Staff writer Joseph Harrison discusses the recent controversy over Madonna’s appearance at the Grammy’s, and the problematic relationship between women and ageing it speaks to.
Madonna’s legacy is hard to summarise or quantify. The impact she has had on her audiences and even societies worldwide is prodigious. She is the best-selling female artist of all time, and a continuous symbol of freedom and artistic expression. Her four-decade career has created the rulebook of pop music, and she exists in a realm of exclusive music royalty. More recently however, she has received much attention over her age and appearance, especially following her 2023 Grammy’s arrival.
Over the Christmas holidays, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Madonna perform her now famed “Blond Ambition Tour” as part of the 1991 film, “Madonna: Truth or Dare”. Madonna’s magnetism is instantly showcased during the high-energy opening number of the show, “Express Yourself” — in these five minutes it becomes apparent why she garnered such success. Her stage presence and commitment to the performance is truly remarkable. “Truth or Dare” is intimate, honest, and unfiltered in a way only Madonna could achieve, and it firmly places itself into pop culture history.
For Madonna, this era would be only the beginning of the most successful touring career on record. Nevertheless, despite this commercial success, Madonna’s career has been followed by controversy; she has been excommunicated three times, released an explicit coffee-table book simply entitled “Sex”, and has been accused of religious blasphemy countless times. Whilst she remained a controversial figure, fans only continued to adore her, and she became the superstar we know today. Her career continued and she pioneered new sounds on “Ray of Light” and “Confessions on a Dance Floor”. Both albums were critically acclaimed and a commercial success, but Madonna began to face a crueller controversy — one which she couldn’t control.
Nowadays, Madonna’s age has become a frequent topic of conversation; the tabloid press have often sought to demonise her for ageing. Her Instagram and TikTok posts have turned into places where ageist and sexist vitriol proliferate, only adding to the heartless tirade of hate that the mainstream media inflicts. She is at the mercy of a youth obsessed culture, and is often the topic of many discussions. One notable interaction occurred in October last year, when Lorraine Kelly proclaimed live on air:
“Honestly, what’s she done? She was so beautiful – why, why, why do women do this to themselves? … She looks like a boiled egg, she doesn’t look like she’s got any features … I’m cross because I really like her. I really do.”
Here, Lorraine summarised much of the ongoing hatred towards Madonna, notably targeting both her gender and her age at once. The reason behind this scathing attack was not clear, but it is nonetheless evident that her current appearance is not what society expects of a woman over the age of 60. Madonna’s case is unfortunately not rare. AARP, a US-based charity focusing on issues affecting those over 50, revealed that 75% of Americans over the age of 45 see their age as an obstacle in job hunting; they ultimately conclude that ageism is seemingly “the only acceptable form of discrimination”. Further research conducted by Forbes and Out-Wit Inc, showed that there’s “no right age” for women, as they are always seen as either too young or too old. This points to a sad reality in which men become more desirable as they age, while women are cast aside.
Lorraine’s offensive tirade was merely one of many, and attention became focused on Madonna’s age once more when she presented at the 2023 GRAMMY Awards in February. She appeared in an archival ‘97 Mugler suit, whip included, and graciously introduced Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s performance of their hit single, “Unholy”. As soon as Madonna stepped off the stage, however, the internet was already deep in discussion about how she looked. To many she was unrecognisable, and only a shadow of her former self. This discussion reached a climax when Madonna took to Instagram to make an unapologetic statement decrying press cruelty, and asking for more focus to be placed on the first trans woman performing at the Grammys.
Madonna’s age and appearance are sure to frequent the press for many years, but this is an issue that goes far beyond pop monoliths. A society that casts trailblazers like Madonna aside is certainly unfair, but Madonna will continue to reign as pop music’s rightful queen. She is clearly not planning to stop anytime soon; the energy and subversion in “The Blond Ambition Tour” is still alive in her, and will almost certainly be on show at this summer’s “Celebration Tour”. Madonna’s icon status is only further cemented by her resistance to critics, and with this attitude she will continue to have adoration globally.