People say I’m controversial,” Madonna, who turned 60 on August 16, told an audience of music-industry peers in 2016. “But I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.” Sexism was the demon that haunted Madonna’s early career, but for two decades—maybe longer—it’s had an equally unwelcome sibling: ageism.

Madonna was a pioneer of welding her voice to her image, and in a culture consumed with critiquing how women look, and controlling how they use their bodies, she’s been on the front lines—a seductress and a battering ram. But as she’s continued to be a force while she deigns to grow older, she’s faced a new frontier of abuse. There has never been a pop star writing and performing at her level, and demanding a seat at the table, at her age. Why wouldn’t Madonna demand it?

One of the great conundrums of the Internet era is pop culture’s short memory; the receipts are right there to be found, yet few bother to do the looking. But yes, in a career spanning four decades, Madonna made real cultural change, and caused a few cultural crises, over and over again. For all the criticism she’s weathered during four decades in the spotlight, she deserves a birthday celebration.

—Caryn Ganz


If Madonna has been perpetually unapologetic (see: “Human Nature,” “Unapologetic Bitch”), it is partly because she ignited so much controversy at the beginning of her career by barely striking a match. Basically, she wore a wedding dress, while singing about the joys of sex, on a song called “Like a Virgin.” Also: She rolled around in the wedding dress while performing that song live on MTV. And the wedding dress wasn’t really your typical wedding dress, but a lace corset cinched by a belt that said “Boy Toy” on the buckle. And underneath she wore a white garter belt that was seen by a hefty percentage of America.

— Jacob Bernstein

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