Madonna rails against ageism in the media, but the truth is harsher than that, writes Jo Ellison of the Financial Times.
"To say that I was disappointed in the article would be an understatement," wrote Madonna on Instagram after reading the recent New York Times magazine cover story and interview dedicated to the singer, "Madonna at Sixty".
She expressed her outrage at both the "never-ending comments about my age which would never have been mentioned had I been a MAN!", as well as the author's "focus on trivial and superficial matters such as the ethnicity of my stand-in or the fabric of my curtains".
People like myself, who subsequently raced to the news website in the hope of discovering whether Madge prefers her drapes dressed in velvet or jacquard, however, will have been crushed to discover such information absent. Instead they would have found a generally reverential piece written by features writer Vanessa Grigoriadis, a long-term fan who first heard the "household icon" when she was 11 and sang along to her performance of Like a Virgin at a Madison Square Garden concert in 1985 "without understanding what the word meant".
Although the interview wasn't quite the usual hagiography one has come to expect of the modern celebrity profile, it's hard to see what had Madonna spluttering with rage. Perhaps, as has been customary over the course of her decades-long career, and on the eve of a new record (her 14th studio album, Madame X, is released this week), she was simply poking the embers of a marketing campaign that then ignited, very successfully, at her bidding. I suspect, however, that it wasn't the mention of "60" thrumming throughout the copy that caused the singer such grief, but another indignity entirely. The tiny whisper that Madonna has entered the age of irrelevance.
Grigoriadis was once her biggest fan. I, too, listened to True Blue on repeat, devising a dance routine in its honour as well as incorporating fingerless lace gloves into my daily uniform of Eighties expat chic. But the article seemed to be explaining her greatness, rather than assuming it, and the numbers don't lie: Madonna's last album, Rebel Heart, was her worst selling yet. Her Instagram following (13.8m) is a fraction of that claimed by younger female stars such as Miley Cyrus (94.5m) or Ariana Grande (154m), both latter-day incarnations of the empowered femininity and sexual liberation first embodied by the singer. And her new single, I Rise, has garnered 2.46m views on YouTube since its release in May, fewer than half the number of people who have in the past three days checked out the latest footage of Korean pop sensation BTS finessing a dance routine.
Discovering that no one really cares for your once potent, valued point of view is pretty ghastly: I'm still nursing the bruise my ego suffered when FT Weekend "retired" me for being too old to contribute to the millennial issue last year. For Madonna, who, according to Grigoriadis, once "literally controlled the light around her", the slide into irrelevance must be brutal.
The new album might be phenomenal. A stunning return to form. This paper has awarded it an inconsequential three stars — which is about the most irrelevant rating ever — but surely it's near-impossible to sustain career longevity when your creative persona is still entwined with a pose of cultural significance and fruity post-adolescent pulpesse.
Ageism isn't the issue here. No one is bothered that Patti Smith is 72. The 53-year-old Björk is always current because her work is predicated on her being otherworldly kooky. Kate Bush remains hypnotic as a hermit savant. Arguably the reason they continue to captivate the zeitgeist is because they never seemed to care about it in the first place.
None of us will be spared from eventual obsolescence, but while most of us only learn the extent of our irrelevance when we realise we are mentally incapable of programming the Sky box, or have become the last refusenik to subscribe to the office's new "collaboration hub", it's a far bleaker world for creatives who must suffer the ignominy of age while simultaneously having fame wrested from their fingertips by younger models.
In a rare moment of industry candour, while speaking at the FT luxury summit last month, fashion designer Jonathan Anderson dared to talk about his own creative lifespan. "I'm already dealing with the idea that one day I will no longer be fashionable," the 34-year-old told the audience. "Creativity has a shelf life. No one is safe."
He speaks the truth. But Anderson is lucky. Still only a child by industry standards, and currently riding the crest of comfortable critical and commercial success, he can afford to be blasé about his future. For older creatives, the spectre of irrelevance hovers far closer: it was perhaps this fear that compelled the late designer Karl Lagerfeld to produce some 16 collections, under three different brand names, every year until his death at 85, and what drove him to remain so relentlessly curious. On his death, he may not have been the most modish designer, but he kept his bejewelled finger on the pulse. And his prescience was spooky.
Madonna, meanwhile, is caught up in introspection. And getting tangled up in her press. She may still control the light, but instead of looking at the world, she's gazing at her navel. And there's nothing less relevant than that.
Written by: Jo Ellison
© Financial Times