When the carping over Madonna’s age began in earnest, the focus wasn’t on her singing, or songwriting, or even her stagecraft. The problem, according to certain sections of the press, lay with her hands. “Why do Madonna’s hands look older than her face?” asked the Daily Mail in 2006. Such was the paper’s concern over the then 47-year-old’s apparently awful paws, a plastic surgeon was drafted in to provide professional analysis. “As a person ages [the] plumpness goes, making the hand look bonier and more veiny … less elastic,” he said sagely. Since then, close-ups of Madonna’s hands have been as much a tabloid staple as Victoria Beckham’s scowl or Amanda Holden’s sideboob.

Music critics tend not to pass comment on a musician’s appearance – to do so would undermine the seriousness of their endeavour. But the assessments of Madonna’s 14th album, Madame X, have nonetheless brought more subtle kind of disparagement. “Perhaps the erstwhile Queen of Pop should be content with the role of Queen Mother of Pop now,” said the Daily Telegraph’s critic, going on to note that a woman who has shifted 350m units and broken every record for a female artist going hasn’t had a Top 10 hit in a decade. Even in the Guardian’s review, which was mostly positive, the theme of her age was never far away.

Madonna is not alone in being seen through the prism of age. In 2014, looking ahead to Kate Bush’s live shows at Hammersmith Apollo, a (male) critic at the Independent cringed at the idea that she might start dancing. “However beneficial any yoga regime she might follow,” he said, “it’s simply unbecoming for a woman of a certain age to be prancing about, and certainly not in the leotard and leg-warmers of the 1979 shows.”

Even the more moderate language used in relation to her is revealing. “Dignity” crops up a lot, as does “appropriate” and “growing old gracefully”. When men talk about women ageing gracefully, they are not acting out of concern. They’re telling them to know their station, to sit down and shut up. “People have always been trying to silence me for one reason or another, whether it’s that I’m not pretty enough, I don’t sing well enough, I’m not talented enough, I’m not married enough – and now it’s that I’m not young enough,” Madonna told Vogue recently. “Now I’m being punished for turning 60.”

Tracey Thorn, the Everything but the Girl singer-turned-solo artist and author, last year shared her objections to being described as “a 55-year-old wife and mother” in a review by the American music writer Robert Christgau. “The more I think about it the crosser I’m getting,” she said on Twitter. “‘55-year-old husband and father.’ I’m trying to imagine it as a description in an album review. Nope. Can’t do it.” I have no right to throw stones here. In 2003 I interviewed Siouxsie Sioux, an artist I’d admired for as long as I could remember. Near the end of our chat I asked blithely if musical retirement was on the cards. She was 45. She gave me a proper bollocking, and pointed out – rightly – that I would never have asked a man that question.

Ultimately it all boils down to what society deems alluring and acceptable. Older men, with their silver hair and laughter lines, are seen as stately and wise. Women of the same age are past it and embarrassing. Today, Iggy Pop (72) gets to run around shirtless during live performances. Nick Cave (61) dyes his hair and wears his shirts slashed to the waist; Elton John (72), who this year spoils us with a film, a memoir and a farewell tour, gads about in shades and diamante-encrusted suits. What links them, beyond their occupation, is that they get to decide how they conduct themselves and, crucially, when they stop working. And they get to do this without fear of criticism or vitriol. It’s high time female artists enjoyed the same privilege.

Fiona Sturges is an arts writer specialising in books, music, podcasting and TV

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