Madonna’s Down But Definitely Not Out

Madonna’s performance at this year’s BRIT Awards marked her first appearance at the awards ceremony for 20 years. She did it in style; complete with high-energy dancing, superb live vocals and intricate, dazzling costumes. And, yes, she also fell over.

The Queen of Pop was ascending a short stairway at the beginning of the rendition of her self-empowerment single, ‘Living For Love’, when her Armani cloak – which Madonna later confessed was tied too tight – failed to unravel. Instead, she was hauled down the stairs and across the stage when the dancers were meant to pull it off. She landed, what must have been painfully, on her lower back.

Not missing a beat, the icon got back up and carried on; full steam ahead into what was one of the most visually impressive performances of the night. Yet, in the days of Facebook trends and Twitter trolls, her four seconds on the floor did not go unnoticed. Whilst it is said that ‘all publicity is good publicity’, the coverage was perhaps not what Madonna wanted. Having made the front page of several national newspapers, and launched her new single into the UK Top 30, the scathing critique of her age reared its head once again.

Madonna is 57. That’s not old. Madonna is still the iconic trend-setter, taboo-breaker, and cultural-pioneer we always loved and admired. Why does being 57 change any of that? Whilst it’s likely that any performer, if they’d fallen, would have been subject to ridicule, the responses Madonna received were overwhelmingly focused on her age. The backlash tried to amusingly correlate Madonna’s age with insignificance, weakness, vulnerability and a sense of embarrassment and shame. Almost as if she deserved it for still having a career at 57.

Madonna asked over 20 years ago, ‘are you supposed to just die when you’re 40?’ According to the vicious remarks of some commentators, it would appear so. But the remarks Madonna received go deeper than just ageism and further than just cultural critique. Deeper even than BBC Radio 1 banning ‘Living For Love’ from their playlists. At its very core is an endemic sexism that persists to inhibit the success of older women. In all her leotard-wearing, 5-inch heel, full-thigh-exposure glory, Madonna kicks ass. Madonna refuses to ‘age gracefully’ (whatever that means) and the flag bearers of misogyny see red.

To see a strong, independent woman – who sells out stadia most passing pop stars could only dream of, continuously produces No.1 albums, is ultimately one of the biggest selling recording artists of all time, and refuses to curl under a rock and disappear – riles the bigotry of men. The same bigotry that prevents women over 50 presenting TV news programmes. The same bigotry that lambasts female Cabinet ministers as walking down ‘the Downing Street catwalk’: as if their professional characteristics were actually meaningless.

This can be seen most clearly when contrasted with the position of men in society. For example, Paul McCartney, 73, receives a rapturous response every time he performs or releases a new song. No one tells him to stop. No one even tells him to change for ‘a more mature audience’. This critical double-standard reflects the further progress to equality still to be made. Despite this, Madonna has never let men tell her what to do. Her continuing success acts as a beacon to all of us, that whilst prejudices and societal barriers remain in front of women as they grow older, challenging stereotypes and norms can lead to empowerment and liberation.

Photo credit: Ian Gampon.