It’s become a favorite family story over the years, the time in May of 1985 when I drove to the Spectrum in Philadelphia with my sister and a friend with no tickets in hand for the Madonna concert that was happening that night.
Determined to see The Virgin Tour, we wound up buying tickets on the street from a guy who my sister flagged down while hanging half her body out the car window. They were marked “obstructed view.”
In retrospect, idiocy.
But it was Madonna. And we got in. We could see just fine, as it turned out, and we had a great time.
Back then, aside from regularly dancing in clubs to her songs, Madonna’s appeal for me was about rebellion. I was raised Catholic. It wasn’t quite a fit, but its doctrine had penetrated just enough that I had never deigned to question its tenets or, heaven forbid, push back.
Along came this ambitious, provocative Italian-American woman simply bursting with longing and truth and sexuality. It was intoxicating to arguably repressed young women like me. She was burning up with love, unabashedly singing about virginity, exploring what made her different.
I, too, was ambitious and Italian American, but not so provocative. While Billy Joel was trying to coax us Catholic girls from starting “much too late” into going all the way when I was in high school, Madonna came along and said, “We have urges, too.”
Fast forward to the 2023 Grammy Awards.
I’m a proud feminist. I don’t make a habit of bashing women based on how they look or decisions they’ve made about their bodies. But when Madonna appeared on that stage, I recoiled.
It only got worse when she spoke because I heard her words encouraging rebels to keep being rebels, but they only registered so far in my brain because I was already upset by what I saw.
The symbol of rebellion had become unrecognizable. I don’t cast surface judgment here. I get why she did it. What brought out my emotional response was this – the rebel is now conforming to the sick societal standard set for women. She defied religion but succumbed to the body image BS foisted upon us.
Again, I get the pressure. It’s a no-win, right? We’re not supposed to age. We’re not allowed to relax into maturity. Rather, we moisturize, diet, primp, cut, inject.
However, we’re each tasked with a series of decisions in life. Where to draw a line. What to prioritize. Who to be influenced by. I wear lipstick. I get pedicures. I seek out great beauty products. At age 61, having spent a great deal of my youth sunbathing, I have lots of lines on my face deepening with each year.
An acquaintance once told me all I “needed” was “a little fill” around my mouth and forehead. I was not so much insulted as startled by the casualness of the comment dropped into a chat over coffee.
I know I’m not a celebrity in the glaring eye of a critical public. I share that story only to illustrate how it’s almost a given now that we will all partake in this exercise. I’ve always felt if it’s your thing, that’s your business. I still feel that way.
When it gets extreme, though, so extreme you feel you have to look away from a person, it’s time for a reckoning.
Sadly, two days after the Grammys, Madonna responded to her critics on Instagram with, in part, this: “A world that refuses to celebrate women past the age of 45 and feels the need to punish her if she continues to be strong willed, hard-working and adventurous.” That completely misses the point. Many of us still admire all those qualities in her and other women. The extreme response from fans is not to her work ethic or art.
I spent a good decade of my cardio workouts in the gym and long walks at the Jersey Shore fueled by Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. It was the go-to for inspiration among so many women. She made us tune into ourselves.
Watching her standing before modern day entertainers like Lizzo, Beyonce, Harry Styles and others, knowing she opened doors for them with her gutsy art and inclusiveness, should have been a moment. If Madonna looked like Madonna that night, she would have owned the room with her message, potent because more artists are now coming from the same authentic place.
To be clear, I’m not at all on board with the stick-up-their-ass culture war conservatives who have seized on to her looks to rip her apart because they don’t like her art. I come from a place of empathy and even concern.
I fear our material girl has lost her way.