(Golden) Material Girl

This persistent ageism when we talk about Madonna now should be disturbing to anybody who plans to live to middle age. But ageist jokes about Madonna are going to grow old long before she does, and, in the end, it is her story that will be told.
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Did you hear that Madonna -- desperate for attention and clearly irrelevant -- waved guns on stage in Scotland, just hours after people were actually shot in Colorado? Shockingly insensitive, I know. Did you also hear that a major motion picture in which gun violence is a recurring theme proceeded with its opening in over four thousand theaters in the United States alone this weekend, and that it is also the movie people were actually killed at? Probably, but that story wasn't presented the same way. Nor should it be. If anything, changing these diversions would deepen their association with a form of horrific, real-life violence that clearly neither one endorses.

Over 100 people were killed in a wave of bombings across Iraq yesterday, by the way. Anyone catch the shocker headline, "Michael Bay Not Retiring"? Neither did I.

Hating Madonna has been an international sport for decades now, but I seem to remember a higher class of criticism in the past -- and that's saying something. It even seemed to go away for a while, until she decided to get all old in our faces.

Today, people who watch her every move for a misstep report online that she has made one. Thousands of people then flood to the comments section of that story to call her old, mixing in as much misogyny as they can get away with. People get page views, impressions, and everyone waits until she dies or turns 60 to start kissing her ass again.

Let's revisit the "missteps" from the star's latest tour, shall we?

There was, of course, nipplegate, in which Madonna "strangely and randomly" exposed one of her breasts to the audience... during or soon after an on-stage costume change / strip tease act that the audience no doubt encouraged. But, hey, remove that from its context and the crazy old bag's just running around whipping out her tits! Doesn't she know she's too old to do that now?

Come on, people. We all see nipples every day and I don't believe anyone has ever died from it. If we're going to blast Madonna for bad behavior, let's start with the fact that she doesn't tip and move on to that inevitable segment in every tour in which she descends into absurd pretense for 20 minutes. (Although, to be fair, this time that seems to be the gun segment people are so concerned about.)

Prior to that, there was her "desperate for attention" transposition of a swastika on Marine Le Pen's forehead, which compelled thousands of what one can only hope were ignorant observers across the globe to defend the wildly xenophobic neo-fascist against the pop star's vicious, attention-seeking attack. Because, we are somehow asked to believe, it is absurd to imply that a neo-fascist is anything like a Nazi. And, of course, everyone knows that Marine Le Pen is the go-to person for a wave of international attention.

Or is it the other way around? If one were to actually watch the video in question, they would probably find it difficult to come away feeling like Madonna is the one desperate for attention in this little dust-up. Indeed, Le Pen has leveraged her newfound international fame as a manufactured victim into greater influence at home. Good news for anyone who happens to hate Madonna, Muslims, immigrants, civil liberties and human rights! Congratulations!

The sad thing is that there are many more interesting things that could be said about that video. I, for one, think that the song is awful -- it grates a bit and the lyrics could be called a dumb person's idea of smart. That's disappointing, because Madonna is the best at what she does because she's usually the coolest, smartest bitch in the room. And then there is the imagery. Is it biting commentary, or just pretentious camp? And why hasn't Madonna made a good video since 2004?

Let us not forget cheerleadergate, in which Madonna donned the dress of a cheerleader, which at her age is apparently completely unacceptable, because everyone knows that there are no middle-aged cheerleaders. Except that there are. Not that it would matter if there weren't. I hate to break it to you, but Cher isn't really a circus ringmaster, either. (Though I think we can all agree that that would be a pretty sweet circus, right?) They also keep telling me that Kylie Minogue is not actually the Goddess Aphrodite, though I'm pretty sure they're wrong.

And then there is the big one, the incident that I suspect drives about half of the Madonna hatred online: the Born This Way debacle. Lady Gaga launched her last album with a song that was widely derided as a knockoff of Madonna's Express Yourself. As a result, a large and vocal segment of Lady Gaga's fan base feels compelled to litter the Internet with Madonna hatred.

Wait, what?

A quick history for those of you who have wisely chosen to avoid the subject: Gaga herself seemed to acknowledge the similarities at first, claiming Madonna's camp had emailed their approval. Madonna went on record saying that didn't actually happen. Madonna then praised the song, but said that it felt "reductive."

That word, "reductive," pissed a lot of Gaga fans off. You can tell, because you now see it misused in abusive comments about pretty much everything Madonna has ever done.

So let's just address the question. Was Madonna wrong to criticize? The songs share a chord progression, empowerment themes and spoken-word intros (none of which is a big deal,) and large chunks of the melodies are strikingly similar (a very big deal, though Gaga's version is a little more varied/sweetened). Taken together, the resemblance is uncanny. So there is definitely a strong dose of influence at least, but is "Born This Way" actually "reductive"?

When the "controversy" emerged, my niece (a fan of both,) asked me what the Madonna song was about. "Well," I said, "Madonna is saying that women need to say what they want, and not be placated by romantic clichés into accepting subservient roles in romantic relationships. She is implying that maybe women should demand that men be more emotionally demonstrative in the ways that women have traditionally been expected to be. There's also some linking of the sexual revolution to the civil rights movement, with the retro-funk sound and Staple Singers call-out."

The tween needed no explanation of the Gaga song, which itself says something. So for our purposes, let's just say that it could be summed up as, "It's okay to be... anything. A chola, oriental, whatever."

Racial slurs aside, that actually is a great message. Ironically, that is also the heart of the problem. There are kids in the middle of nowhere who need to be reminded that it's okay to be who they are, and that their individuality should be celebrated. The lyrics aren't smart, they aren't insightful, they aren't even good, but they are a message that a lot of people need to hear. Madonna has been delivering the same message for 30 years, albeit with greater subtlety. (And that's saying something.) So, if our standard is intelligence or nuance, "reductive" was a rather generous appraisal indeed. If our standard is empowerment, which one assumes was the purpose of the song, perhaps it did what it set out to do -- or did, until Gaga started alluding to Madonna's age and throwing around words like "retarded."

Yes, Gaga soon changed her tune (metaphorically,) by calling the comparisons "retarded" and explaining that "God sent me those lyrics and that melody." (Like a Prayer, some might say.) Madonna responded by singing the chorus of "Born This Way" over the music to "Express Yourself" on her latest tour, adding in elements of "She's Not Me." The point is... pretty clear.

Gaga then began to cast herself as a victim of bullying, and characterize the comparisons as an attack on the "power" of Born This Way, which she has humbly dubbed, "the anthem for my generation for the next decade."

"I don't even want to fight back," she said, instead of not fighting back. "You could never invalidate the power of "Born This Way..." Things are really different now than they were 25 years ago, and that's what makes "Born This Way" so relevant for me, is that I really want you all to notice this tremendous place that we're in right now. We're just socially in a completely different place and it's okay, we don't all have to slice and hate each other anymore."

The takeaway here is supposed to be that Madonna isn't the victim for having a signature tune lifted by someone who refuses to acknowledge the obvious similarities; Lady Gaga is for having suffered the embarrassment of being called out on it.

Having trouble making this framework work? Just invoke ageism! After all, shouldn't Madonna be mature enough to let it slide? She is, after all, 54-years-old. Heck, she was making music 25 years ago, and things are so different now! Silly old Madge. Doesn't that out-of-touch crone know that today it's totally cool to swipe a melody, tell people the original artist gave you their blessing, and pocket a couple mil' off it? It is undignified not to just let this one go.

This is a difficult moral universe to enter, but it's easy to see how so many Gaga fans are there. Persistent and borderline-messianic repetition of the message, "Gaga loves you," has forged a cult-tight, completely irrational bond with her most devoted fans. "I don't want to be your fucking queen," she continued to tell the audience of thousands who had ponied up an average of $102 each to see her that night, "I want to be your friend."

To most of us, Lady Gaga is a talented musician with a great (and sadly under-utilized,) voice, whose act is one half catchy, sublimely dumb pop songs and one half a postmodern kitchen-sinking of references to other works. To the faithful, she is a purveyor of capital-A art who also happens to be their very best friend. She has "artistically eclipsed," Madonna and everyone else, really, through this robotic regurgitation. This irrational, personal bond is a great comfort to many kids who aren't hearing loving messages anywhere else, but can also lead some to engage in unfortunate behavior.

Lady Gaga has famously launched an anti-bullying campaign, but her fans have racked up a pretty long list of bully victims in just two and a half albums' time. Gaga fans forced Boy George to temporarily abandon Twitter after a barrage of often homophobic and sometimes violent messages. Adele incurred their wrath, mostly expressed via weight-shaming, simply for selling more records than Mother Monster. Gaga fans also felt compelled to inform Kelly Osbourne that she was fat, "looked like" she had AIDS and suggested she kill herself after she criticized Gaga's choice to skip the Grammy red carpet. A vendetta against Katy Perry even received the rare honor of encouragement from camp Gaga after she dressed as a mermaid -- which was totally Gaga's idea, you know. No word on how Bette Midler, who also did not invent mermaids but has dressed as one basically every show of her entire career, feels about that one. And forget about Team Lil' Kim -- it's the Lady Gaga fans who chase Nicki Minaj out of malls, claiming she "ripped Lady Gaga off"... Somehow.

That last one is important. Take a moment to watch that video and you'll see why so much invective is hurled at Madonna -- and many others -- by Gaga fans. "She stands for all of us," that guy we all hope Lady Gaga does not stand for says as he chases Minaj out the door.

Minaj didn't do anything to Gaga, of course, let alone to her fans. It's merely that some are so invested in the myth of Gaga that any similarity to Mother Monster is threatening to their sense of self -- no matter who did it first. This is especially problematic because, as an artist, Lady Gaga is essentially a human Tumblr account, a hauntological soup of a woman who recycles -- but rarely re-purposes -- whatever happens to catch her eye. That's fine, of course. It is impossible for anyone to be interesting without being interested, and Gaga is no exception. The reality just doesn't fit the narrative of the brilliant, inventive artiste that the Church of Gagatology has built. That is, by its nature, threatening to some people.

In short, it is unsurprising that when Madonna acknowledged -- and dared to criticize -- the similarities, a million Lady Gaga fans took the web to brand her Satan. (It should be noted that even a million would be just one in 52 people who "like" Gaga on Facebook, or only one in 23 people who have actually purchased one of her albums.)

It is surprising, however, that so many in the media have bought the "old singer goes after young threat," narrative being perpetuated. For anyone keeping score, a list of bigger threats to Madonna's sales and chart record supremacy would include Beyonce, Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and, yes, even Rihanna. But, then, it seems most of these people really don't know pop history. If they did, they'd know that when people start hatin' on Madonna, Madonna doubles down.

This persistent ageism when we talk about Madonna now should be disturbing to anybody who plans to live to middle age. When she was 30, it was rare that a story about her noted her age. When she was 40, it started to pop up. Now, you're more likely than not to see it mentioned. Her latest album was met with solid reviews, had the strongest first-week sales of the year (so far, there will probably be better,) and was number one in 50 countries before it was even released. Her latest tour is doing phenomenally in spite of a huge spike in ticket cost. But the salient point, we are told time and again, is that she's 54. She's washed up, done for, you see, because no matter how successful she is, older women are worth less than younger ones.

I'll let Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson break that down for you, because she is amazing:

"The tabloids complain about her looking old, and people laugh at her for that. Then Madonna goes and fixes her face, and they laugh at her for that. Even though they begrudgingly say she looks amazing, they'll still laugh at her for trying to look young. Then she steps out, looking amazing, and the tabloids go and blow up a picture of her aging hand. Nobody's doing that to George Clooney, blowing up pictures of his hands! I look at these magazines, and I want to say to them, What's your point? That she's aged? Does that surprise you? Or is your 'point' an attempt to undercut what she's achieved? I think it is, even if it's on a subconscious level. And you probably wouldn't turn down those hands if they were grabbing you under the table, you fucking idiots."

In 1992, Madonna was reviled because she refused to present female sexuality in traditionally passive forms. In 2002, she was revered for having settled down and had a couple of kids. In 2012, she is back to being public enemy number one, for equally ill-considered reasons. The moment she dies, everyone with access to a keyboard of camera will fall all over themselves lining up to kiss her ass, largely for having pissed so many people off -- and having been judged, in the long term, to be in the right.

So, continue bringing the hate all you want. But please try to be a bit smarter about it, because ageist jokes about Madonna are going to grow old long before she does and, in the end, it is her story that will be told.

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