Madonna is hardly the first female entertainer to stay active while growing older, with singers as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Cher, Dolly Parton and Stevie Nicks on stage in their 70s.
But Madonna – who entered pop culture at the same time as MTV – has embodied the cult of youth like few other artists and while others reinvented themselves or staged nostalgic comebacks, the Material Girlhas never gone more than four years without an album since her blockbuster self-titled debut in 1983. The title of a single off her latest album, Rebel Heart, summed up her unwavering attitude.
Freya Jarman, a music scholar at the University of Liverpool who co-edited a book on Madonna, said the pop star has already left her legacy, with younger artists such as Lady Gaga so evidently influenced by her. But she emphasized that Madonna was now demonstrating a new kind of relevance.
“As an aging, female popular musician who is still so much in the public eye, she is absolutely relevant,” Jarman said. “Madonna stands out in a way that she always has done, in that she has always been interested in creating a stir which someone like Cher, for my money, does not, really. Many stars seem to fade in and out of focus, while Madonna doesn’t.”
Throughout her career, Madonna has faced harsh commentary as she grows older. An ex-girlfriend of one of her former lovers, Brazilian model Jesus Luz, branded her a “ridiculous old bag,” while numerous social media users heaped scorn when Madonna locked lips on stage at the Coachella festival with the much-younger Drake. And tabloids have fixated on Madonna’s hands, one part of the body that can uncharitably betray age.
In a 2016 speech as she accepted an award from music magazine Billboard, Madonna said that society allowed women to be “pretty and cute “but not to share their opinions”. Describing unwritten rules of the music business she said, “Be what men want you to be. But more importantly, be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men.”
She continued, “And finally, do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticised, you will be vilified, and you will definitely not be played on the radio.” The singer was likely referring to BBC Radio 1 declining to play one of her recent singles as it pursued a younger audience.
Madonna has persisted in her political outspokenness, delivering a fiery speech to last year’s Women’s March a day after US President Donald Trump’s inauguration, vowing that women would not accept “this new age of tyranny.”
Madonna has also challenged conceptions of motherhood, adopting four children from Malawi in addition to her biological son and daughter. The singer, who last year moved to Lisbon where one of her sons is attending a youth football academy, is marking her 60th birthday by encouraging fans to donate to her charity for children in Malawi.
Even as a mother, Madonna has pursued her relationships. The attention stands in contrast to the comparative societal yawn over older men who date much younger women, with still active stars Mick Jagger and Billy Joel both recently becoming fathers again.
Older women have also enjoyed growing prominence in Hollywood, but their love interests – especially as depicted in films – are rarely younger men. Among leading mature actors, Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give and Meryl Streep in Hope Springs both played in roles of rekindling romance with senior men.
A sociologist at the University of Washington in Seattle Pepper Shwartz, said that Madonna, along with aging Hollywood stars, was offering a new model for women of their baby boom generation.
“The baby boom, which has always been at the edge of trying to give new definition to gender, is trying to say that they’re not ready to be written off just because they’re older now.
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