At 50, Madonna has golden opportunity
Madonna turned 50 this year. That’s a watershed for a woman and a pop star, the incontrovertible borderline between youth and what comes after. For some it’s a time of reckoning and reflection. For others it’s time to hit the panic button. Madonna celebrated by giving herself a new body and another dance recor
She looks like a superhero and sounds like a sex bomb, but, ironically, Madonna’s exercise addiction and disco project actually humanize her. After 25 years of innovative style and artful provocation, she’s become something of a cliche: a middle-aged woman clinging to the past.
In the beginning, Madonna created Madonna, and she was good. Her early songs were catchy and danceable. Her outfits were a wreck, but she sensed the ’80s zeitgeist and a fashion icon was born. Madonna wannabes wore fingerless gloves and plastic bangles, belly-baring shirts and bras in plain sight. It was a trashy celebration – of our bodies and the dance floor and the intoxicating possibility that Madonna’s was a shallow-sounding-but-secretly-potent recipe for redemption.
When you’re 25, salvation is as simple as a good beat and a dumb hook.
A quarter century later, Madonna’s soft, sexy curves have hardened into sinew and muscle – the aging woman’s version of sensuality. In time-honored fashion, the punishing apparatus of the gym has replaced the freedom of the dance floor. And now, perhaps predictably, Madonna is shaping her music the same way she’s sculpting her body: with the grim aim of building a temple to her own timelessness, a super-buffed semblance of glorious youth.
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Let’s be honest: It’s the rare artist in any field, but especially in pop music, who brings the adventurousness of youth into middle age. By and large we embrace risk, take chances, and value irreverence – all roads that lead to innovation – when we’re young. Madonna’s hunger for new images and sounds has led her to flirt with blasphemy and French electronica, conflate bustiers and mysticism, try her hand at S&M, political raps, and “Evita.” Even when the outcome was aesthetically dubious, Madonna’s populist reach never failed to impress.
But certainty and stability become more important as we grow older, and not just the pragmatic sort. There are the psychological and spiritual questions, about who we are and where we stand and (if you are a global superstar) how the hell we are going to stay on top with all those whippersnappers standing on our shoulders. For Madonna, who plays at TD Banknorth Garden Wednesday and Thursday, that means retrenchment, if not full-scale retreat. Her last two albums, 2005’s “Confessions on a Dance Floor” and this year’s “Hard Candy,” sound like turbo-charged early Madonna – more sure thing than bold statement – designed not so much to blaze a trail as secure her place.
Who knows if Madonna ran out of ideas. It happens to the best. One thing time has surely deprived her of is time. What with a marriage, three children, charitable work, and staying fit, Madonna is facing the same challenges a lot of her less-famous peers grapple with. I don’t care how many helpers and handlers she has, the emotional and existential demands of midlife can suck the creative juice out of anyone.
From a less-charitable vantage, though, Madonna’s stall feels like a wasted opportunity. Instead of boasting, as she does on “Hard Candy,” about how sticky and sweet her sugar is, and going on about how long she can go (for the record it’s “on and on and on”), what if she actually brought some self-awareness and insight – time’s great gift – into her music and imagery? How radical would it be if Madonna reinvented herself as a seasoned storyteller or a complicated chanteuse? She can sing well enough to pull it off now; some of her most gripping live performances are on dramatic ballads like “Live to Tell” and “Frozen.”I’m suggesting she act her age. That doesn’t translate to dressing “appropriately.” Madonna can wear leotards and boots till the cows come home; God knows she’s earned it. But there are new tools in her box: the perspective that deepens with experience, the core strength that comes not from another hour on the yoga mat but from surviving for 50 years. She has an audience that would follow her anywhere and a 10-year contract with Live Nation. Madonna could redefine what it means for women to grow old in pop music. Remember, this is a pop star renowned more than anything else for her powers of reinvention.
Or she could become a caricature of herself, like Dolly Parton or Cher. Aging is a drag. Aging in the public eye is tougher still, and the sad truth is it’s nearly impossible for women to do it gracefully in a culture where the standard of beauty and youth demands clinging with all your might (and your surgeon’s skill) to flawless skin.
I know this is show business, artifice is everything, and people want a hot bod and heavy beat for their entertainment buck. But a few chinks in her armor might do Madonna, and her legions of fans, good. There’s still a girl in there who’s hungry for adventure, eager to buck expectations, ready to try something new. She’s older now, but she can still show us how it’s done.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.