When people say they want Madonna to age gracefully, what they really mean is: shut up. But celebrate her work, rather than her survival
As we celebrate Madonna turning 60 this week, let us remember that this is a woman who has no interest in nostalgia. In a recent interview with Vogue Italia, she said she would talk only about the present, which, to me, is the key aspect of who Madonna is: resolutely forward-driving. This is why she is so able to manage to a global, decade-spanning career.
When she collected her woman of the year prize at Billboard’s Women in Music awards in 2016, she said she stood before the crowd “as a doormat”. “Thank you 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.” This is genuine, rightful anger and ferocity. The level of ageism and sexism directed at her is femicidal, even matricidal, visceral loathing. When people say they want Madonna to age gracefully, what they really mean is: become beige, shut up and go into a corner. And she refuses to do that. Instead, she continues to produce brilliant, captivating and thought-provoking work.
We so often do not let women take credit for their own genius. Madonna has resisted that, mainly because she always overshadows the men with whom she chooses to collaborate. Nobody ever says Mirwais or Timbaland or Stuart Price made Madonna. Only Madonna could have made Madonna. But this is also from where the misogyny stems. She is bigger than any man she has ever encountered, professionally or personally. And people hate that.
She has outlived her contemporaries: Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince were the triumvirate of 80s stars. She has outlasted them artistically, too. Her 2015 album Rebel Heart was excellent. Her quality of work has never dropped. Many artists Madonna’s age, particularly male artists, are doing victory tours: people such as Bruce Springsteen. Madonna, instead, is not creating to prove a point about how long she can keep doing so.
It is impossible to talk about Madonna without talking about power. She is an athlete. I once read an interview where her trainer said she is so strong that he has to invent new exercises for her because she can’t feel exercises for mere mortals. Her muscularity is not about appearance; it is an indication of her mental strength and resilience. She is indestructible. But she has survived so long not just because of her talent, and not just because of her physical and mental strength. It is also that she is intelligent, professional and always engaged – she has seen the world, brought up children, worked in multiple fields. She is mentally alive and this is what keeps her searching, moving and creating.
So let us not reward Madonna for continuing to survive; let us appreciate her as an incredibly talented artist: a musician, songwriter, a dancer and a performer, a brilliant film-maker (W.E. is a beautiful, intelligent piece of feminist cinema). She sees herself as a creative artist, and we owe her the respect of seeing her that way, too.