Madonna has spent her career molding an image of herself as a boundary-pushing, sexuality-embracing, rebel pop star. She’s always tried to stay current, and her most-recent performances, promoting her new album, in particular, her single, “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” were no different. She brought in Nicki Minaj on the track (and Chance the Rapper on another, which allows 30 seconds of the song, “Iconic,” to be decent) to up her hip hop cred, in an effort to glom on to the ongoing co-optation of the genre, presenting herself as a bad bitch/party girl (An image I find impossible to buy because she looks like she spends 99 per cent of her day working out and eating lean protein, and I’m sorry but I just don’t believe people who are in that kind of shape are, or have, fun.)
Sure, I enjoyed her early music just like everyone else on the planet, but ever since she tried to attach herself to rave culture, I’ve been over it. I haven’t found her music enjoyable or interesting since the early 90s, despite her efforts to “reinvent” herself (They say that’s her thing. I see her “thing” as “imitating what everyone else is doing in order to stay relevant”) with every new (but really kind of old) trend. I hate the ageism that’s thrown her way, but watching her forced “I’m sexxy I’m cool I’m sexxy I’m cool I’M SEXY AND COOL GODDAMMIT” performances is painful. Of course women in their 50s are still sexual, but their sexualities, one would hope, have advanced beyond that professed by 20-year-olds. And I wish, in her efforts to (supposedly) push boundaries, that Madonna would push past the conventional, inauthentic, superficial performance of sexuality presented by objectified 20-year-old girls. She knows better, I’m sure.
I watched her performance on Jimmy Fallon last week, in her grills (please no), humping the air along to what I suppose is meant to be some kind of party anthem, and the whole thing just felt awkward.
Not because I think Madonna is old or gross or needs to cover up. She is none of those things — not even close. But because the whole thing just felt so forced.
This week’s big news is that, during her performance at Coachella, she caught Drake off-guard by making out on his face. He seemed surprised and not particularly enamoured with the PDA which, of course, led many internetters to hurl ageist comments her way (the Daily Mail felt it necessary to point out, several times, that she is a “mother-of-four” — I mean, do mothers even have lips??). But to me, the gross-out factor had nothing to do with age, but rather Madonna’s efforts to be rebellious and to show an empowered female sexuality that takes what she wants, with confidence, that just doesn’t feel very sexy, never mind challenging.
I realize how almost-impossible it is to age, as women, in our culture — we’re made invisible when we are no longer objectifiable but also mocked if perceived as trying to be “young.” I don’t want Madonna to be either. She knows as well as we all do that women have to play the game to stay relevant in mainstream media, but surely what she has enough money and power, at this point in her career, to be able to be a little less “safe” in her choices… And while I’m certain this performance is meant to be perceived as anything but “safe,” it is the least risky choice Madonna could possibly have made.
Was she so overtaken by lust for Drake in that moment? Likewise, was she just feeling super passionate towards Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 VMAs? Of course not. It’s all staged and none of it has to do with passion or lust. And while almost everything pop stars do is staged and planned, knowing that doesn’t change the transparency of Madonna’s efforts to play along.
Those who defended her responded as they always do: “Madonna is 56. She’s doing what she loves. She’s vital and creative.”
But is she really?
Not only has she attempted to co-opt hip hop culture in a rather embarrassing way, but she’s refused to even try to imagine or present a sexual woman as anything beyond that of the completely contrived performances we see from young women who have zero wisdom, are completely detached from their own authentic sexuality, prevented from even accessing it as they’re told “sexy” depends entirely on that which the male gaze deems to be so. Her girl-on-girl makeout? Please. That was merely a replication of the performances young women put on for horny bros at the bar that have nothing to do with lesbianism or “bisexuality.” Making out with Drake maybe would be fun, but this particular make out didn’t look fun or hot for either party.
Why is Madonna still trying to play this game? Isn’t she beyond all that?
A bad bitch doesn’t just pull the same, tired, clichéd tricks out of the bag in an effort to stay relevant. A rebel doesn’t just fall back on the same formula forced upon boring, vapid pop stars. And a 50-something woman who is comfortable, confident, in touch and in charge of her own sexuality isn’t so stupid to confuse the kinds of performances of sexuality that have absolutely nothing to do with female desire and everything to do with selling youth and consumable female bodies with feminist boundary-pushing.
Madonna isn’t old, she isn’t unattractive, she isn’t talentless. What’s disappointing about these performances is that she comes off as someone who just isn’t very interesting or creative. Someone who has no sexuality to speak of. And you would think — or hope — that after being a successful artist for 30-odd years and a human for 50, you would have learned a thing or two about yourself and have come to say “fuck it” to the performances of “sexy” imposed on young women. Watching 20-year-olds trying to pretend these performances represent authentic “sexuality” is bad enough. Watching some who knows better and who no longer has to play along just makes me sad.