Thursday, July 19, 2012

Smug criticisms of Madonna and endless Gaga comparisons are a victory for ageism and misogyny

On Tuesday night Madonna brought her MDNA tour to England, performing a show in Hyde Park that was witty, narrative and relentlessly energetic, as well as the ridiculous spectacle you would expect from the Queen of Pop. After emerging on stage from a confession box brandishing a firearm, she wasted no time in introducing slackline walking, video screen cameos from hip-hop heavyweights, a troop of military drummers suspended from the ceiling, and much more.
My friends and I were enthralled throughout the two hour experience, screaming and clapping at Madonna’s various gymnastics, jokes and the moments of meritable vocal performance, agreeing in the post-concert buzz that the vibrancy and cleverness of MDNA leaves her previous tour lying in the dust.
Aside from the fair point that the sound could have done with being a great deal louder, criticisms of the concert have been overwhelmingly predictable. Renowned antagonist Piers Morgan, whose never-ending throwing of cheap insults at Madonna in a bid for column inches to boost his plummeting American TV career, is echoed by others who seem to have adopted his trite view that Madonna is too old to attempt business-as-usual in her pop career. This view fatally overlooks the artifice of any pop personality. You do not go to a gig to find out about a real individual, their favourite food, their personal details – indeed, their age. When Eminem murders his mother in a music video, do we really think he is at high-risk of committing matricide? When Rihanna sings “chains and whips excite me” do we really believe that she is a depraved frequenter of S&M dungeons? No, we do not.

So when Madonna, looking great, convincingly performs with more verve than much younger singers, does the trivia of the ‘real’ woman’s age actually matter? Well, only if you let it; which would indicate a pretty poor ability to separate your critical faculties from what you read on the Mail online (who have drawn attention to the fact that some have said the show didn’t have enough old hits to entertain a casual fan). Madonna’s MDNA album was No. 1 on iTunes across the world, so those who didn’t expect her to play a lot of the new songs are too gormless to be sympathised with. What kind of ‘casual fan’ spends £77 to go and see someone they’re not that into, anyway?
It goes without saying that the McCartneys, Springsteens and Dylans of the world – admirably unaware of any sell-by date on their ability – at worst suffer a few friendly jibes from the press; a jocular ‘not quite as good as he used to be but good on him for trying!’ Criticisms levelled at Madonna however are often snide and venomous in their refusal to recognise her talent. If a woman’s worth is in youth and subservience, then the aged and defiant Madonna is no good to us; an embarrassment.
I do have one problem with Tuesday’s concert, however. Almost as vexing as people’s inability to discuss Madonna without quipping about her age, is the fact that these days you can’t seem to mention Madonna or Lady Gaga independently of each other. Comparisons in the press and internet warring between fans is rife as ever, yet as recording artists they are really not that similar. That’s right. Or at least, not as similar as legions of beardy male singer-songwriters or hundreds of dirgey Indie rock bands, one truly completely indistinguishable from the next, whose sameness is never addressed. These unfounded comparisons seem to be the burden of female artists only, and should be exposed and discussed for the inequality they are.
So when Madonna performed a mash-up of ‘Express Yourself’, with excerpts of Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’, has even she fallen prey to this trap of sexism in her industry? Well, I hope not. But if there was any ambiguity about whether the mash-up was meant as a sisterly tribute or a cheeky dig, it is soon cleared up by Madonna singing lines from her 2008 album track ‘She’s Not Me’. Although it was funny, it is disheartening to think that the trend for thoughtlessly homogenising female artists has informed Madonna’s creative choices. But at the same time why should Madonna ignore the link people are making between her and Gaga – however false or exaggerated it may be? In chanting ‘she’s not me’ Madge is reminding us of a significant truth –Madonna isn’t Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga isn’t Madonna. We’d do well to remember it.
The irony of accusing Madonna of having grown desperate, as brainless articles like this have, seems to be lost on many forgetful people. This is a woman whose first forays into the public eye involved rolling around on stage in a wedding dress and showing her pants. If she is desperate now, she always has been. And if that ‘desperation’ spurs her to continue inspiring, entertaining, making money and having fun then I say hoo-fucking-ray. The MDNA tour is on track to be among the highest-grossing ever. If I had her job, I wouldn’t want to quit either.