I was surfing through radio stations in my car when I first heard Madonna’s latest single, “Bitch, I’m Madonna.” Her new album had been in the press, more due to her recent attention-grabbing antics than the music itself — the topless photos, the skirt that she flipped up to expose her well-toned tush to photographers — but Madonna has always courted controversy. I’d seen her simulate masturbation on stage and pretend to give a blow job to a bottle in the 1991 documentary Truth or Dare; if I was ever scandalized by Madonna, those days are long gone. But listening to “Bitch, I’m Madonna” made me change the station in disgust. I wasn’t shocked, and I wasn’t titillated. Really, I was just bored.
Look, I grew up with Madonna. I was a fan. I stacked black rubber bracelets on my arms because she did. I attempted to style my bad perm into her tousled waves. I watched and re-watched Desperately Seeking Susan wishing that I could cultivate her “I don’t give a shit” attitude. Through her music, she told girls that it was okay for us to talk about our sexuality. To be strong. To question our boyfriends, our parents, even our churches. She gave that to all of us.
I stuck with Madonna through my 20s with albums like Ray of Light and Music, but my interest in her waned after that. Now, listening to her new album, auto-tuned and focus-grouped to death, I mourn the Madonna of my youth because she is really and truly gone.
I’ve heard the arguments between those who think that Madonna should act more dignified at this age and those who insist that she can be whoever she wants to be. Indeed, Madonna has always been raunchy, always been more interested in pushing buttons than being liked. None of this offends me. I love that Madonna is in kick-ass shape, and I don’t blame her for showing off the body she’s worked so hard for. She has said that sexism and ageism are related, which is an astute observation, and I applaud her for fighting both.She might have invented the culture that spawned Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj, but she’s not adding anything to it anymore.
I do, however, take issue with those who insist that Madonna is just being herself — that we shouldn’t ask her to be anyone other than who she is. Because here’s the thing: It’s not about Madonna being Madonna. When have we ever known exactly who that is? Take a look at the video for “Bitch, I’m Madonna.” It’s packed with references to her previous incarnations, from the girls dressed up in “Like a Virgin”-style white dresses to Beyoncé voguing. Madonna has always been about the performance — not just on stage or screen, but the performance of her identity. She’s been a party girl, a bride, a dominatrix, a cowgirl, a geisha, a goth. She’s been Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. She sometimes speaks with a pseudo-British accent of her own invention.
And this is what made her brilliant. This is why I loved her. She chose who she wanted to be, and she made us all want to be her. And just when we’d all caught up, she’d decide that she was ready for a change and choose to be someone else. And we all followed her again.
Now, though, she’s the follower. Her current video seems absurdly focused on youth culture, from the celebrity cameos to the grill she wears on her teeth to the collaboration with Nicki Minaj. The music is not innovative. “Bitch, I’m Madonna” sounds like any other song you’d hear on Top 40 radio — really, it seems designed to sound like any other song. Madonna isn’t standing out anymore. Instead, she seems desperate to fit in.
One might argue that the video is ironic, a reference to the fact that she invented the genre and everyone now is trying to emulate her. She might as well be screaming, “I made all of this!” Even the references to her former videos seem to be there to remind us that she’s been around for a long time, honey. To me, though, it just seems as though she’s tagging along in an attempt to stay relevant. She might have invented the culture that spawned Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj, but she’s not adding anything to it anymore.
So let’s take Madonna’s latest performed identity at face value. If she is showing the world what “a woman of a certain age” can look like, what can we say about that representation? In “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” she stumbles drunkenly through a club, pressing herself up against strangers half her age, writhing and falling down in a hallway. This isn’t shocking to me as much as it is confusing. You see, I am also a woman of a certain age. What I want to ask Madonna is this: If you’re really fighting ageism, if you’re interested in pushing boundaries for women as they age, then tell me, where are all of the middle-aged women in your videos? I’m 13 years younger than you, and it’s like I’m still too old to be hanging out with you. You’re clubbing with kids. You’re dressing like a cheerleader. Remember Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused? The creepy adult who hangs out at the high school because they were the best years of his life and he just can’t move on? Don’t be that guy, Madonna.
It’s possible, of course, that the real issue is that while Madonna has managed to stay young, I have grown old. I can’t party all night anymore; I get tired at 9pm. I’d rather snuggle under a blanket and watch Netflix than go clubbing. I have no desire to get falling-down drunk, either, since my kids will wake me up in the morning whether I’m hung over or not. But is that really a bad thing? Does fighting ageism mean acting like a teenager? Does it have to?
I’d love to see Madonna become a leader again. I’d love to see her perform a middle-aged female identity that doesn’t borrow so heavily from kids in their teens and twenties. I’d love for her to once again create music that’s new and different and fresh — something that everyone else would rush to copy. I’d buy that album in a heartbeat.
Come back to us, Material Girl. I miss you.