It seems these days that everybody hates Madonna, writes Little Bastard. But do the critics reveal more about their assumptions and prejudices than they do about her?
Everybody loves to hate Madonna. The media, the public, and (if current news reports are to be believed) the French. But if Madonna is the contemptible creature she is made out to be, exactly how did she become the most famous woman in the world when she operates in a medium where an artist’s popularity is paramount?
After offending French right-wing politician and leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, by superimposing a Swastika on her forehead in a video backdrop to her performance of ‘Nobody Knows Me’ on her MDNA World tour, Madonna took to the stage of intimate Olympia Club in Paris for a one-off appearance, treating her French fans to a portion of her MDNA tour (with some added surprises). The next day the tabloids and music blogs ran wild with claims that she was booed off stage after just 45 minutes, that her “fans” apparently called her a “slut” and then demanded refunds. Even reputable papers and online magazines took to mud-slinging about the gig, even though, it would seem, none of them was actually there.
The public’s hatred of Madonna is nearly as old as me. 30 years ago she was a flash in the pan dancer with too much ‘puppy fat’ who couldn’t sing. 20 years ago she was a ‘slut’, critisised for talking frankly about sex in an attempt to do something about the growing AIDS epidemic by (in part) taking her clothes off. That book, Sex (1992), is now considered by some as a crash course in true feminism (whilst for others a crass course), but at the time it had her labeled as a thoroughly unprincipled scarlet woman.
2012 sees Madonna in a very similar position to 1992. After her marriage to Sean Penn ended, which formed the basis of her confessional and critically acclaimed Like A Prayer album, Madonna found herself craving fun and stepped out onto the New York gay club scene. Clubbing had always been a big part of ‘single’ Madonna’s life, and in the early ’90s, when raving was at its height, Madonna’s feet were firmly on the dancefloor, and that seeped through into her music. 20 years on, Madonna again finds herself single, after the demise of her marriage to Guy Richie, and once again her feet have lead her to the dance floor, embracing the “cougar” tag the media has branded her with. From its drug referencing name, to the dark dancefloor of ‘I’m Addicted’ and the murderous ‘Gang Bang’, to the disco glare of current single ‘Turn Up The Radio’, MDNA is one big night out. Taking you through the highs, the lows, the dark, the light – it’s the epitome of a heavy night of clubbing, as your friends get you drunk to help you forget your recent relationship crisis. In the same way Erotica was a concept album about love in an era defined by AIDS (and influenced by the New York gay scene), MDNA takes us on a ride through the eyes of a newly single woman. There’s reckless abandon, there’s resentment, there’s power, there’s control, there’s euphoria and there’s regret.
I’m of the opinion that if an album of this power had been released by a ‘younger model’, it would be considered a break through, but for someone who has been at the head of the industry for half her life, she is treated as if she’s constantly jumping on bandwagons. What critics seem to forget is, in this case, Madonna IS the bandwagon. From ‘Holiday’, ‘Into The Groove’, ‘Express Yourself’, through to ‘Vogue’, ‘Deeper And Deeper’, ‘Ray Of Light’, ‘Music’ and ‘Hung Up’, Madonna has released a catalogue of the most defining dance floor moments of the last three decades, and the quality of MDNA has done nothing to change that. ‘Turn Up The Radio’ is essentially ‘Holiday’ for the iPod generation, just as ‘Music’ was for the CD generation.
With that in mind, let us examine the three evils of Madonna that are getting everyone hot under the collar:
Politics. Money. Nudity.
The biggest criticism of both concert goers and press alike over the past few years has been Madonna’s overtly political statmements, whether against the Front National or the American President, or even suggesting which way people should vote. In 2012 the press take umbrage over this, yet in 1990, when she draped herself in an American Flag to take part in MTV’s ‘Rock The Vote’ campaign to encourage young unengaged voters to go to the polling booths, it was apparently ok. The standards are double, and all too obviously so. The press (and the federal government) don’t mind Madonna being political, but only when it’s on their terms. Her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour was full of political statements about feminism and safe sex (including her saying “hey boy don’t be silly, put a rubber on your willy” at performances during ‘Into The Groove’). It’s an artist’s raison d’être to challenge the political landscape and this has always been a part of Madonna’s work. Her shows have become more intensely political. It’s not surprising that when Madonna fills video screens (spanning the entire stage) with images of fascist world leaders and impoverished countries for all to see, it makes her audience (and the tabloid press failing to deliver the same message) uncomfortable. But it’s not her political statements that make me uncomfortable, for I see the value of her using her fame to make people reconsider the material aspects of their lives. It’s charging her audience far above par for the privilege.
You would also would have had to be living under a rock not to have noticed that Madonna has started taking her clothes of again. When she stripped in 1992 her book Sex flew off the shelves. However, in 2012, in a society obsessed with youth, the complaint is that she is too old and should cover up. Even when a woman looks like she is in her 30s, must she really behave like she is in her 60s? This attitude is a brazen sanitising of female sexuality. It’s that double standard again, and so Hollywood continues to churn out rom-coms in which women fall for men that are more than twice their age, promoting the ideal of the ‘silver fox’. Men can be attractive, and appealing, and virile despite having crossed the 5-0 shadow line. Yet Madonna must not wear skimpy shorts or leotards with low cut tops. She must not stand in front of people in her leggings and a bra. And she definitely MUST NOT expose her nipple, because women over 50 are not desirable to anyone.
I’ve seen more brazen sights walking down Brixton’s Electric Avenue on a Saturday night … from people half her age!
Madonna’s point this time is “I’m 5 fucking 4 and I own it!” and I don’t blame her for trying to make 50 sexy. All that said, she is as much as the poison as she is the antidote, and the double standard at work here is hers. The current boundary Madonna is trying to push is our perception of age. And why should a woman in her 50s have to sit back while the world (and all the silver foxes) pass her by? But there’s the rub: in her attempt to challenge the ageism built into our society, she has done everything to keep herself looking as young as possible, rather than ageing gracefully. The plastic surgery and invasive treatments undermine her message. She wants us to accept her as a sexual being in her 50s, but does so by trying to look 30. Her modus operandi is pandering to, and perpetuating, an ageist ideal which is a conflicting message that should invite criticism.
Clearly, I don’t hate Madonna. In fact, I think she’s incredibly talented. I’ll freely admit that she’d be far less without the producers she works with or the controversy she creates – but that’s all part of her artistry. Like David Bowie before her, and Lady Gaga since, she is a true Pop Artist, and her music is as much about politics as it is about having fun. From the day she stepped out as a white girl on the underground New York dance scene singing music that was still associated with black women, to writhing around in a wedding dress at the MTV Music Awards and simulating masturbation live on stage despite the local police warning of her imminent arrest, she has always courted the controversy of politics, sexual or otherwise.
And so why all the virulently negative press? Why do we seem to enjoy hating Madonna so much? Is it because women secretly wish they could look like her at 50 (or even 30 in some cases)? Is it because men shudder at the fact they still want to have sex with a 54 year old woman? Or are we terrified that such a powerful force in the world is not an American President or a Government figure, but a female pop star in her mid-50s? Perhaps that’s what it really boils down to: the patriarchal West is terrified of a woman with that much power.
Madonna’s career spans my entire life, and she shows no signs of slowing down. Yet the world’s press are always quick to trash her. She is not infallible, clearly, but the criticism riots in unacknowledged double standards. The media obsession with putting artists on a pedestal only to push them off again is monotonous. All too often, the criticisms levelled at Madonna reveal the assumptions and prejudices of a press that does little more than reinforce a conservative status quo.