took the underground motifs of the time — disco’s infectious rhythms, acid house keyboards in the early 1990s, pulsing techno beats in the Noughties — and spun them into a mainstream sound. Singer-songwriter Jess Kavanagh discovered Madonna circa the release of 1998’s Ray of Light.
“I think it was all very left-of-field and interesting,” she recalls. “There was a sort of experimental vibe. I was a goth listening to Silverchair and Placebo at the time and I remember hearing something that Madonna did with Lenny Kravitz (possibly ‘Justify My Love’) and thought, ‘she’s cool’. My lasting impression was, ‘Jesus, this woman really knows about reinvention’.
“At 32, I don’t really listen to what kids are listening to — I don’t know how she still did it at 40 or 50.” Kavanagh also points out that Madonna was one of the prototypical peddlers of girl power, and in this regard, was quite possibly before her time.
“Her whole thing was ‘express yourself, don’t repress yourself’,” Kavanagh observes. “It was a potent message: ‘I won’t deviate from myself, I’m not sorry, and here’s a book with pictures of what I’m talking about (1992’s Sex book) in case you don’t get it’.
“Sex was saying to women, ‘we can own this. We don’t need to let our sexuality be used against us. We can make our lives better by just owning it. If you’re yourself, look how much fun you can have doing it’,” adds Farrell. A frontrunner, certainly, in terms of feminine sexuality, Madonna also became one of the first celebrities who experienced not just the vagaries of tabloid superstardom, but bodily scrutiny.
“It seemed that you could be a pop star until your late twenties, then you were put out to pasture,” says Kavanagh. “I feel like Madonna and, to some extent, Geri Halliwell, were like, ‘we’re not laying our heads down, we’ll still perform’, and they both got super healthy and had these hugely athletic bodies.”
By now, it’s a given that Madonna’s sense of showmanship and innovation have provided a blueprint for almost every female artist that followed. Her DNA, certainly, is all over the output of Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Gwen Stefani (the latter commented: “Some people say that I copy her, but show me one girl my age who was not influenced by her.”)
For women like singer 24-year-old Áine Cahill, the cultural impact is somewhat less direct.
“My first memory of Madonna was just the name always being around, like Marilyn Monroe,” she tells me. “You always knew the name. I guess that’s what being an icon means.
“Lady Gaga was my queen growing up, and my gateway into pop music and showmanship. But I joined the dots and started looking up Madonna’s tour videos and Truth or Dare (the 1991 documentary charting Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour). When I saw her performing in her heyday, I was gagged. I wish I’d known more of her growing up — I’d have learned so much more earlier on.”
These days, regrettably, commentators have become more concerned with the age-appropriateness of her actions and garb than anything else. “She looks like she’s done 10th grade 48 times,” quipped the late Joan Rivers on a 2012 episode of Fashion Police apropos her cheerleader-style Super Bowl half-time show outfit.
Her actions, once considered inflammatory and seismic in the 1980s and 1990s, are tame by today’s standards. Addressing the Pope as ‘popey-wopey’ from the stage barely caused a ripple in 2015; similarly, kissing Drake onstage in Coachella that same year didn’t have the impact she might have expected. Perhaps this says more about the industry than it does the singer.
Yet for better or worse, Madonna — as the first female pop superstar to get within spitting distance of pension age — is still blazing a trail. Even in weathering criticism and derision, she is paving the way for all others: not just for female artists, but women in a wider sense.
“I suppose when I see her half-naked on stage now, I’m like, ‘oh god, her body is amazing,” says Róisín O. “And who cares? Why shouldn’t you express your sexuality, regardless of your age?”
Her whole thing was ‘express yourself, don’t repress yourself ’. It was a potent message: ‘I won’t deviate from myself, I’m not sorry...’