She's the prism through which women and ageing is reflected, but refuses to play by the rules
by susanmoore of the uk guardian
Madonna … what's not to like? Photograph: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
God, I am exhausted and I haven't even started. At my age, your knees creak, you feel constantly tired, your features start sliding down your face, you are forever in some souped-up cardy or improbable shrug because of the "arms crisis", and, as if that were not enough, you have to compare yourself to bloomin' Madonna in her bra and knickers. I have always compared myself to her, not because I am an all-singing/dancing army of one, but because she is always there: the prism through which women and ageing are refracted. Her relentless quest for hipness, her groin thrusted into my face, her humourless attempts at self-deprecating ordinariness, her trying-on of personae – the hunting, shooting, fishing/lady author who likes a pint one was particularly bad. All of this drives me mad. But then, like any old flame, she reminds me suddenly of the original fire by doing what she does best. I love that she annoys so many with her collection of children/boyfriends/dancers, that she will insist on making another record, and that she does not know the meaning of "age appropriate".
A woman doing as she damn well pleases pleases me, but the debate is tired. Should she be more "dignified"? Like, say, Mick Jagger? Should she even wear fishnet tights?
This, of course, has upset Liz Jones in the Daily Mail. I confess I don't look like Liz or Madge, but I didn't know fishnets over the age of 50 were actually illegal. Jones seems to think only a shroud will do. I presume Prada does a nice one. "After 50 you have no erogenous zones. Accept it. Move on. Cover up," says Jones.
Actually, this "Please put it away, Madonna" schtick" has been going on for 30 years through the cut-off belly tops, conical bras and leotards to the new short shorts. My daughters also find her now generally "old and disgusting". As for bringing in Nicki Minaj, my 21-year-old sternly told me: "That is bad, Mum. She is basically selling sex to young girls." Well I should coco? Isn't that what music is for? Selling sex. To girls. And boys. And gays. MDNA returns Madonna precisely to this arena where the alchemy of female desire and pure ambition sync joyously. The dancefloor is the place where barriers melt away: at its best this music represents a transcendence and liberation that no other genre achieves. It is about the physicality of sex and sweat and chemicals, which Madonna appropriates, calling it MDNA while refusing drugs. In come the superstar DJs, MIA and Minaj – all part of the bricolage as Madonna hedges her bets. This is the divorce album, apparently. She possibly wants to shoot Guy Ritchie in the head (who doesn't, frankly?) and boasts that she can do 10 things at once (again, who can't?). It is only when she is back with producer William Orbit that it really works, but then Orbit could make the national anthem sound like a trippy globule of loss and lust.
That the music is secondary to the spectacle does not mean it does not sell, though I know no one who buys her or ever thought she was cool. If you want dance music, go straight to the sources that she pilfers from.
What I do rate, though, is her drive. When she turned herself from a sexual subject into a sex object for her book Sex, I attended an academic conference about her overcompensating for her "lack". They were Lacanians. Lack meant lack of a phallus. How I laughed. But I remember wondering how she would do sex and motherhood. She may not know the theories, but like any autodidact her instincts are impeccable. She simply wore a shirt that said "Mutha" on the front and "Fucker" on the back.
Oddly, though, her lyrics remain mostly inane but sometimes sadly truthful. "I traded fame for love" was the first line of Ray of Light. On MDNA she is older and has done the marriage thing. "I tried to be your wife/diminished myself, and I swallowed my light."
But the best thing remains. "Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free …"
Dancing – somehow that is what it all comes back to. Her life is a dance of control and the freedom comes from keeping moving. Her body is not so much a temple as a corporate HQ that is her business. Why should she not parade it? Her face may be full of filler, another terrible film may be in the bag, but here she is looking amazing being ravished by ripped Latinos and crying black tears. What's not to like?
The late, great Steven Wells once called her oeuvre the "carry on shagging school of feminism" but in the end it is not just about sex. What upsets people about Madonna is not her sex drive but her insatiable need to be taken seriously. She won't stop. Her work ethic is the polar opposite of what the music aspires to: losing yourself. This is why Madonna's age means nothing, not just because she looks good but because she knows the one erogenous zone that women never need to cover up is our minds. Hers is restless, insatiable and refuses to play by the rules. That is a kind of freedom most women never attain. Long may she continue to divide and rule.