Photo Shopped.
Prince and Michael Jackson were both born the same year as Madonna. While Michael Jackson took plenty of criticism for his personal life, he didn’t get criticism for adhering to dance music or his continual stage presence and theatrics, even when it was still essentially the same act he had been putting on for 30 years. Prince is heralded for his consistency in artistic vision (even if that consistency now means he sometimes puts out shit that should have been run by an A&R rep or at least someone with a sense of editing style). But Madonna, always just as sexual as Prince, is the one who is expected, at this point, to be wrapped in a ball gown and shawl, crooning into a microphone like some 1920’s jazz singer (basically what Lady Gaga is doing this week).
The most recent “scandal” around Madonna is her Instagram message last week, deleted shortly after, in which she referred to the theft of 13 demos that were then leaked to the Internet as being “like artistic rape.” I was caught off guard by people who I have heard say they were raped by everything from their English teacher when she gave them a failing grade to the cable company when the rate hike went into effect were suddenly piously furious at her invoking of the act of rape with regards to her art. Yes, in some ways it may seem hyperbolic, but I always find it interesting when we hold someone whom we claim to have the lowest possible expectation for to the highest possible standard. Additionally, I think those people who are offended by the statement might want to consider the context of it. For close to two years, Madonna—a woman known for her fierce desire for privacy in spite of her position as a public figure and her reputation for self-disclosure, a woman so bent on maintaining those standards of privacy that from the earliest days of her working in the business she has demanded that anyone coming into contact with her (even caterers at video shoots) sign binding non-disclosure agreements—has worked secretly with a multitude of producers on a batch of songs for her new album. Someone within her camp—someone she has trusted and at this point still does not know who—stole those files from her and made them available to the public. They’ve done this not only with the 13 demo recordings in various states of completion, but with a slew of unpublished, un-retouched photos, many of which she professes to have not even seen before. Imagine being an extremely private person who lives in the spotlight due to the nature of her career and her success in her field, and finding out that over two years’ worth of work that you were not prepared to share with anyone outside your immediate collaborators had suddenly been taken out of your control and distributed to the entire world. Put this in the context of someone known to be so in control of her own work that, unlike Prince, she owns her own master recordings and from whom internet leaks are so rare that they actually become headlines in entertainment media (unlike Prince, who has literally thousands of leaked tracks scattered across the Internet and bootlegs dating back to the beginning of his career). In that context, wouldn’t you feel grossly violated? To the point of serious emotional distress? And in this time, you still don’t know who did it—only that this is the culmination of a pattern that has been present for a little over a decade, but never to this degree, where the majority of your work was exposed to the public in an unfinished form before you had even announced that you had a project in the works? Is this as traumatic as rape? Likely, no. But on a metaphorical level (“like artistic rape”) it seems like something that could certainly fit the bill. And Madonna, as an admitted rape and abuse survivor, is also unlikely to use the term lightly.
Again, someone with a billion dollars, a pop career going strong after over 30 years, who is still one of the top touring acts in the world probably doesn’t care much about what her critics think of her. But as people who coexist with Madonna in the same society, we should be concerned about this ideology and the way in which she is treated, because it is a standard that can just as easily be applied to us. We who grew up in The Age of Madonna, who now find ourselves making fun of the age of Madonna, ought to put a bit more thought into what our futures look like. As someone teetering at the precipice of 40, while I may be 16 1/2 years behind her, I already have an idea of what it is like to be prejudged by age. My students laugh when I say I listen to Nikki Minaj—like I’m lying to seem “cool.” I remember that laugh. It’s the same laugh I offered when a writing workshop leader in 1990 mentioned liking Mariah Carey. There was no way some guy that old would possibly be listening to music that I was listening to. Why was he trying to pretend he was cool? What a loser.
When we think of nursing homes, we think of old people in wheel chairs, sitting in the lobby, Frank Sinatra records playing in the distance. When we hit the nursing homes, our grandchildren are going to come to visit and ask us, “Who the fuck is Jay Z? Why don’t you listen to any real music?” Holding Madonna to the standard of growing old that we have grown to expect from previous female celebrities and singers is not only ridiculous. It’s dangerous. It sets the groundwork for those same expectations to be applied to us. It continues generations of sexism that permit Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Prince to carry on unchanged in their careers, but for Madonna (or Cyndi Lauper, or eventually Britney and Xtina) to be faced with the expectation to bow out gracefully, before they start to look “decrepit.” It says that it doesn’t matter if you still have something to say or contribute, because you’re not “relevant” anymore. To be relevant is to matter, to have some bearing on the present situation. Are we really so set in our beliefs about age and aging that we want to cement the notion that at some point we become a pointless drag on society—that we cease to matter? I don’t think I’m ready to release my grasp on relevance at 40 anymore than I will be at 60, 80, or 120.
If you need me at the nursing home, I’ll be in the room with the thumping bass line, listening to “Bitch I’m Madonna.”