If you are one of our valued readers who, nonetheless, thinks that there is no meaning to Madonna (nickname Madge) and no magnificence in her work, can I ask you to turn away now for a few minutes? Yes, yes, you say it’s only pop music, and the problem with modern music like Madonna (not modern any more) is that you can’t tell the boys from the girls, and it’s got no tune, and policemen are getting younger, and Harold Wilson has gone too far this time, but you are wrong. Madonna is magnificent and all of us who like pop music done well, tough to do, owe Madge a heartfelt happy birthday.
There’s another reason for writing this. Honestly, I can’t face writing another word right now on the horror of what is happening to the Labour party and you – I suspect – don’t want to read much more on it either. The worst of it is that the shameful anti-semitism scandal makes no discernible political difference.
So, to banish the August Labour anti-semitism blues, I’m offering instead my quick take on Madonna at 60. She passes that key milestone on Thursday. Stand by for a blizzard of “OMG I can’t believe she’s 60” features on the wireless.
Sure, her artistic and commercial peak passed 25 years ago. Her recent records have been suboptimal and there was that living in Britain, wearing tweed, and talking like a cockney phase. The less said about that the better. And the unfortunate beret phase, when she looked like Frank Spencer auditioning for a role in Les Miserables.
Anyway, let’s focus on the upside with several birthday observations.
1) We take the music for granted, possibly because – her own fault sometimes – so much emphasis at the time was put on the entertaining tabloid antics. Yet, for more than a decade she consistently hit it with her singles, from Get Into the Groove to Ray of Light, even when the albums were sometimes patchy. The big numbers are as inventive, funny, uplifting and danceable (I don’t and cannot dance, and even I can see it) as anything in the history of popular music.
2) Watch her Live Aid performance in 1985. Everyone – male music journalists mainly – goes on about Mercury, Queen, and all that cock rock rubbish. Madonna is – perhaps Bowie aside, and Jagger and Tina Turner for pure kitsch – the best on the day. The movement, the choreography, the attitude, the songs. She is utterly on her game, a star in the making. It is infectious.
3) Holiday is a poor song, but in our house whenever we haven’t had a holiday in a while, and suddenly there it is tomorrow and we’re excitedly packing our passports, the song we sing is Holiday, “be so nice.”
Finally, she deserves the credit for being the most consequential music star of the 1980s. The four titans of that era, when media was not yet fragmented by the internet and stars were known to all, were Michael Jackson, Prince, Springsteen and Madonna. Springsteen was the voice of blue collar America at a time of transition, and of all of them arguably the most interesting and consistent songwriter. His cultural impact beyond music and his devoted fans is limited though. Jackson is – for reasons that baffle me – still huge despite all the bad records such as Earth Song and the even worse scandal. Prince was great for a brief period and then after Sign O’ the Times creatively incontinent. Triple album anyone? Self-designed bad clothes? Boring rows with record companies who – the capitalist horror! – wanted hits? Prince blew it.
Madonna was the most important of the lot, as a young woman and liberating force, because of her impact on women and on men who grew up talking to partners and friends who were and are Madonna fans. Hard as nails in business, a fiercesome force, and smart as hell, she built an empire and left the whining to the pampered men.
The Madge empire in its pomp had its ludicrous aspects, of course, when she confused her impact for political or philosophical wisdom and seemed to see herself for a few months as a rival to the Pope. Her Blonde Ambition phase was glorious, even if she looked like a nightmare to deal with. And then she did that picture book Sex, in the process redefining hubris, although many a woman Madonna fan will probably claim it defined Madonna’s contribution to the development of post-1980s sexual openness. Madonna said later she intended the book to be funny. Well, the audience were laughing, as they said in Spinal Tap.
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Enough, of such petty concerns and criticisms. Madge is meaningful. Madge is magnificent.
Happy birthday Madonna.