Belfast Telegraph

Sarah Caden: Madonna earns our respect for staying true to her ideals ... but our respect isn't what she wants

At 60, the Queen of Pop still tries to shock, but the reaction is now more one of embarrassment, writes Sarah Caden

Madonna on The Graham Norton Show
Madonna on The Graham Norton Show

Even after she had agreed to perform at last month's Eurovision, Madonna admitted that she'd never seen the annual song contest. Designer Jean-Paul Gaultier was a major fan, however, Madonna told an interviewer, suggesting that his was recommendation enough for her.

If Gaultier loved Eurovision, then Madonna would love Eurovision, and, conversely, Eurovision would love Madonna. And it did - until she performed at it. Dressed up like a combo of Boudicca and Meghan Markle, with the eye patch, the tiara and the faux armour, it was all a bit try-hard.

The singing was flat, the attempt at comedy was clunky, the political message was heavy-handed. So went the responses and reviews, almost all of which were negative.

It wasn't so much that Eurovision and the Eurovision audience hated Madonna's performance of Like A Prayer and Future, a track from her new album, Madame X, which was released last Friday. It was more that everyone felt a bit embarrassed. Which, if you're Madonna, is much worse than being hated.

Hate, which she has encountered all of her career, at least has passion in it. Hate you can meet with fire. Hate has driven Madonna further even than adulation. She has revelled in "kicking against the pricks".

Calling out misogyny, sexism, the routine, life-limiting shaming of women has been her power. Responses such as embarrassment and, worse, pity have no fire in them. It's hard to know how to meet them, even if you're Madonna.

In a recent interview with British Vogue, she had the courage to name what she believes is now working against her, but naming it may not diminish it. Not at this point in the game.

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"People have always been trying to silence me for one reason or another, whether it's that I'm not pretty enough, I don't sing well enough, I'm not talented enough, I'm not married enough and now it's that I'm not young enough," Madonna said. "So, they just keep trying to find a hook to hang their beef about me being alive on. Now I'm fighting ageism, now I'm being punished for turning 60."

Is being punished for being 60? Or for still being in pop music at 60?

Does Bruce Springsteen get away with releasing a new album last Friday, the same day as Madonna, because he's an ageing man?

Is it as simple as that, as simple as saying that, similarly, the Rolling Stones can still go on tour, and Jagger can still get away with strutting like a young buck, because they are men?

However, there was Stevie Nicks with Fleetwood Mac last week, wowing the crowd in the RDS at the age of 71. No one was embarrassed and her age seemed irrelevant.

All of these are in the realm of rock 'n' roll, however, while Madonna still pushes the pop button and pushes it hard. Nicks, for the most part, is happy to sing the songs of her youth and let everyone wallow in nostalgia.

Is the problem facing the Material Girl at 60 the fact that pop is a young person's game and that anyone attempting it past a certain age is just engaging in embarrassing mom-dancing?

Pop music is classically a kick back against one's elders, an up-ending of what has gone before, but Madonna is what went before.

So, what's a woman to do? Just give up. We should know there's little hope of that when it comes to Madonna and many reviews of Madame X, her new album, heap praise on its imagination, inventiveness and energy.

These are characteristics that once made her the Queen of Pop, the most famous woman in the world, and yet they don't work the same magic for her now.

It's just not fair and we are undoubtedly tougher on her because she's a woman, but it could be argued that a certain discomfort in her own skin as an older woman is also working against Madonna.

No woman wants to say that Madonna should act, or look, her age, but she rarely looks comfortable these days, presenting as she does.

Most of the time, by her own admission, she's doing training drop-offs and pick-ups with her 13-year-old son, David, for whom she moved to Portugal two years ago, so he could play soccer with the Benfica academy.

In that zone, she may have found a degree of comfort and ease. Publicly, however, there's something frozen and cold about Madonna. As her public persona, she's still doing the whole unapologetic bold-sexuality Madonna thing. And it's not that you look at her and think she's too old to be at that lark; it's that you look at her and think she looks fairly miserable at that lark.

Madonna's sense of humour, wrapped up in her sexuality and her ease in her own skin, was always half her charm.

But it's hard to find in this eye-patched, taut-faced, unsmiling Madonna.

On Graham Norton's show last Friday night, she was stiff on the sofa, almost as if she's second-guessing anyone who might look at her and see a wrinkle, a flaw, a chink in the armour. And yet, admirably, there remains a defiance there.

"Let's say I refuse to bend the knee to convention and what society expects of me as a woman, as an artist, as a human being," she told Norton.

This is the defiance that has earned her both love and hate over the decades and Madonna has thrived on both.

The problem is that, increasingly, the reaction to her rebelliousness is either benign affection, or embarrassment, possibly because her position feels stiff and contrived. Neither are ideal, but the embarrassment is the worry.

Next step after embarrassment is antipathy, which, in essence, is the invisibility that many women, famous or otherwise, experience in middle to later life.

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