On her 60th birthday we celebrate Madonna, a woman who re-wrote the rulebook for female artists and, through the medium of pop music, defied just about every convention she could point a flaming crucifix at.
Whether it’s sexism, Catholicism or ageism, Madonna has railed against it with an arsenal of corsets, fishnets and rosary beads. Ironically, when Madonna rose to fame in the 1980s few thought she’d last. She was a dancer with a just about passable singing voice and was considered no match for the two other rising female stars of the day: Whitney Houston and Cyndi Lauper.
Could Madonna belt like gospel thoroughbred Houston? Absolutely not. Did she have the authenticity of kooky Lauper? Nope. But what she did have was a will of steel, ferocious drive and bucket-loads of resilience, traits that helped her notch up 63 top ten UK hits.
Drive and work ethic
“For me, she’s the complete definition of evolving, and evolving, and evolving each time.” – Adele
In her 36-year career Madonna has constantly reinvented her sound and look. Catholic girl, showgirl, dominatrix, disco queen – Madonna’s tried her hand at them all in a relentless effort to keep fans guessing.
She’s worked hard to strengthen her singing voice, which at the start of her career was derided as being Minnie Mouse-like, and been meticulous about staying in top physical shape (her chiselled biceps are a trademark). This has no doubt has helped her kick butt on stage and explains why she’s the highest grossing female touring artist of all time.
Madonna surrounds herself with top musicians and producers. People like Nile Rodgers, Jellybean Benitez, Mirwais and William Orbit, with whom she recorded Ray Of Light, have brought out the best in her. Madonna carefully choses her collaborators and strives to stay ahead of the game by absorbing and reinterpreting (okay some might call it stealing) from genres such as disco, funk, electric, soul and Latin. She’s more of an interpreter than a creator, but we’re okay with that.
Understanding the power of video
Right from the off, Madonna recognised the importance of visuals and imagery in reaching an audience. At her peak the only artist who could seriously rival her in the music video stakes was Michael Jackson. For Madonna it wasn’t just about the song, it was about creating a big picture and her high budget videos often did this in a provocative manner (Like A Prayer enraged the Catholic Church so much she was excommunicated). She wasn’t afraid to flaunt or explore her sexuality, something that left huge swathes of conservatives around the world apoplectic. But watch Britney Spears, Rihanna, Beyonce, Rita Ora and Katie Perry on stage today and you’ll clearly see Madonna’s influence.
Over the years Madonna has weathered many storms, husbands and boyfriends have come and gone, and she’s been roundly condemned by the church and establishment figures. But she’s still standing while sadly many of her peers – Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston all come to mind – are not. And she still has the drive to continue, defying the outdated belief that there’s no place in the music industry for a woman over 40.
As she enters her sixth decade Madonna has set her sights on upending one of society’s most enduring stereotypes: ageism. Can she succeed? It’s a tall order – in recent years her critics have become more shrill and their barbs more spiteful – but we bet she’ll try.
So Madge we thank you for the fingerless gloves, the conical bras, the nuns habits, the leotards and fishnets. We thank you for the outrage and the intrigue, and for thumbing your nose at all those who implored you to keep quiet and stop rocking the boat. Please don’t stop.