On the eve of her 60th birthday, Stylist explores how Madonna changed everything, from sex to music to gender politics
In December 2016, 58-year-old Madonna stood before the world accepting Billboard’s Woman of the Year Award. “Thank you,” she began. “For acknowledging my ability to continue my career, for 34 years, in the face of blatant misogyny, sexism, constant bullying and relentless abuse.”
“When I first moved to New York I was a teenager, it was 1979 and New York was a very scary place,” she carried on. “In the first year I was held up at gunpoint, raped on a rooftop with a knife digging into my throat […] In the years to follow I lost almost every friend I had to Aids, or drugs, or gunshot. As you can imagine, all these unexpected events helped me not only become the daring woman that stands before you, but it also reminded me that I am vulnerable. And in life there is no real safety except self-belief.”
In the first 60 seconds alone of her 10-minute address, Madonna reminded us of the struggles, impact and glorious defiance of the single most pioneering sexual freedom fighter in the history of popular music. One year before the #MeToo movement erupted Madonna was still pioneering, spelling out – before Hollywood finally located its voice – the violence, fear and oppression that women endure to this day. Perhaps most astoundingly of all, this was never her primary purpose: the first was to fill our hearts with all that world class, joyous, staggeringly euphoric pop music.
For schoolgirls like me in the Eighties, Madonna was pop culture: I believed, because of her, I could be anything, do anything, was equal to men, was free. It was partly her influence that took me to traditionally male-dominated music journalism and, in 1998, she sat before me, in Claridge’s Hotel, promoting the futuristic techno-dazzle of Ray Of Light.
She wasn’t, as I’d imagined, a charismatically imposing Boadicea warrior queen, more a shoeless, yurt-dwelling hippy; a 39-year-old Kabbalah devotee with no make-up and Sanskrit palm etchings. In the era of the Spice Girls’ flimsy ‘Girl Power!’, but before celebrity culture was redefined via reality TV and gossip mags, Madonna contemplated what fame was.
“Fame,” she mused, “is what everybody else puts on you, it’s their own fantasy, nothing to do with me at all. Fascinating, really.” The constructs of fame and material gain, now, she found to be illusions.
“It’s a selfish perspective, it’s about taking, not about giving, it’s very surface and very deceiving,” she implored. “Because the important things have nothing to do with the things that you can see.”
Today, those very illusions are the ones we worship above all. We calibrate influence through social media and in 2018 Madonna’s reach on Twitter and Instagram is 13.6 million combined. For Kim Kardashian, it’s 172.5 million.
Madonna has spent most of this summer in Africa overseeing her education-creating Raising Malawi charity (last year she adopted two more Malawian orphans, twin girls). Kim Kardashian, as ever, got her celebrity arse out and flogged her cosmetics empire.
Not that Madonna, of course, has never let us down: the dubious music and outfits (weedy early Nineties ballads, the daft hip-hop of 2003’s American Life, the crass S&M artwork for 2008’s Hard Candy); the appropriation of other people’s ‘cool’ (from Britney Spears to Nicki Minaj). But you can’t change history, you can’t deny legacy and you can’t tell the story of pop culture, of progressive feminism, and of gay emancipation, without her.
When she released Vogue in 1990, the single and, particularly, the accompanying video sketched the blueprint for the mainstream LGBTQ movement today, merging gay culture’s revolutionary zeal and stylised dance moves with an intoxicating roll-call of vintage Hollywood sirens. The previous year, Express Yourself had done much the same for female autonomy.
It was a global megaphone rallying cry, to “express yourself, respect yourself” and never settle for any idiots because “you’ll do much better, baby, on your own”. Madonna, in her power suit and manly monocle, fearless in her crotch-grab, fondling a cat (a metaphor, she later cackled, for “pussy rules the world”), presented a very contemporary approach to ignoring gender conventions, but pre-empted Beyoncé’s 2011 Run The World (Girls) – by two full decades.
Through the masterful visuals that went with her deathless dance floor classics and her evolving stage-show audacity, we can trace the lineage, not only of Madonna, but fashion and culture itself: from thrift-store gloves to couture conical bras, from religious subversion to gym obsession, from breasts exposed to military coats, from jewel-encrusted gowns to cowgirl hat, from English rose to S&M pose… and all the kilts, kimonos, thigh boots, bustiers, leotards, matador boleros and equestrian jodhpurs in between. If Madonna didn’t wear a trend first, she was nearly always the one to take it mainstream.
While Madonna’s sexually salty imagery has often been high-camp hilarious, some have never been amused, not least the Catholic church, who – she told James Corden on Carpool Karaoke last year – excommunicated her (somehow) “three times”.
During her 1990 Blond Ambition tour – stunningly chronicled on her In Bed With Madonna documentary where she fellated a glass bottle (and drank the contents) – the Pope himself called for a boycott of the tour in Italy and she was nearly arrested in Canada for simulating masturbation while performing Like A Virgin.
Her response? “I’m not changing my f*cking show.”
Later that year, she described her world view in a BBC Omnibus special. “In our society, a woman who is overtly sexual is considered a venomous bitch, or someone to be feared,” she announced. Perhaps some, though, should be scared of this lifelong maverick dissenter calling out misogyny and double standards and urging people to “challenge your own beliefs”.
In 2008 she was newly divorced from Guy Ritchie. The very same week the divorce was made public, 61-year-old Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood bought a puppy for his 20-year-old Russian girlfriend and was celebrated as a rakish wag. But 50-year-old Madonna received a barrage of damnation from the public, including that she was too old to find another relationship and needed to accept it was over, while Ritchie was encouraged to find a younger woman to date.
On The Jonathan Ross Show in 2015 a glimmering Madonna – coquettish, funny, defiantly fabulous – was asked what advice she’d give to her 18-year-old self, arriving off the bus in New York. Her reply was the (always misquoted) Bette Davis line from All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belt, you’re in for a bumpy ride.”
The following year Bowie was dead, Prince was dead, Michael Jackson long gone and she remains, today, the highest-grossing solo touring artist of all time. Back on stage at the Billboard Awards 2016, Madonna’s defiance reached its crescendo. “I think the most controversial thing I have ever done,” she concluded, “is to stick around.”
Let’s hope those Glastonbury 2019 rumours are true: the first woman in her 60s to headline in its near 50-year history. A pioneer again, playing all those celebratory battle hymns: daring, vulnerable, safe in her self-belief. Happy 60th birthday, Your Madgesty.