Madonna Louise Ciccone is about to turn 60, a 'big birthday' by anybody’s reckoning. I remember her at the time of her breakthrough 1983 single, Holiday, a mischievous mess of bangles and swinging crucifixes, boasting that she was so hot that you could fry an egg on her belly button. From that point on, Madonna was omnipresent - confrontational, audacious, sexual, occasionally annoying and weirdly vulnerable (brought up in a strict Italian-American Catholic family, Madonna’s mother died when she was a child).
She pounded through personas (boy toy, material girl, Hollywood royalty, dancefloor vixen, gangsta momma,), like an all-singing all-dancing one-woman variety show. It was never just about the music. Madonna embodied the devilish voice in your ear, saying: 'Why not?' A pop queen with a big dirty rock mouth, she was one of the first great influencers, daring at least a couple of generations of girls and young women (not to mention all her loyal gay fans) to be bolder, stronger and, crucially, a ton less humble and apologetic.
The ironic question 'What would Madonna do?' isn’t still doing the rounds for nothing.
No surprise, then, that witch-burners have long been out in force against Madonna. She’s been called everything: ball-breaker, whore, user, crone, narcissist, talent-vampire. Vulgar taste-free zone. While taking criticism is part of the fame gig, it was as though Madonna served as a cautionary tale for women who get too darn uppity.
In truth, popular culture still reeks of Madonna’s influence for a good reason: she’s earned it. Far from being a shallow shape-shifter, she always knew her way around a pop classic (her oeuvre is full of them), and developed a flair for choosing talented collaborators to keep her music fresh. Moreover, back when she could have played it safe, Madonna called herself an artist and acted like one, tirelessly reinventing herself. From plonking a black saint in the Like a Prayer video to putting out a book called Sex, at the peak of her fame, just about everything Madonna did alienated middle America, because she wanted to define the zeitgeist, not merely reflect it.
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