In the first of a new series, Getintothis’ Banjo leaps to the defence of the extraordinary career of Madonna.
On her arrival in the public consciousness, few would have predicted that Madonna would do anything beyond providing a lightweight, temporary summer soundtrack.
Thought of as a bimbo (remember that word?) serving up light, frothy pop, her critics were already seeing a Best Before date stamped on her career before her first album came out. What she did next then was quite unexpected – she became one of the world’s biggest stars, releasing album after album of top quality, life-affirming, increasingly cutting edge pop.
That she is still she is major star and a big name draw almost 34 years after her first album was released must have been a surprise to many. But not, you would think, to Madonna herself, whose self-belief and determination to succeed were beyond the reach of even those titans of self-aggrandisement, the Stone Roses.
Madonna has not gone the way of other 80s icons, such as Cyndi Lauper, who rode the crest of a wave of enormous popularity only to find themselves abandoned by the fickle winds of fashion when times moved on. Unlike Madonna, most artists found themselves unable or unwilling to change with the times, or perhaps just unable to keep their audience.
Her enduring success is thrown into even sharper relief when we compare her to stars from the following decade, stars she perhaps inspired, such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Both were everywhere in the 90s, from the top of the world’s charts to the front of the world’s magazines. And while Britney still makes the occasional appurtenance in the gossip columns, her time in the charts and hearts of the world is, frankly, long gone.
Madonna knows no such problems. She could decide to tour tomorrow and the world’s stadia would still throw open arms their arms in welcome. It would still be a big deal, guaranteed to sell out shows and provide a massive boost to her records in a way that Britney’s Vegas residency was not and did not.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of Britney. She has made some of the best ultra-modern, self-aware pop gems the world has heard– they are often as good as good pop music gets. But one gets the impression that, to paraphrase George Orwell, Madonna could, if she so chose, rise up and shake them off like a dog shakes off fleas.
And yet, despite all this, her public image and the type of press she seems to receive these days focuses on her age rather than her ability and her looks rather than her longevity.
There is more than a whiff of sexism about this, as Madonna’s age and appearance are the focus of attention in a way that, say, Bono, Sting or Bruce Springsteen are not. And all of these were in the charts when the Material Girl first started her reign. Where are the cries for Dave Gahan to act his age, or for James Hetfield to stop wearing t-shirts? Make no mistake, the media is an unforgiving and uneven playing field if you dare to be a woman who has aged.
Stepping away from the issue of age, Madonna’s music has also come to be regarded, in some quarters, as old. A recent episode of the relaunched Will & Grace sitcom included a scene where the difference between the ages of two gay men on a date was illustrated by the older man’s love for Madonna, which the younger character dismissed as being past it and out of fashion.
There followed a dialogue on the history of the gay struggle, taking in the Stonewall Riots of the 60s and other counterculture moments that Madonna was obviously not part of. Since when does playing Borderline become cultural shorthand for the 60s? Or is it that ‘old is old’ and today’s cultural commentators are no longer able to differentiate eras?
Is it now that King Arthur and The Beatles all now come from ‘olden times’, and people born this side of the 90s can no longer see a difference? Or a point to any difference?
Anyway, I didn’t really want to get bogged down or too sidetracked on the whole age thing, what I really wanted to talk about was the music. This is after all what Madonna does, behind the headlines and the trawl for unflattering photos. Madge, as I believe her friends don’t call her, falls into that rare group of artists where even those people who say they don’t like her like at least one of her songs.
Whether people lean towards simple pop such as Material Girl, bonkers House-influenced pop such as Ray of Light, the post rave chillout of Frozen or taking Public Enemy samples to the top of the charts with Justify My Love, there is a Madonna song for everyone.
The likes of Queen, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones also fit into this category. The difference between them however is that Madonna is pop, while all the others can be classed as rock bands.
While the Rolling Stones operate in a genre where long term success is fairly usual, Madonna has achieved all this in a genre not normally associated with long lasting careers or maintaining an audience. Pop music can be a fickle thing, with fans moving on to the next big thing as the seasons change.
Madonna has also benefited from a knack of being able to catch the zeitgeist. She possesses a keen cultural radar, able to sense change on the horizon. Her formative years spent in the fast moving, ever-changing world on New York’s clubland helped her hone this instinct, and it has stood her in good stead as the pop world has changed.
She also has an uncanny ability to know when a new trend is worth joining in and, crucially, when to leave the party. I’m sure we can all think of a few examples of musicians who would benefit from the latter ability. You fill in the names. I cry too easily.
Madonna also attracted controversy for committing the cardinal sin of unashamed sexuality. While the world can accept, laugh with and even fall in love with the likes of Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee, Iggy Pop or Jim Morrison for their overt sexual behaviour, when it comes to women displaying their own sensuality the rules seem to change.
This has proven to be something of a double edged sword for Madonna though. All she has to do to immediately attract column inches or TV exposure is flash her boobs, wear a racy outfit or shag someone famous/younger and the (largely male) press corps are ready to feed on what she has given them.
There are other examples of the kind of sexist attitudes that have seen her credibility sidelined and have seen attempts to have her turned into little more than a musical clothes horse. Where David Bowie was hailed as being a cultural chameleon, Madonna’s frequent image changes seem to have been reduced to mere costume changes. Or worse, vanity. Where Bowie was celebrated as a shape shifter, Madonna was damned as a dilettante.
However, her initial image, of bangles, lace dresses and calf high leggings, was appropriated by fans and non-fans alike and has since become part the 80’s visual identity, as much as Boy George and Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirts ever were.
Over the years, Madonna has continued to use her image well and yet does not run shy from posting selfies with bed hair and no make up.
In a world where there is a need for strong role models, people who show that it is ok to believe in yourself, to express your feelings or to take charge of your life, we have someone who can do that in spades.
We have Madonna.