For all of the crap that gets thrown her way, for all of her missteps and failures; for all of the contradictions and hypocrisies that she embodies and which surround her; for the political gestures which are sometimes clumsy, sometimes misguided, sometimes just plain wrong – this is why I love Madonna. This is what separates her from the pop crowd. An artist who is trying to engage and trying to use her position to make things better. I felt overwhelming admiration when the news of what she’d done came through. In supporting Pussy Riot in an atmosphere of threats of violence and of authoritarian crackdowns, she did something unquestionably brave and decent. Of course, her wealth and status offer her far more protection in speaking out than any ordinary citizen would have, but it seems churlish to nitpick. Today Pussy Riot’s lawyers stated that they believed the global attention which peaked with Madonna’s gesture had been instrumental in forcing the judge to delay her sentence: “No matter what the verdict is, we have won.”
Of course, this being Madonna, some could still only offer praise in the form of a backhanded ‘compliment’. I find the current enmity towards Madonna in many quarters intriguing, if depressingly familiar. There is undoubtedly an element of sexism at work – Madonna is such an enormous figure that her ‘representation’ of womanhood has always been pissing off someone. Throw in the fact that she’s over 50 and you have a toxic mix. Gossip rags, tabloids and even broadsheets wax endlessly about how she should behave and, more embarrassingly, how she should look (contrast with coverage of middle-aged male celebrities who dare to bare.) Her recent flesh-bearing on the MDNA tour has been the object of ridicule and scorn, its context in the show (at the close of ‘Human Nature’) completely lost on asinine commentators who rush to prove the point she was trying to make. In ‘Human Nature’ she sings of not being meant to be sexual, be outspoken – ’I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me’. Yet hang-ups galore inform the responses to her, few of which criticise her without bringing their own ideas of what 53-year old women should be doing and, most bizarrely of all, should be singing. Popular music as we know it is roughly half a century old – there is no trodden path for what pop stars are ‘supposed’ to do as they grow older. Again, ‘Human Nature’ sounds enormously prescient – ‘I’m breaking all the rules I didn’t make’.
I think what most riles people about Madonna, however, is that she’s still striving to progress and, worst of all, remain relevant. I’m old enough to remember the response to David Bowie’s ‘1.Outside’ and ‘Earthling’ albums, released when he was 48 and 50. While Bowie’s status as a ‘classic rock’ artist and the absence of a sexual element meant criticism never achieved the same hysterical heights as Madonna faces, he nevertheless faced a chorus of ridicule. The albums revealed a Bowie who was, as ever, in-tune with the current music scene, being heavily influenced by industrial music, techno and even jungle. Nine Inch Nails popped up on the single version of ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ while Bowie’s 50th birthday concert featured Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth. There were accusations that Bowie was ‘desperate’, that he was grasping onto younger stars for relevance, that he was embarrassing himself as ‘granddad down the disco’. The fact that Bowie had always absorbed contemporary influences was irrelevant – he was ageing and past his peak.
Bowie, of course, is an astute operator. It’s almost certainly no quirk of fate that the cover of his next album, ‘hours…’, featured a more recognisably ‘classic’ Bowie cradling his own corpse, which sported the haircut he’d been wearing for the above ‘desperate’ period. The album was a self-conscious return to his 70s sound. He went further in ‘Heathen’, an album which saw him re-united with Tony Visconti (producer of several of his classic albums) and which largely eschewed experimentation in favour of deliberate nods to his past. The critics, and the listeners, came flooding back. The formula worked again on ‘Reality’.
Bowie has released nothing new since, which works out brilliantly for his reputation. Because at some point we want the artists we love as we grow up to remind us of headier times; of when we were younger and their music meant everything to us; of when they sound-tracked the formative moments of our lives. In short, we want them to stop growing up so that we don’t have to either. So scorn is poured on those artists who dare to think that they not only have every right to keep making and performing new music, but have the audacity to not make it sound like the songs we loved. There are countless examples – Prince found himself embraced again when he made the self-referential album ‘Musicology’. U2 roared back into the public consciousness with ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’, an album even they admitted was a deliberate attempt to re-capture an earlier magic (they slumped back out again with ‘No Line on the Horizon’, a great album but one which largely made demands on the listener.) Elton John, The Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder long ago became exercises in nostalgia, putting out new material of varying quality but always touring with the old songs, the ones you know.
Madonna certainly isn’t unaware of this – her previous three albums have been littered with deliberate nods to her past. However, it’s far more difficult to mine your own history when you operate in the pop/dance genre. Aside from it having always commanded less respect (30 years into her career, Madonna is still regularly called ‘talentless’) it’s a genre which is predicated on sexuality and novelty – two traits which it’s nigh-on impossible for a woman in her 50s to embrace without scorn. So Madonna has faced perhaps the most aggressive criticisms of her career for working with younger artists and producers; for not performing enough classic hits on her tours; for making music which sounds modern; for not standing still and just being the Madonna we want her to be. Yet if ‘No Fear’ (the slogan usually printed on her back in place of ‘Pussy Riot’) is her current modus operandi, it’s something which doesn’t quite ring true in her work. Madonna fears becoming seen as a legacy act, wheeled out to perform ‘The Immaculate Collection’ every couple of years. It’s for this reason that she’s almost always turned down ‘Lifetime Achievement Awards’ and packs her concerts with new material. Perhaps this stubbornness goes too far – nevertheless, I think it’s an admirable quality in someone who has always sincerely treated pop music as an art form and, as we saw last night, a powerful social force. This. This is why I love Madonna.