In the video for “Bitch I’m Madonna,” a party anthem released last Wednesday, the pop star of the title, in a clingy Moschino leopard-print dress, hot-pink coif and gold teeth grills, romps through the corridors of the Standard hotel along Manhattan’s High Line. “The bass is pumping,” she sings, adding a suggestive phrase before gleefully making out with some guy in the hallway.
Madonna will turn 57 in August. As she has repeatedly pointed out, her age is not going to slow her down. “Shut up jealous bitches!” she wrote recently on her Instagram account. “I hope you are as fun loving and adventurous as me when you’re my age!!!! Hahahhahaha let’s see.”
But the subject of her advancing years dominates seemingly every conversation about her, as she has become a crusader, willingly or not, against age discrimination. As someone who once tracked her closely, I have watched with queasy fascination her attempts to navigate the undeniable fact that she is growing older before our eyes in an era of obsessive self-documentation and rampant oversharing — one that she had a direct hand in creating.
Over the last several months of Madonna’s publicity for her latest album, “Rebel Heart,” I toggle between indignation at the barrage of old-lady jokes (her tumble at the Brit Awards provoking feigned concern about a broken hip) and embarrassment at her febrile determination to be the world’s youngest, raunchiest 56-year-old. It’s relentless: the awkward onstage kiss with Drake, the topless shot in Interview magazine, the strenuous demonstrations of libido. Alongside an Instagrammed photo of the male model Andrea Denver, she wrote “8 pac! Hell to the Yeah!” (This was followed by three heart emojis and a thumbs up.)
When Madonna lifted her Givenchy matador costume to flash her fishnet-encased derrière on the Grammys red carpet, I reacted first with a kind of clinical admiration (her workouts must be intense, given the muscle mass you lose starting in your 30s), followed by prim disapproval (come on, it’s not as if photographers are going to ignore you if you don’t flash them). Why does she have the seemingly compulsive need to shock and titillate, drawing from a playbook that is now over three decades old? Yes, she is constantly reinventing herself, but is she evolving? “There comes a time in every Salome’s life,” Harvey Fierstein once wrote, “when she should no longer be dropping the last veil.” Has the queen of reinvention reached that point?
Certainly, when it comes to her aging process, belief is easy to suspend. Her skin is flawless, as evinced by the photo she posted from inside the Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sandwiched between the much younger Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. Then there is her preternaturally toned frame, honed by grueling workouts a reported six days a week and showed off in Versace ad campaigns.
Much of the hand-wringing around her age focuses on her lack of dignity. But she’s not a United Nations ambassador — she’s a pop star. And let’s not forget that when pop stars now shoot whipped cream out of their bras and wear dresses made of meat, it’s because they are trying to clear the bar she set.
In her 1991 documentary film, “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” cameras were voyeuristic, which seemed radical then and eerily prophetic now: Here is Madonna slurping soup while chatting on the phone, there is Madonna getting her throat examined by a doctor. “She doesn’t want to live off camera, much less talk,” said Warren Beatty, her boyfriend at the time.
Now we all live constantly on camera, busily Instagramming and tweeting our every move. Madonna’s throat exam is demure compared with “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” on which we would not be surprised to see a high colonic recorded for posterity.
Kanye West, a Kardashian in-law, calls Madonna “the greatest visual musical artist that we’ve ever had.” Her music videos — over 60 — helped define the genre; she has had more No. 1 singles (45) than anyone. Along with Michael Jackson, she expanded the video form from a routine performance — or, in the early days, a goofy skit shot on a paltry budget — into four minutes of emotionally layered storytelling.
In 2000, back when the narrative was easier to control, I interviewed her for the cover story in Rolling Stone. Our chat was to take place in her office at Maverick Records in Los Angeles. Sick with nerves, I showed up an hour early — I had been told she doesn’t tolerate lateness — and sat in front of the building, trying to calm my hammering heart.
She was witty, well read and told amusing stories, such as her worst job as a teenager in Michigan: a house cleaner, scrubbing the toilets at the homes of the popular boys.
I wormed my way into the bathroom adjoining her office, opened the cabinet and dutifully cataloged the contents for my friends: a bottle of Fracas perfume, a geranium facial spray from a company called Tree of Life (which we all ran out and bought) and La Mer face lotion.
She was fine-boned and tiny, even though she was heavily pregnant at the time with her son Rocco. At one point, I had to help her, puffing, out of a chair. It was odd to see a person celebrated for her superhuman strength so physically vulnerable.
Now I see her as vulnerable in a different way, the constant products from her outrage-generator obscuring her talent. The strange thing is that like her triceps, her voice is stronger than ever, most notably in March during a live performance of “Ghosttown” at the iHeartRadio Music Awards, with no horned dancers, just Taylor Swift strumming guitar. (What better testament to Madonna’s power than to get one of the biggest stars on the planet to be your backup player.)
Among the most intriguing tracks on “Rebel Heart” is the simple, haunting “Joan of Arc,” in which she reveals that contrary to belief, the haters do burrow under her skin. “Each time they write a hateful word,” she sings, “dragging my soul into the dirt/I wanna die.”
In interviews, Madonna has repeatedly said that she is kicking down the doors so that the women following her will not have to deal with ageism. Perhaps she has begun to change the paradigm already: People magazine selected Sean Connery as its Sexiest Man Alive at age 59 (and bald as a cantaloupe), while 42 (Halle Berry in 2008) is the current ceiling for Esquire’s Sexiest Woman Alive.
“I take care of myself; I’m in good shape,” she told a reporter after her Grammys flash, with some epithets for good measure. She can show her bare bottom, she pointed out, “when I’m 56 or 66 — or 76.”
She can, she very well might, and the world will probably still be talking about her. Since I’ve probably seen her derrière more often than I’ve seen my own at this point, I won’t be clicking on those photos.
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