Some might say that it’s been a while since Madonna really kicked up some dust and made any significant contribution to the pop-culture landscape. Her last studio album – 2015’s Rebel Heart – sold a million copies worldwide: a far cry from 1986’s True Blue, which shifted 25 million copies.
Additionally, showbiz followers are now more likely to read tabloid reports about the comings and goings of her children Lourdes Leon (21) or Rocco Ritchie (17). For instance, can you name Madonna’s current boyfriend? (I couldn’t. I had to look it up. It appears to be someone called Kevin Sampaio).
Yet in 2016, the singer moved front and centre to the agenda all over again. Calling out the very industry in which she flourished for close to four decades, Madonna made a blistering speech from the Billboard Awards stage about the “sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse” she had endured throughout her career.
“If you’re a girl, you have to play the game,” Madonna said. “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.”
Singer 30-year-old Róisín O registered Madonna’s discontent with the industry long ago.
“I remember hearing ‘What It Feels Like For a Girl’ (in 2000) and remember thinking it was pointed at being a girl in the music industry, and not just the world,” she recalls. “To me, it was about being looked at as a second-class citizen where you have to graft twice as hard as a man to be given the same status.”
Given Madonna’s career, which has run the gamut from the pious to the eye-poppingly sexy, the speech was all the more astonishing.
And in the week that the singer turns 60, the remarks are more relevant than ever. Last week, a tabloid headline crowed: “Look who is still desperately seeking attention at 60!’
Niamh Farrell, singer in HamsandwicH, wasn’t in the least bit impressed: “I’ve heard of some people slagging her off, and women in particular going, ‘look at the state of her’, but my sense of it all is just, ‘leave her alone’,” the 35-year-old says. “You can see the pressure she feels (to stay young), but that’s society for you.”
Perhaps Madonna’s milestone birthday is a significant one precisely because youthful femininity, precociousness and innovation have long been her stock in trade.
Her rise to fame at the age of 24 (with the release of her eponymous debut album in 1983) was a perfect storm. Two years previously, MTV – a channel then showing music videos 24 hours a day – had launched. It was a startlingly symbiotic union: Joshua Rich from Entertainment Weekly posited that “Madonna helped to make MTV”, while the station cemented the singer’s reputation as a shape-shifter, an innovator, a provocateur, a culturally nimble artist. At a time when promo videos were hastily cobbled together with live footage, Madonna used them as a means of artistic expression, elevating them to iconographic levels and causing an atomic impact.
“I remembered seeing the videos growing up and definitely taking notice of her,” recalls Farrell. “There was a huge attitude of not giving a shit what people thought of her.”
In a particularly impressive sleight of hand, Madonna proved she had a keen musical nous, too. She often kept close to the zeitgeist and aligned herself with the producers and writers of the moment, from Nile Rogers and William Orbit to Mirwais Ahmadzaï and Diplo. At the very least, she took the underground motifs of the time – disco’s infectious rhythms, acid house keyboards in the early 1990s, pulsing techno beats in the Noughties – and spun them into a mainstream sound. Singer-songwriter Jess Kavanagh discovered Madonna circa the release of 1998’s Ray of Light.
“I think it was all very left-of-field and interesting,” she recalls. “There was a sort of experimental vibe. I was a goth listening to Silverchair and Placebo at the time and I remember hearing something that Madonna did with Lenny Kravitz (possibly ‘Justify My Love’) and thought, ‘she’s cool’. My lasting impression was, ‘Jesus, this woman really knows about reinvention’.
“At 32, I don’t really listen to what kids are listening to – I don’t know how she still did it at 40 or 50.”
Kavanagh also points out that Madonna was one of the prototypical peddlers of girl power, and in this regard, was quite possibly before her time.
“Her whole thing was ‘express yourself, don’t repress yourself’,” Kavanagh observes. “It was a potent message: ‘I won’t deviate from myself, I’m not sorry, and here’s a book with pictures of what I’m talking about (1992’s Sex book) in case you don’t get it’.
“Sex was saying to women, ‘we can own this. We don’t need to let our sexuality be used against us. We can make our lives better by just owning it. If you’re yourself, look how much fun you can have doing it’,” adds Farrell.
A frontrunner, certainly, in terms of feminine sexuality, Madonna also became one of the first celebrities who experienced not just the vagaries of tabloid superstardom, but bodily scrutiny.
“It seemed that you could be a pop star until your late twenties, then you were put out to pasture,” says Kavanagh. “I feel like Madonna and, to some extent, Geri Halliwell, were like, ‘we’re not laying our heads down, we’ll still perform’, and they both got super healthy and had these hugely athletic bodies.”
By now, it’s a given that Madonna’s sense of showmanship and innovation have provided a blueprint for almost every female artist that followed. Her DNA, certainly, is all over the output of Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Gwen Stefani (the latter commented: “Some people say that I copy her, but show me one girl my age who was not influenced by her.”)
For women like singer 24-year-old Áine Cahill, the cultural impact is somewhat less direct.
“My first memory of Madonna was just the name always being around, like Marilyn Monroe,” she tells me. “You always knew the name. I guess that’s what being an icon means.
“Lady Gaga was my queen growing up, and my gateway into pop music and showmanship. But I joined the dots and started looking up Madonna’s tour videos and Truth or Dare (the 1991 documentary charting Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour). When I saw her performing in her heyday, I was gagged. I wish I’d known more of her growing up – I’d have learned so much more earlier on.”
These days, regrettably, commentators have become more concerned with the age-appropriateness of her actions and garb than anything else. “She looks like she’s done 10th grade 48 times,” quipped the late Joan Rivers on a 2012 episode of Fashion Police apropos her cheerleader-style Super Bowl half-time show outfit.
Her actions, once considered inflammatory and seismic in the 1980s and 1990s, are tame by today’s standards. Addressing the Pope as ‘popey-wopey’ from the stage barely caused a ripple in 2015; similarly, kissing Drake onstage in Coachella that same year didn’t have the impact she might have expected. Perhaps this says more about the industry than it does the singer.
Yet for better or worse, Madonna – as the first female pop superstar to get within spitting distance of pension age – is still blazing a trail. Even in weathering criticism and derision, she is paving the way for all others: not just for female artists, but women in a wider sense.
“I suppose when I see her half-naked on stage now, I’m like, ‘oh god, her body is amazing,” says Róisín O. “And who cares? Why shouldn’t you express your sexuality, regardless of your age?”
Madge’s maddest moments
1 ‘Like a Virgin’ performance, MTV Music Video Awards, 1984
Madonna appeared atop a giant wedding cake and then proceeded to roll across the stage, making a number of sexual gestures. The first of many.
2 ‘Like a Prayer’ video, 1989
At what was arguably the apex of her cultural influence, Madonna mixed up racism, religion and kissing black saints in an unforgettable video. The song was a stone-cold pop banger, too.
3 ‘Blonde Ambition’ Tour, 1990
Madonna came a cropper on the Toronto leg of the iconic tour when local police arrested her for simulating masturbation onstage during ‘Like a Virgin’.
4 Sex book, 1992
Released around the time of the sizzling slow-burner ‘Erotica’, the coffee-table book had an aluminium cover, and with good reason. The book also featured the singer kissing Dublin model/actor Karl Geary, then an unknown New York barman.
5 Madonna the children’s book author, 2003
Who would have thought that all it took for Madonna to truly shock was to publish a children’s book (The English Roses), wear a prim floral dress to its launch, and then address the crowd with a put-on English accent?
6 Billboard Awards, 2016
In an astonishing attack on the music industry, Madonna used her platform at the awards ceremony, as she accepted the ‘Woman of the Year’ gong, to give a little-heard voice to the prejudices that ageing female artists face.
by Tanya Sweeney