In this week's Pop Is Not a Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood argues that despite a petty backlash from the tabloids and Gaga-raised Generation Z, the ultimate queen of pop is stronger and more powerful than ever, as she celebrates her 60th birthday.
Madonna doesn’t give a shit what you think. She doesn’t give a shit what the tabloids think or, for that matter, what Lady Gaga has to say about her either. As she turns 60 this week, she’s confident and existing above it all: an icon whose name and work has transcended pop culture, transforming her into an otherworldly entity. At this rate, she could commit mass murder and come away unscathed in the eyes of those who love her so dearly.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be an artist of her calibre. To have a name so famous that you could literally bump it from the mother of Jesus and completely change its connotation. For the past 36 years, from the early days of ‘Like a Virgin’ through to her moderately successful latest record ‘Rebel Heart’, people have always paid attention to her, whether they engaged with the music or not. In an age of throwaway pop products and women in the industry being offered a criminally short shelf life, her ability to stand her ground and make the music that she wants to – “age appropriate” or not – is a testimony to her resilience in a media landscape that’s desperate to see her fall.
Public, prolific – and a woman? Naturally, tabloid culture turned her into a scapegoat. While male musicians seem to get away with everything, retaining their right to be both shitty and successful, Madonna has had to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously. The inherently misogynist and ageist world surrounding her, in the eyes of her discreditors, has never been the problem. She is.
“Madonna’s age gap… between her face and hands”; “Model, 53, says Madonna ‘stalked’ her for TWO YEARS”; “How Madonna is grooming her four youngest children for superstardom”: by this point, the good folks over at the Mail Online are pretty much masters at trying to deflate Madonna’s well-earned ego. But there’s something quite beautiful about her air of nonchalance with which she handles these things. Tabloid slander will never go away – it’s best just to ignore it.
On a similar note, the press picked up on her comments in an interview with Vogue Italia recently, in which she voiced her thoughts on all modern music all sounding the same. It was framed to suggest she was some kind of hypocrite, but those people also forget that Madonna has a habit of taking risks before others take note. Four years before SOPHIE started working with Gaga – a link-up that has sent the queer community wild – Madonna was enlisting her to bring her grinding pop production to the masses on ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’. She’s an inherent innovator with more than enough experience in the game to be able to make comments like that. We should wait to hear her next record, inspired by the care-free culture of Portugese jamming sessions (I smell a hiiiiit!), something she’s encountered since she upped sticks and moved to Lisbon, before we start the eye rolls.
She’s right anyway. There are swathes of pop songs that reach the top of the charts by manipulating a basic musical recipe, enlisting a featured artist and sitting back to watch the world lap it up. The Chainsmokers’ entire career is based on it, but people are too quick to dismiss the words of a 60-year-old woman in a contemporary music era without remembering that she was the one who built America’s pop star template in the first place.
As someone who grew up in an age of pop dominated by Britney and Gaga, stanning to the point of insanity for the latter, I can admit that I once wasted a whole lot of my breath putting dirt on Madonna’s name. I was there when the Gaga v Madonna beef began and, at the time, would always side with Gaga in whatever way a 14-year-old Monster could.
It’s embarrassing to look back on it now, and as much as I still love the work of the woman everybody hailed as ‘the new Madonna’, I still love the devilish way she describes Gaga’s work as ‘reductive’ in a now infamous TV interview. If there’s anything that consuming pop music has taught me, it’s that Madonna is its queen, but she isn’t desperately holding on to her crown. She’s sitting comfortably on her throne, safe in the knowledge that no amount of tabloid trash or misogynist bullshit will tear her down. She’s dealt with controversy since the beginning, much longer than today’s stars have. Her no-fucks-given attitude is only getting more golden with age.