THIRTY years in music and Madonna is still Queen of Pop but, as she visits Edinburgh this weekend, Fiona Shepherd wonders if she still needs to relentlessly reinvent herself or has earned the right to rest on her laurels
THE woman who laid the foundations for our current female-centric pop landscape is currently to be seen in a stadium near you upholding her elder pop provocatress status with the words “No Fear” emblazoned across her back. Image and message, however sledgehammer, have been paramount throughout Madonna’s career: No Fear could be her motto, her driving force, even her epitaph. “Brazen” might be another way to put it. After almost 30 years in the limelight, Madonna is still using crude shock tactics to generate headlines on her MDNA tour – flashing her nipple in Istanbul (well, it worked for Janet Jackson), jerking the chain of the French far right by branding an image of Marie Le Pen with a swastika. Because the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, right? Back in the mid-1980s, the censorship-happy PRMC played into her hands in likening her to a “porn queen on heat”. If anything, it has become much easier to elicit a kneejerk reaction in the internet age.
Yet this shrewdly calculating artist, named in 2010 as one of Time magazine’s 25 Most Powerful Women of the Past Century, has described her pop career as “an accident”. In other words, Madonna wanted to be famous; how and in what field she achieved that fame was immaterial to her. Pop music seemed as good a stepping stone as anything else.
The dream of celebrity for the sake of celebrity is all too common in the reality TV age, but most of today’s shower of wannabes just don’t have the wit and grit to make a long-term go of it. Madonna was treated with similar skepticism at the start of her pop offensive, when she was merely a dancer with an average voice who dared to have lofty pop ambitions. But she had a cavalier fearlessness rather than a vacuous sense of entitlement on her side. Gradually, it began to look like she had the goods to back up the vaulting ambition, as she proved herself across the decades with a string of pop standards, from the production perfection of Into The Groove to the moody sophistication of Frozen, from the euphoric Ray of Light to the hipster electro of Muzik (effectively her 21st century update of Into The Groove).
Madonna couldn’t play any instruments but she could play people. Her talent lay in her hardnosed business mind, which included an ability to pick the right facilitators – to stand on the shoulders of giants, as it were – in order to make a surefire commercial sound and, to a degree, in her short attention span.
She created a Teflon-coated persona and then proceeded to tweak the detail, with a succession of image and stylistic changes. Although David Bowie had laid down the blueprint for pop chameleon a decade earlier, this was new territory for a high- profile female star in the 1980s. Now it is accepted wisdom that pop stars must evolve (a bit) to stay on top.
There has been no slowing of momentum or dimming of the limelight in her middle age. Both the Confessions and Sticky & Sweet tours of 2006/2008 broke box office records for a solo artist. Her half-time Superbowl performance last year attracted more viewers worldwide than the game itself. She is up there with Elvis and The Beatles in terms of chart stats on either side of the Atlantic.
But while the past decade has been one of big bucks and breaking records, it has been low on inspiration. Where once Madonna would have pushed into fresh pop territory, she now takes the path of least resistance. Her biggest hit of the 21st century was heavily reliant on an Abba sample for its hook. The hugely successful Confessions on a Dance Floor album was a functional floor-filler. Follow-up Hard Candy dabbled idly in the prevailing R&B trend, while current album MDNA simply falls into step with every other generic chart dance record. Madonna now sounds like any other processed pop star, and appears to have run out of audacious visual ideas to boot, leaving Lady Gaga to push the sartorial envelope.
Gaga blatantly owes Madonna in spades. She may be the most obvious heir to the throne but she is far from the only beneficiary of Madge’s trailblazing. We are now in the age of the autonomous female pop star; such a creature did not exist on a global scale before Madonna took the reins. It’s just a pity that the likes of Rihanna have chosen to imitate her sexual provocation without the accompanying frisson of danger or sense of empowerment. The cartoonish Katy Perry, meanwhile, is more likely to get caught up in sexting scandal than produce a coffee-table book of erotic photographs. Madonna may have paved the way for these girls but she is no longer setting the agenda.
If artistry was at the top of her list of priorities, this could be the time to retire gracefully. But nobody puts Madonna in the corner so, at a time when other performers of her vintage might be thinking of a simple life of charity patronage, eccentric health and beauty treatments and naff product endorsements, she has embarked on a tour as gruelling and ambitious as any in her career. That’s tenacity right there.
It’s not just that Madonna won’t give in to the young pretenders – she probably doesn’t know what else to do with herself. The parallel acting career didn’t work out and her first high profile directing job, W.E., hasn’t exactly set the film world aglow (though it wasn’t trashed so roundly that she won’t give it another whirl). Her current mega-moolah deals with global behemoths Live Nation and Interscope will likely keep her tied in to stadiums for some time to come.
Rock’n’roll, once the soundtrack to teen rebellion, has been proven to be a lifelong occupation for The Rolling Stones and their veteran peers; now it looks like the practitioners of pop music, supposedly also the preserve of the young, are ignoring their use-by dates. So is Madonna likely to fade away any time soon? No fear.
• Madonna plays Murrayfield Stadium on Saturday. www.madonna.com