Another year, another set of birthday candles for Madonna. She turns 59 today. For the 30 or so years Madonna has been putting the cat among the pigeons in the A-list, she’s gone from boom to bust to high to low to tasteful to tacky and everything in between – but she’s always been big.
While most of her indiscretions have been eventually forgiven – or at the very least politely ignored because, hey, it’s Madonna – the one thing Madge is never allowed to forget is one of the very few things in her life she cannot control.
There are plenty of reasons to roll your eyes at Madonna: the slow degeneration of her music material, the ever-increasing cost of tickets to see her perform live, the walking nightmare of problematic hell that is her Instagram account, but Madonna’s crime seems to be the one that most of us commit eventually, if we’re lucky. She got old.
Madonna has always delighted in challenging people’s perceptions of appropriateness. From drying her stubbly armpits in a dirty washroom in Desperately Seeking Susan and flicking herself off on a giant bed while two gay men in conical bras looked on during the Blond Ambition tour to portraying the violence of war in the withdrawn video for American Life, no taboo seemed too small for La Ciccone to overturn.
Aside from a very staid decade or so where Madonna had a misguided, but spirited, go at being a submissive wife to director Guy Ritchie, her frankness, refusal to conform and power to shock have been her lifeblood; they have kept her career ticking over and front-and-centre for over three decades, a feat few other popstars – male or female – can boast.
Almost everyone has an opinion on Madonna, and the criticisms against her stack up like building blocks in a Guinness World Record attempt to reach the moon, but, thus far, Madonna has always been able to count on at least one demographic for continued, unwavering (and some might say blinkered) support – gay men.
Back when Madonna was still young enough to make it on to the higher reaches of those all-important, horrific ‘Sexiest Women’ lists that even the most highbrow of magazines insist on publishing, her stance as an awkward, complaining outsider spoke to the gay community in a way few have managed before.
While some might argue her status as a pioneer may be exaggerated and seriously flawed, she at least gave the impression she was doing something new. She championed gay rights, spoke out in defence of her gay friends and hired gay dancers for her tours, and gay men and women lapped it up, long before ‘Mother Monster’ wobbled along in shoes shaped like an armadillo to tell everyone they were ‘born this way’.
Sex is no longer the sole property of the young. Everyone’s eyes have been opened to the idea of silver shagging. Even Hollywood, the high altar of youth and beauty, has given the nod of approval to the idea of wrinkles as sexual leads, but it seems Madonna’s brand of sexuality is strictly off-message.
While it’s no surprise heterosexual men have zero interest in seeing Madonna in her knickers – they are, after all, force-fed a whole new bevy of beauties to adore daily, all young enough to be their daughters – it’s much more disappointing to see that some of Madonna’s detractors are the very men who gave her a leg-up to her pedestal in the first place.
Trawl any so-called fan forum and you’ll see the same disparaging remarks: outrage at her supposed ‘pussy popping’, refusal to ‘grow old gracefully’ (an awful, po-faced phrase whose retirement should come much sooner than Madonna’s) and complaints that the erstwhile Material Girl is as old as their own mum. I know, right? She has birthdays! And the numbers keep going up and up!
“Ewww” said one forum member, in his late 20s, “nobody wants to see that dusty old vagina any more.”
The irony being, of course, that gay men don’t usually ever want to see a vagina, be it in the first flush of youth or swathed in mothballs.
“God, her scrawny arms are horrible,” noted another armchair model scout, “and her hands are all gnarled.”
Gay men, it seems, are now in charge of what is sexy and what is not. Despite their previous interest in women’s looks usually being limited to slagging off their clothes (another totally ridiculous notion; why the hell do women listen to us?) and cooing over their hair once they’ve finished blow-drying it, all of a sudden these guys are the go-to experts when it comes to what the world should find shaggable, even if they don’t want to do the nasty with her themselves.
The media has long been puzzling over what to do about Madonna’s refusal to put her dress back on. Since she deftly shimmied over that magic line into her 50s, actions previously deemed ‘shocking’ or ‘thought-provoking’ are now rebranded as ‘sad’, ‘desperate’ and ‘attention-seeking’, as if Madonna is in any way unique as a singer to want all eyes to be focused on her.
Vanity Fair scratched its chin over the whole topic of Madonna’s sexiness as she prepared to turn 50 in August 2008: “Madonna made her fortune selling sex–what will she sell when the thought of sex with Madonna seems like a fetish?” it mused.
At 2015’s Met Gala – itself a seven-hour love letter to bad taste, filthy lucre and vacuous celebrity – Madonna bared her arse to the baying paparazzi. Out came the usual commentators moaning Madonna had let them down, and why couldn’t she just age gracefully. Why was she trying to be young? All her former allies were present and correct, knitting at the guillotine: gay men, middle-aged women, her peers.
Remember the outcry when she appeared on stage with Canadian rapper Drake and gave him a snog? What was that really about? The fact he didn’t know it was going to happen? Or her age? (Spoiler: it was her age.)
Madonna’s propensity for showing us what’s inside her thong has long been dismissed as an attempt to stay relevant, but if anything her knicker-flashing has led to lower returns when it comes to record sales. The much-hyped Erotica failed to ignite much reaction in the shops, except for “Ewww, she’s got a toe in her mouth”, and she was younger and tauter then. What hope for her now?
The big mistake we’re all making with Madonna is we think she’s doing this so we will find her sexy, that she wants us to desire her, envy her, find her attractive. I don’t think that’s what she’s about. As a younger star she pushed the boundaries of sexual freedom, of what it meant to be a woman unafraid to do what they liked, who weren’t in thrall to any man. Now, at 59, Madonna is making us think yet again. Why do we have to put our bodies away as we age? Who exactly makes these rules? What’s the golden moment the big switch, where one day you are still young enough to bare your flesh while the next you must hide down a well?
While my own interest in Madonna as a popstar wanes with every so-so record, the one thing I do think she’s getting right is saying an emphatic “fuck you” to the ageist brigade.
Ageing is changing. We are living longer and, despite rising obesity levels, a growing number of us are more health conscious. Frivolity and fun and, yes, sex, does not belong to the young. Our bodies are our own, to do with as we wish. I may not find her titillating, and, yes, she’s attention-seeking, but I’m so glad Madonna does what she does. I will not be defined by my age; I will decide my own destiny when it comes to getting older. And so will Madonna. She still finds her body fascinating, and presents it as art in her stage outfits and photoshoots. Why does this confidence trouble us so? Remember how bored and downtrodden Madonna looked when she pretended to be the perfect English housewife for Guy Ritchie – do we want her back there?
How many of Madonna’s critics would be happy to walk so willingly, with head bowed, to the knackers’ yard once they hit 50 and beyond? And when they reach that era – where young people would have you believe there’s nothing but gummy smiles and osteoporosis, dicky bladders and forebodingly steep staircases – they should remember Madonna: uncompromising, unbroken, unrepentant.
Let’s hope when the naysayers approach their twilight years they still have someone close at hand to tell them they look great in their underwear, that they’re still hot and wanted. An empty bed, free of desire and passion, may as well be a grave.