Living in a Material World

Madonna fights back against ageism and sexism in the entertainment industry

Madonna performing at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards: “The disgusting comments towards her age and behaviour at the Grammys in February were some of the most regressive made towards a woman in recent memory.” (Photo: Kevin Mazur)

Would it sound better if I were a man? Would you like me better if I was?
— “Human Nature” by Madonna and Dave Hall

This simple yet poignant rhetoric was released as a vinyl-covered slap-in-the-face to the deeply mysoginistic criticism that dogged Madonna after the shockwaves of her notorious SEX book continued to reverberate through the mid ’90s. Nearly 20 years later, the same person receives the same criticism.

Though, the barbs are no longer for merely being a woman who wields her sexuality like a weapon and as a means of brilliant commercial manipulation. Now, the trailblazing frankness has become commonplace for a multitude of female (and male) artists to take for granted and exploit.

But the originator? She should retire gracefully. She’s clearly too old to still be acting like she has for the past 30 years. Right? Wrong.

Pop has long been a merciless arena and is typically viewed as a younger (wo)man’s game. Thematically, pop is about sex and vitality and if someone is able to survive that long in the most cut-throat genre of them all, then should they not be praised? Oh, just not if you’re a woman.

No one is definitively defined by their faith or their sexuality and Madonna’s ever-expanding body of work tirelessly reminds us of this. We can be many different things in our lives and age should never determine that.
Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Kurt Cobain all self-destructed under the pressure, but Madonna has always been too smart for that (a certified genius actually). That anyone could still be offended by her would be cute if it wasn’t a sign of how frighteningly puritanical this world still is.

The disgusting comments towards her age and behaviour at the Grammys in February were some of the most regressive made towards a woman in recent memory. Never mind that Angus Young can still strut around in a schoolboy uniform at 59, or that 88-year-old Tony Bennett can grind on Lady Gaga, or that the Rolling Stones have a combined age of 284.

If watching a nearly 60-year-old woman shake her ass in front of the entire world isn’t feminism, then I don’t know what is.

The comparisons between Madonna and Annie Lennox were mutually degrading. Lennox was praised for a more demure presentation and “acting her age”, while Madonna was shamed for wearing hot pants and being surrounded by a bunch of younger men. Both women, total icons of their craft, represented themselves as they always have: Lennox’s shattering vocal abilities swathed in elegant androgyny and Madonna’s powerful and joyful sexual glamour.

In her interview in the March 2015 issue of the Rolling Stone, Madonna says “It’s still the one area where you can totally discriminate against somebody and talk shit. Because of their age. Only females, though. Not males. So in that respect we still live in a very sexist society.”

But of course this is lamely distilled into two middle-aged women and how they behave. Has pop journalism become this creatively bankrupt that all it we can do is pit two successful and completely different women against each other? The critical need to compartmentalize people — especially women — remains nauseously fervent.

It is so much easier to digest a younger artist paying tribute before we wheel out the elderly originator to give them some condescending applause. Lady Gaga’s “respectable” tribute to the inimitable Julie Andrews at the Academy Awards this year was just that. Polished, surprisingly traditional, and frankly pointless. And to those that say that our sweet Julie was never sexual have clearly never seen the brilliant Victor/Victoria, notably directed by Andrew’s comically gifted husband the late Blake Edwards. It was a much more successful and liberating union than that of Madonna and the notoriously chauvinistic and homophobic Guy Ritchie.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to envision Madonna accepting some sort of tacky tribute. Sure, awards are thrown at her feet, but you just can’t see anyone but her doing justice to such an exhaustive back catalogue.

And why should we fault artists for wishing to create and emphasize new material? People change and so too should the art they create. Sinead O’Connor very publicly announced recently that she would allegedly never perform “Nothing Compares to U” (her biggest hit) in concert again, citing that “not all singers are actors” and that the song had lost relevant emotion for her.

And then there are the collaborators. Madonna has long been accused of merely harnessing the creative vision of a myriad of (usually male) producers. Sure, they are sought out to assist in production, but if you read the credits on her records since the Nile Rogers-helmed Like a Virgin, nearly every track is written and produced by her.

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Bjork maintained that this remains a deeply ingrained and woefully sexist practice of the music industry. Women simply do not receive the deserved credits for songwriting and production. If Radiohead or Jay-Z seek out Nigel Godrich or Rick Rubin, they are viewed as nothing more than cool guys looking for the biggest producers to work with. But women are always merely the pop puppets. And Quincey Jones is arguably more responsible for Thriller than Michael Jackson was.

But what is it that makes many gay men love Madonna or any such diva so profoundly? I cannot attempt a proper psychoanalysis but can say that, throughout history, homosexuals have always been drawn to strong women and Madonna’s rejection of heteronormative labelling has always struck a deep chord. The sweep of Cleopatra to the chic bitchiness of Bette Davis have always rung truer than the pragmatic appeal of their male counterparts.

But much more than any projective fantasy, Madonna has been a steadfast ally to the LGBTQ community. When the diagnosis of being HIV-positive was a guaranteed death sentence and nearly every major public figure of the era wantonly looked the other way, Madonna — along with Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor and Diamanda Galas — roared in support of a marginalized people that were essentially decimated.

Her vocalized charity towards the matter has been labelled as “opportunistic” and “pandering” over the years. This is a malicious and cheap assessment. One only has to delve into the vulnerability that simmers beneath the pounding dance-pop of Erotica to hear the sorrow for the loss of a generation that made the lower east side a progressive eden for some of the greatest artistic talents of the 20th century. You may say that she’s a shrewd capitalist … of course she is. Who in the industry isn’t? John Lennon certainly didn’t die penniless.

The continuing word that is hurled at Madonna is irrelevant. How sad it is that the video genius, who brought so many underground sounds and images to MTV, now claws to be at the front of the pack she used to lead. Right? Wrong.

As technology develops so too does media and our methods for its consumption. I tend to remember the ’90s in a more positive light than most. There was a certain pre-9/11 idealism that celebrated ethnic inclusivity and equality — specifically on MTV of which Madonna was the reigning Goddess. Back when it, you know, actually aired music videos. This of course has given way to the entitled cynicism of the total media age that we live in. Everyone who can comment will.

Madonna is arguably more important than she has ever been. Why? Not only in releasing her best album in a decade, the sprawling and sublime Rebel Heart, but because people don’t know how to categorize her. Almost anyone who has achieved her level of superstardom is either dead or relegated to the mushy sentiments of some sort of lifetime achievement award.

It’s genuinely shocking for some to see a woman of her age continuing to be provocative, let alone talk about having sex. When I’m that age, I anticipate that stigma will have been vaporized by what she is doing now. In 20 years it will be commonplace for younger artists such as Miley Cyrus to continue to be sexual well into their careers, rather than strictly when they are in their twenties and the Logan’s Run diamond activates. Sure we can make yet another Terminator film and squeeze Arnold back into shape, but Linda Hamilton is no where to be found.

Madonna’s continuing rejection of categories and labels in a society that is rapidly developing a strangle-hold-like obsession with them continues to inspire and amaze. No one is definitively defined by their faith or their sexuality and Madonna’s ever-expanding body of work tirelessly reminds us of this. We can be many different things in our lives and age should never determine that. There is simply no precedent for a career like this.

I cannot wait to see what rules she’ll make and break in the next 20 years. Long may she reign.


Elliott Burton is a critic and columnist who is committed to creating and expanding film awareness.

He is also an accomplished mixed-media artist who graduated from PCVS’s Integrated Arts Program.

Elliott lives and plays in Peterborough.

You can follow Elliott on Twitter at @ElliottAnger.

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