Rein­ven­tion

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - & -

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...’

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