State of the Arts
Madonna, I’m sorry for calling you ‘desperate’
When Helen Brown listened to friends saying they wished the pop icon had ‘retired with dignity’, she realised she too had been guilty of criticising the singer in her lonely fight against a sexist, ageist culture
When Madonna called out ageist reactions to her 14th album this month, I felt a nasty lurch of guilt in my stomach. Reviewing MDNA in 2012, I was mean about her decision to invest so much “desperate” energy into maintaining the impression of eternal youth, leaving her looking and sounding “exhausted and unhappy and making me feel the same”.
I was 36 then and Madonna was 54. I’d just given birth to my second child and wanted to weep at the number of playgroup conversations in which the women around me discussed the diets, workouts and cosmetic surgery required to restore their figures to perky, pre-pregnancy form. The female celebrities they saw in magazines seemed time-proof and they dutifully added this responsibility to their To Do lists.
It seemed to me that if anybody had the power to flip a stadium-sized, multi-platinum V-sign at this rubbish it was the hero of my early teens – Madonna. She had reinvented herself so many times, inspiring girls like me with possibilities of freedom and flexibility of identity.
She gave me my first feminist lesson in embracing the reality of female bodies by blow-drying her armpits in a public restroom in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). Shortly before I saw that film, a friend of mine had provoked sniggers when she dropped a deodorant in a changing room. She flushed as the can rolled across the tiles with its shaming label promising: “extra protection.” We were all expected to use the stuff, but to spray it discreetly, beneath the shirt, pretending we naturally smelt like whatever chemicals they put in it. And then, swaggering across the big screen came Madonna: honest about her body, owning her sweat, taking pleasure in the blast of air on her skin and looking fantastically cool in the process.
I was thrilled by the way she combined a fearless punk attitude with the joyful shimmer of pop. I loved that she was unashamed of her appetite for fame, money, sex, love and cultural significance. With songs like “Express Yourself” (1989), “Vogue” (1990) and “What it Feels like For a Girl” (2000), she changed the game for women and the LGBT+ community. And she never pretended to get it all right. On “Rescue Me” (recorded for 1990’s The Immaculate Collection), she confessed that she was “ferocious, weak, silly, pretentious… a freak” and acknowledged that she was “scratching out the eyes/ Of a world I want to conquer/ And deliver and despise”. She emits love/hate and the world reflects it back, with Lady Gaga admitting in 2017: “I just want Madonna to push me up against a wall, kiss me and tell me I’m a piece of shit.”
So I wanted Madonna to age like a punk: like Vivienne Westwood, flashing the wrinkles beneath the lace. I didn’t want her to stop making music or dancing in her underwear or speaking out whenever she wanted. I just wanted to her to age frankly and show me how much of a party that could be.
Which I now realise was ridiculous. Because being the world’s best-selling female artist hasn’t been a party for Madonna, has it? The self-confessed “masochist… walking alone/ never satisfied/ trying to fit in” of 2014’s “Rebel Heart”, Madonna continued to need our attention: sometimes seeking approval, sometimes being an unapologetic bitch. And she continued to be wounded by the criticism which was aimed at her more aggressively than at her male contemporaries. Sitting safely behind my keyboard with my mum tum, while the paparazzi aimed their lenses at her “wrinkled” hands, I had no right to expect her not to care. Her job was bloody hard work and I had no right to resent her for letting that show.
Accepting the Woman of the Year Award at the Billboard Women in Music Awards in 2016 she thanked the organisers “for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse”. She said she had been inspired by David Bowie: “He made me think there were no rules. But I was wrong. There are no rules – if you’re a boy. There are rules if you’re a girl.
“If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion that’s out of line with the status quo. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness. And do not, I repeat do not, share your own sexual fantasies with the world. Be what men want you to be, but more importantly, be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men. And finally, do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticised and vilified and definitely not played on the radio.”
Madonna had once been applauded by feminists like Germaine Greer and Camille Paglia. But in 2006, Greer, an equally strong and contradictory character, then 67, dismissed Madonna, then 48, as a woman “in her dotage”.
In her Billboard speech, Madonna said: “I remember wishing I had a female peer I could look to for support. Camille Paglia said I set women back by objectifying myself sexually. So I thought, ‘oh, if you’re a feminist, you don’t have sexuality, you deny it.’ So I said ‘f**k it. I’m a different kind of feminist. I’m a bad feminist.’”
She concluded her speech listing the peers she had outlived: Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, David Bowie. “But I’m still standing. I’m one of the lucky ones and every day I count my blessings. What I would like to say to all women here today is this: women have been so oppressed for so long they believe what men have to say about them. They believe they have to back a man to get the job done. And there are some very good men worth backing, but not because they’re men – because they’re worthy. As women, we have to start appreciating our own worth and each other’s worth.”
It was between the Rebel Heart album (which I felt marked an honest re-engagement with her music after a few albums that sounded dialled-in and scene chasing) and the Billboard speech that I found myself settling into a better relationship with Madonna. When she fell over and got up at the Brits, I felt protective and proud. Madonna’s British biographer, Lucy O’Brien says that her Billboard speech was “honest and brave. It came before the #MeToo movement. She showed the reality of what it’s like to be a woman at that level, in the music industry”.
But when I asked my Facebook friends for their feelings on Madonna in 2019, it was mostly women who said they once loved her who felt “her time is up”, “she should have retired with dignity” and winced at her ponderous, pitchy performance at Eurovision in May. Another was angered by the cleaned-up vocal when the performance appeared online: “She’s fake news and artifice.” Another dismissed her complaints about ageism and not being played on Radio 1: “How much attention would a 20-year-old Madonna have given to a 60-year-old?”
Journalist Fiona Sturges, who normally writes this column, has previously suggested we all back off on Madonna’s age and just judge her on the music alone. I certainly agree with Sturges that women are judged much more harshly and I’m equally furious with those who tell Madonna to “put it away, grandma!”
But I do find an artist’s age interesting and I think it’s OK to include that in the discussion of their music and performances, provided we judge men and women by the same standards. In my last few album reviews, I’ve discussed Nile Rodgers’ age (compared with those of his collaborators) and Morrissey’s politics. It all feeds into the pop package they’re selling us.
Voices, shows and subjects change with time. Creativity can go off the boil or catch fire at different times. Age and experience can be more powerful on record than youth: last year, at 71, Marianne Faithfull made an astonishingly beautiful album that knocked spots off the stuff she recorded at 17. And last week Nick Coleman (author of Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life, 2018) posted a later period Joni Mitchell song on social media, noting how her singing had evolved from the “self-bastingly pretty” sound of her early years to become brilliant in terms of her “connection with language, the way she accessed emotion”. Other singers – he mentioned Aretha Franklin – don’t get better. Most change and isn’t it OK to discuss what they do with a changing instrument? Madonna’s voice hasn’t actually changed much, but I maintain a connection to it: playful, light and provocative, dropping to dramatic and confessional when needed.
But I also love her endurance, her wit, her ongoing embrace of fresh, new sounds and ideas. I love that she continues to speak up for women and named Simone de Beauvoir, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Carson McCullers, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo as inspiration for her most recent incarnation: Madame X.
“They all led strong independent lives, unconventional lives and had unconventional relationships,” she told Vogue.
So she’s complicated. My responses to her are complicated. And we are living in a complicated world where the odds are piled against a woman maintaining a powerful career in showbiz for over 30 years.
If I’m honest, the last time she gave me musical goosebumps was with Confessions on a Dancefloor in 2005. But I think Madame X is the best and bravest record she has made since then.
So I’m sorry, Madonna, for the times I’ve been mean. For the times I’ve put pressure on you to fight a sexist, ageist culture alone, while continuing to turn out tunes, shows and films, raise your kids and have a life. I’m a single mum, too. When I look in the mirror, I sometimes see my daughter behind me, watching me apply age-masking makeup, and I wonder what message I am sending her. It’s not easy, is it? I’m looking to you for clues about how to age and you told Vogue you’re sad you have no living role models. Perhaps it’s OK if we’re all reinventing it as we go along. Stepping forwards and sideways to a beat we can’t always control. One, two, cha cha cha…