Summer vacation 1987. My sister and I are sitting in the back with my father, on our way to a Breton holiday home. He has something for us, he says, a surprise. We can guess. We spring up; Both our birthdays are coming up, so expectations are skyrocketing by the minute. Warm, he says when the name Madonna is mentioned. But what, then what? Poster, record, book, agenda?
He fumbles in his bag and pulls out four tickets: Who’s That Girl World Tour, Feijenoord Stadium Rotterdam, 26 August. Section O – very high and far from the stage, but we don’t know that yet. We explode with happiness, as real and mature as this feels. Two girlfriends are allowed to join – we already know who. The cards will be on our fake wood bedside table, trophy and promise all together throughout the holiday. Our holiday pocket money goes to French magazines that are full of La Madone. She’s everywhere.
Madonna, Maddy, Madge, M.
It is impossible to put into words how much you have meant to me, to my sister, to our entire generation of women without falling into clichés – it has all been said and written, we are part of an army of millions. For us you were the first, with everything: a singing, dancing, jogging business woman, an unmade boy girl and a cover model, a party animal and a serious art collector, who introduced us as teenagers to Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Whatever fantasy we dared to entertain about ourselves, you lived it out as if it were self-evident. Our brothers and fathers thought you were ‘sexy’, but our mothers understood the underlying message of self-respect and self-determination; your music was always on.
The second large cohort of stalwarts was found in gay circles; your contribution to the normalization of homosexuality in pop music and far beyond is unique, and also in retrospect shows tremendous courage.
And our childhood was not over. You traveled with us well into adulthood, remaining relevant and interesting for decades to come. Besides the men and the kids, the new haircuts and the bad movies (sorry, recovery – evita was nice) the hits just kept coming. Whenever there was a moment of silence – around your first pregnancy, for example, or during your English phase as a children’s book author in pleated skirt – you came back with a bang: Ray of Light (1998) and Confessions on a Dance Floor (2006) are such catchy, tightly produced albums that they have proved timeless.
Of course it couldn’t stay this beautiful. Love is a struggle, and so is fan love. When I read my own pieces about you in this newspaper I have to chuckle: what a mop. In one article I defend you fervently, in another I viciously break down a new acting attempt or aesthetic intervention and break it up haughtily. The only constant is my sister, who I am talking about you to this day. Because that’s the bottom line, M: you’re still keeping us busy.
Feast of Recognition
The reason for this writing is a happy one: today the online release of sixteen songs from Finally Enough Love: 50 Number Onesas a foretaste of a triple album to be released on August 19 with remixes of your fifty (!) greatest dance hits. 50 Number Ones comes out on Warner, your old label, where you returned last year. Warner is going to take good care of your oeuvre: in the coming years deluxe versions of the original albums will also be released, beautifully designed no doubt, with perks for the fans.
the remixed Number Ones are a feast of recognition – insofar as Madonna hits have ever disappeared from the public domain. Most of the adaptations are playful, inventive additions to an oeuvre that is rock solid. Towards the end, however, the steady dilution of the typical Madonna sound, genius in its simplicity, starts to stand out; the lists of co-authors become longer, the lyrics less accurate, the musical accompaniment more of a quest. Madam Xthe latest new album (2019), had such a changeable atmosphere that I found it a bit of a mess, unlike the mostly praising critics.
Live performance, another area in which you excelled despite your limited singing voice, is becoming increasingly difficult. Your guest appearance on the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv in 2019 was so crammed with extras and set pieces that you seemed to disappear between them, and you sounded like a crow here and there. During the Madame X theater tour, you were teased by a serious knee injury† You showed up last month during a concert from Colombian idol Maluma (28) and you seemed to struggle to keep up with the pace. Online, your fans are concerned. Are you okay?
Now we come to a precarious point. Because while I Number Ones on repeat, I couldn’t resist for a while today your Instagram to click on – an almost masochistic impulse by now, and today too it was a shock. In a six-second video, your black corset strapped bum wobbled at me. “Who’s the Daddy…” was the caption. It took a while before the penny dropped: this was your contribution to Father’s Day. 1.1 million views.
M, from us, your fans, you can have everything, however old you are – don’t accuse us of ‘ageism’ or ‘sexism’, because then we would have left much earlier. Against the hatred and disdain of conservative forces that you certainly had to resist during the first half of your now forty-year career, there was always our devotion, our applause – it made you a multimillionaire, but apparently it wasn’t enough. How serious is a title like Finally Enough Love to take if you keep producing this kind of stupid clickbait? And for whom? You’ve made nudity more acceptable yourself, buttocks are now ubiquitous – and they don’t even look like yours anymore. Your whole smooth-smoothed appearance—cheeks, lips, eyes, breasts—is missing the character that always captivated us.
Madonna is at least still there, you often hear in defense, and indeed: your contemporaries and competitors Prince, Michael Jackson, George Michael and Whitney Houston are no longer with us. But Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Debbie Harry, Cher, Cindy Lauper and Annie Lennox are all still there. Older than you, also put through the cracks by the beast called the pop industry, but still standing and even, insofar as such a thing can be judged by their scarcer public expressions, end up in the freer, happier phase of life that you wish for people with such a record.
Tina Turner wrote a Buddhist-inspired guide for fortune seekers in 2020, Happiness Becomes You† Stevie Nicks is on a small US tour and loves her puppies. Annie Lennox takes selfies of her unmade, deeply wrinkled face and warns of climate change. Diana Ross celebrated her 78th birthday with all her children and grandchildren – “I am so grateful for all the blessings in my life” – and performed at the Jubilee in London earlier this month, wearing a wide skirt of white tulle.
And you, Madonna, what are you doing? Your last courtship just ended – Ahlamalik Williams could have been your son, but you don’t hear us about that. You were always anti-drugs – now you’re a fan of “opiates,” as you boredly told talk show host Jimmy Kimmel last year, and you slurp on a bong with a group of twenty-somethings in heavily photoshopped photos. Everyone sticks their tongue out all the time and no one laughs. You hardly smile at all anymore. Lourdes, your eldest daughter, said in a rare interview last year that you still work hard and are up until three in the morning; in addition to the Fifty Number Ones an autobiographical film project is in the pipeline, written and directed by yourself. Contradiction of a strong director like Alek Keshishian (In Bed With Madonna) or Alan Parker (evita) you obviously don’t tolerate it anymore. We hold our hearts.
Unfollowing is like quitting smoking for a nicotine addict – I can do it, but whether it works is another matter. My sister has better medicine: she regularly digs out of the fan-maintained Madonna digital archives beautiful picturescurious tv interviews† sound checks† speeches and what not. There is an insane amount, always and everywhere someone was ready with a camera or a video recorder, and we still don’t know everything. Perhaps the past should supplant the present for the time being.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 23, 2022