So she bares her bottom on stage. What a shame her critics don't get her message.
When Madonna got her bum out on stage in Rome in June, I was delighted. I don't know why anyone complained. Have you seen the footage? It's pure, old-fashioned, summer entertainment. It proves that however powerful the forces of cultural change, however hi-tech and diversified our "infotainment streams", and however tastes may wax and wane, there is still nothing funnier than seeing someone's trousers fall down in public.
In the clip, Madonna (singing Human Nature) turns her back on the crowd. Suddenly, artfully, the pinstripe trousers slip down to knee height, revealing fishnet underwear. It's a marvellous 21st-century take on Kenneth Connor. If they ever remake Carry On Girls, Madonna absolutely must play Mayor Bumble.
The thing is, I'm sure she meant it to be funny. In the original video for this song, back in 1995, there was a bondage scene where she licked a chihuahua. (That isn't a euphemism.) It was definitely a joke.
That original video is quite amusing. Its title, Human Nature, suggests quite strongly that she is trying to make a point.
A couple of weeks before Bumgate, performing the same song in Istanbul, Madonna pulled her bra down and popped out a nipple. I found that less funny. But Madonna is a gutsy, fifty-something, Italian-American Catholic doing a particular kind of comedy: a European-style, circus-style, commedia dell'arte sort of performance, clowning and dancing and flashing to satirise repression. I'm English; I laugh at trousers falling down, but tut at nipple.
Elton John looks dafter than either of us, however, when he says (as he did on an Australian chat show) that Madonna "looks like a f****** fairground stripper".
Now, bitchy middle-aged women (among whom I include Elton John) have been moaning about Madonna's "raunchy tour" for months, claiming she is "too old" for this "sexy" behaviour – as though they weren't making the same shocked noises when she did it at 25. Men (who really weren't) just say it's time she "put it away".
But you'd hope that Sir Elton, a fellow artist, a hugely talented musician, a sensitive and nuanced performer – and not even a heterosexual – would know better than to drag this down to whether or not Madonna looks attractive. How basic and boring; how primitive and predictable.
Of course she doesn't look attractive. Have you seen those sinews? She looks like John Hurt having a bath. Whoever keeps letting her into that gym should be shot.
This is comforting for fuller-figured women everywhere. (Remember, the average British woman is now size 406.) We may sob over the unattainable beauty of a Jessica Ennis, but trusty Madonna is there to reassure us that being fit can also look terrible. By 53, you really need to be scarfing a few doughnuts if you don't want to go all stringy. Give her another five years and she'll look like PG Wodehouse.
But Madonna isn't asking to be found attractive. She isn't asking for anything. She never has. Her exposed nipples were only ever two fingers up to bourgeois sensibility. That seems like old hat now – except she's doing it in her 50s. Meanwhile, society is still stuck in a debate about whether she looks pretty enough to justify it. The point is so very much not got.
There's a spate of younger pop stars who strip with wearying winsomeness, as though Madonna never existed: Katy Perry in bunny ears, chest smeared with candy floss; Rihanna (her skin increasingly, suspiciously pale) sucking her thumb or dribbling ice cream. Their expressions and costumes scream: "Don't be scared! I'm not a woman, I'm just a 'ickle girl! Still scary? Then I'm not a girl, I'm a lollipop! Just a harmless ice-creamy lollipop!"
Somehow, it reminds me of exam boards allowing children to take "media studies" or "the history of texting" for GCSE. I want to say: if you make it too damn easy, they'll despise you. Grow up and show them the algebra.
Madonna never pretended to be an ice cream sundae and she's not pretending now. She's grown up, she's difficult, she's algebra. It's not about flirting. There she is, flexing her sinews and flashing her fishnet arse as she sings old lyrics that dare you to judge her.
To actually then judge her… to fall into the trap of pronouncing on whether she should or shouldn't take her clothes off… it's just embarrassing to be so many steps behind. It's like complaining that Picasso wasn't good at doing faces.
Meanwhile, I haven't heard Elton criticising Mick Jagger, still humping the mike stand and growling Start Me Up. Or Tom Jones, winking and grinding, swivelling his leather pelvis (and that's before the trousers go on). Or Rod Stewart. Or Elton himself, in Vegas, collaborating with David LaChapelle on a film so camp it could host an ITV game show by itself.
I'm not criticising, either; I wouldn't want to see any of those men slipping into nylon slacks and gardening. I'm just pointing out: you can't go back to the 1980s and find one of those guys who's still visible and sexual 30 years later. It's all of them. And the women… it's one. Just one.
When did you last hear anything of Cyndi Lauper? Paula Abdul bothered you much lately? Janet Jackson is gardening.
But Madonna… she just won't give it all up for Bovril and Time Team. There's something exhilarating about that. Her stripping shtick was never about stripping; it's about not being restrained. About not being told you can't or shouldn't. It's a metaphor.
I bet a 10-year-old Madonna fan is a lot more likely to become an astronaut than a 10-year old Rihanna fan.