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Madonna after the fall: Tour, album and waging war on ageism

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Madonna performs "Living for Love" at the 57th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California February 8, 2015.

Madonna performs "Living for Love" at the 57th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California February 8, 2015.

REUTERS

Madonna stumbles whilst performing on stage as her cape is pulled during the 2015 Brit Awards at the O2 Arena, London

Madonna stumbles whilst performing on stage as her cape is pulled during the 2015 Brit Awards at the O2 Arena, London

PA

1990: Madonna in the video for 'Vogue'

1990: Madonna in the video for 'Vogue'

REX

2003: Britney Spears kisses Madonna at the MTV Music Awards.

2003: Britney Spears kisses Madonna at the MTV Music Awards.

1993: Madonna in the movie 'Body of Evidence' with Willem Dafoe.

1993: Madonna in the movie 'Body of Evidence' with Willem Dafoe.

Getty Images

Strike a pose: Madonna photographed for 'Interview' Magazine.

Strike a pose: Madonna photographed for 'Interview' Magazine.

Madonna in the 1980s

Madonna in the 1980s

Getty Images

Show-stopper: Madonna on the red carpet at Cannes with that famous conical bra. Photo: Getty Images.

Show-stopper: Madonna on the red carpet at Cannes with that famous conical bra. Photo: Getty Images.

AFP/Getty Images

Madonna

Madonna

Madonna is mum to four children - Lourdes, Rocco, and two adopted children from Malawi, Mercy and David

Madonna is mum to four children - Lourdes, Rocco, and two adopted children from Malawi, Mercy and David

Hot Press Madonna cover

Hot Press Madonna cover

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Madonna performs "Living for Love" at the 57th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California February 8, 2015.

With every new Madonna album, there is a predictable orgy of media navel-gazing.

Does Madge still have it? Is it admirable or inappropriate for someone in late middle age - she turns 57 in August - to so provocatively flaunt their sexuality? Might it be better to gracefully fade from view rather than figuratively flog a horse that has already had a more than decent outing. We wonder - and yet cannot quite agree an answer.

This time, the debate is even louder than usual. Madonna has released 13th album Rebel Heart, a shimmering pop affair that arrives in the wake of her Brit Awards disaster/publicity coup. As everyone on the planet is by now aware, her comeback at the Brits turned into a surreal farce as Madonna's cape became entangled with a backing dancer and down she went, literally flat on her face.

In the social media era, nothing catches fire like a pop star tumbling a*** over elbow and the débâcle had the curious effect of making Madonna newsworthy again - even sympathetic. It was telling that Ms Ciccone dominated the post-Brits conversation, not Taylor Swift or Kanye West. For the first time in recent memory, the Zeitgeist belonged entirely to her.

Granted, the singer had to slip down a flight of steps to regain the front pages. But, ask yourself, is there a pop star on the planet you would rather watch fall down the stairs more than Madonna? Maybe Elvis and Michael Jackson - but that's about it. When she is minded to do something spectacular, no one fascinates like Madge. Would you care if Ed Sheeran lost his footing during a performance? No, you would not.

As to whether Madonna still has 'it' in a musical sense - the new record appears to argue both ways. Among die-hards, the album has been embraced as the strongest of her recent career. It is dynamic and glittery, tough on the outside, yet with an agreeably soft centre (lyrically, she is in a sharing frame of mind).

"I definitely think Madonna is still relevant," says music blogger Silvan Schreuder of Popsirens.com. "The fact that one million more people tuned in for the [Brits] ceremony compared to last year shows there is plenty of interest in Madonna, as well as the fact that her fall made headlines worldwide. Her new album is a bit modish at points, but overall it's underpinned by strong melodies and good song writing. It's her most personal and strongest work in over a decade and despite its length, feels concise and has strong themes running through." 

If Madonna has a complicated relationship with music - she is the perpetual outsider and trend-chaser- it is fair to say we, the audience, have a complicated relationship with her. Since breaking through in the early 80s as a sexually provocative tweaker of taboos - it is difficult to appreciate today just how scandalous a song called 'Like a Virgin' must have struck listeners in 1985 - Madonna has been an object both of derision and fascination, a role model and a cautionary tale for anyone chasing fame for its own sake.

What can be stated with certainty is that Madonna is not unaware of the argument swirling around her age and the appropriateness of her continuance as a raunchy singer. In a new interview with Rolling Stone, she fairly comes out swinging, decrying haters seeking to dismiss her strictly on her seniority. For anyone of a certain vintage, her pronouncements have the aspect of a rallying cry - why hasn't someone stood up like this before rather than apologising for growing older?

"It's still the one area where you can totally discriminate against somebody," she said. "Because of their age. Only females, though. Not males. So in that respect we still live in a very sexist society.

"No one would dare to say a degrading remark about being black or dare to say a degrading remark on Instagram about someone being gay. But my age - anybody and everybody would say something degrading to me. And I always think to myself, why is that accepted? What's the difference between that and racism, or any discrimination? They're judging me by my age. I don't understand. I'm trying to get my head around it. Because women, generally, when they reach a certain age, have accepted that they're not allowed to behave a certain way. But I don't follow the rules. I never did, and I'm not going to start."

Nor is it fair to condemn her as shocking simply for the sake of it. Far from a cynical manipulation, there is a persuasive school of thought that, as a young woman in a strange city (New York in the early 80s) she utilised her sexuality as a defence mechanism. In her 2007 biography of Madonna, writer Lucy O'Brien asserts that, aged 23, Madonna was attacked by a mugger on the Lower East Side and sexually abused at knife point.

"It can be argued that her anger at the attack came out afterwards in a need for complete sexual control," she writes in the book. "Many friends have suggested she used sex to get attention, to get dinner, get a bed for the night. As a young women who felt powerless, it was one way to show men that she was the dominant one and she didn't care. Sex became a mask, a way of psychologically turning the tables on her attacker."

The difficulty is that, while her initial determination to shock may have sprang from a real, raw place, ever since, Madonna has been mostly concerned with trend-hopping.

Her music has shapeshifted in many dazzling ways, though often with one eye on what is fashionable in the moment. In the late 90s, with angst-ridden female singers such as Alanis Morrissette dominant, Madge ditched the flesh-flaunting and morphed into the pale-faced chanteuse of Frozen (no, not the Disney movie).

Later, she hitched herself to the boom in dance music, working with producers Mirwais and Jacques Lu Cont (whose cred seems not to have recovered from clambering metaphorically into bed with Madonna). Rebel Heart, for its part, features contributions for voguish talents Avicii and Diplo.

It is unclear whether Rebel Heart will become a major hit or, as with recent Madonna albums, is doomed to be of interest only to the fanbase. Then maybe that's the wrong argument, suggests Scheruder. Nobody expects a 56-year-old to have the novelty factor of younger upstarts. What is important is that she succeeds on her own terms, not everyone else's.

"[She] might not sell as much as some of the more contemporary artists like Taylor Swift, but that doesn't mean she's not relevant. She will sell a decent amount of albums - even though it will always be compared to her earlier albums without taking into account that album sales have diminished. She'll do very well out of the Rebel Heart tour [which looks set to skip Ireland] and will play for thousands. Madonna still has it and looks determined to hold on to that crown. And good on her."

In Rolling Stone, Madonna made it clear that she sees her ongoing career as part of a continuum. She did and said the unthinkable in the 80s - and here she is, an older lady rocking her socks off, doing it all over again.

"When I did my sex book, it wasn't the average," she said. "When I performed 'Like a Virgin' on the MTV Awards and my dress went up and my ass was showing, it was considered a total scandal. It was never the average, and now it's the average.

"When I did Truth or Dare and the cameras followed me around, it was not the average. So if I have to be the person who opens the door for women to believe and understand and embrace the idea that they can be sexual and look good and be as relevant in their fifties or their sixties or whatever as they were in their twenties, then so be it."

Indo Review