In honor of Madonna’s upcoming 60th birthday, a look at her impact on music, fashion, pop culture and film. (Aug. 10)
Madonna turns 60 today, a lifetime she’s mostly spent in the public eye in her four decades of pop music fame.
And if there’s anyone who knows about the pitfalls of aging while female and famous, it’s Madge, a singer who has courted controversy from her first hit album, 1984’s “Like a Virgin,” onward, with criticism of her behavior evolving in its pearl-clutching tone as she’s gotten older. Famously smeared as a slut for her convention-challenging brash sexuality in her career’s early years, Madonna has endured a different, sneering tone from the public over the past decade.
In 2015, she inspired a wave of ever-so-slightly condescending coverage for her “wacky” flashing stunt on the Grammys red carpet. Dispatches from her Rebel Heart world tour in 2016 – an ambitious trek that grossed more than $100 million – accused her of being late, drunk and mentally unfit to tour. That same year, coverage of her custody battle with ex-husband Guy Ritchie over son Rocco often painted her to be the tortured loser, forced to let her son stay in London with his dad. Her 2015 attempt at a party anthem, “(Expletive) I’m Madonna” was smeared as “delusional.” Piers Morgan, reacting to her 2016 appearance on “Carpool Karaoke,” fake-vomited in a bucket, telling his “Good Morning Britain” audience about her dancing on the show, “You can’t be 58 and dancing around like that. Put it away!”
And there was the debacle that was her guest appearance during Drake’s 2015 Coachella set, which turned what was intended to be an eyebrow-raising kiss between the two into a public humiliation when Drake turned to the cameras after with a look of exaggerated disgust on his face.
These wide-ranging stories all shared a similar cringe as they assessed their subject: an aging woman with the audacity to stay in the spotlight. And Madonna, who has proven to be an astute cultural critic time and again throughout her career, has spent the past few years fighting back, both in her continually unapologetic flamboyance in the public eye and in her barbed defenses of her behavior in interviews.
“I take care of myself. I’m in good shape. I can show my (expletive) when I’m 56 or 66 or 76,” she said, reacting to criticism of her Grammys derriere-flashing stunt. “Who’s to say when I can show my (expletive)? It’s sexism. It’s ageism. And it’s a kind of discrimination.”
She reacted similarly in a 2017 interview with Harper’s Bazaar and claimed that her detractors just want to see her disappear.
“Does somebody ask Steven Spielberg why he’s still making movies? Hasn’t he had enough success? … Did somebody go to Pablo Picasso and say, ‘OK, you’re 80 years old. Haven’t you painted enough paintings?’ ” she said. “I’ll stop doing everything that I do when I don’t want to do it anymore. I’ll stop when I run out of ideas. I’ll stop when you (expletive) kill me. How about that?”
Yet there’s still a prevalent belief that Madonna has been living out her 50s with, as The New York Times described in a 2015 story, a “lack of dignity.”
To those critics, Madonna responded with the quiet rage of her speech at the 2016 Billboard Women in Music Awards that has only gotten more relevant as she’s approached age 60.
Taking the stage to be honored as the awards’ Woman of the Year, Madonna’s speech took a much less celebratory look at what it’s meant for her to be a woman in music, a chilling 10-plus minutes about the sexism, ageism and other abuses she’s weathered in her pursuit of pop success.
“I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer,” she deadpanned in her opening remarks. “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.”
“There are no rules – if you’re a boy. If you’re a girl, you have to play the game,” she continued, laying out the hard-won lessons she’s learned over her years in the business. “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,” she added, twisting the knife. “Because to age is a sin. You will be criticized, you will be vilified, and you will definitely not be played on the radio.”
One year before the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements took hold in Hollywood, Madonna’s speech spanned just about every cause the two movements have advocated, touching on her own sexual assault before advocating for women in the industry.
Yet there was nothing in the world-weary performer’s speech that made it seem like she believed that the time is actually up for women’s unequal treatment, as she described the stinging criticism she received for her “Erotica” album and “Sex” book in 1992.
“Everything I read about myself was damning. I said, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t Prince running around with fishnets and high heels and lipstick with his butt hanging out?’ Yes, he was. But he was a man,” she said. “This was the first time I truly understood women do not have the same freedom as men.”
Madonna preached the power of women supporting one another because if the industry will never treat women fairly, the least they can do is hold up one another.
“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,” she said. “As women, we have to start appreciating our own worth and each other’s worth. Seek out strong women to befriend, to align yourself with, to learn from, to collaborate with, to be inspired by, to support, and enlightened by.”
Since her speech, which came at the end of her highly public 2016, Madonna has spent marginally less time in the tabloids, celebrating her adoption of two twins from Malawi and opening a children’s hospital in the country. She is reportedly prepping her 14th studio album, teasing a new song at her headlining performance at this year’s Met Gala.
In expected fashion, she has spent the last several days teasing her forthcoming birthday on her Instagram page, joking in one post that she’s “getting ready for my spankings!”
And as she celebrates her milestone birthday, one line from her speech continues to stand out.
“People say I’m controversial,” she said. “But I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.”
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