How Madonna Has Prospered For This Damn Long
"There's only one queen, and that's Madonna, bitch."
"There's only one queen, and that's Madonna, bitch."
Text: Jake Viswanath
In 1984, a young woman by the name of Madonna Ciccone—who assumed the power to only go by her first name, somewhat unusual for the time—appeared on the classic TV show American Bandstand to perform one of her first hits, “Holiday”, and promote her self-titled debut album. As customary, host Dick Clark pulled the rising pop tart aside to ask a few fun questions. "What do you hope will happen, not only in 1984 but for the rest of your professional life? What are your dreams? What's left?”
"To rule the world," she said, without a hint of hesitation.
When Madonna started her first imperial phase (of many) right after that very moment, I wasn’t even a thought in my parents’ mind. It was my mother who got to experience the future Queen of Pop in her platinum blonde, rule-breaking, chart-topping glory right as it was starting. When I was finally born, she had already gone through her phase of shock and rebellion (“Like A Prayer”, the Sex book) in the eyes of the public, supposedly destined to let her fame dwindle and eventually retire altogether. I was never meant to experience the awe and fandom that prior generations did.
Yet here I am today, surrounded by an excessive amount of Madge CDs, vinyl, T-shirts, and old concert tickets, waiting with bated breath on her next move, and writing an ode to the icon on her 60th birthday. Why? Because Madonna not only succeeded in ruling the world, she perfected the art.
“People say I’m controversial,” she remarked during her speech at Billboard’s Women In Music event in 2016. Of course, they’re right to think that. The woman has caused international incidents for decades, whether she was writhing around in a wedding dress on live TV, kissing two of her famous disciples on that same VMAs stage two decades later, rubbing the Puerto Rican flag between her legs, or gasp, challenging the norms of Catholicism. But nothing tops this: “I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.”
Madonna was never supposed to last this long. Most women in the music industry are expected to slow down and age gracefully, whatever that means today. Instead, she’s transcended generations, at the sheer horror of our parents, and never let go of her iron fist on the world. With every move she makes, whether she posts a selfie on Instagram wearing grills or plants a smooch on Drake, she’s faced with criticism and misogynistic words, yearning for the antics of decades past or painting her as an old granny who can't get down with the kids. The irony is that she taught the kids how it’s done.
Madge been able to sustain her career at an insurmountable magnitude because she’s always been ahead of the curve in every field she enters. She unabashedly supported the LGBT community at the height of the AIDS crisis and beyond, when others stayed silent and acceptance was at an all-time low. Her humanitarian efforts in Malawi have raised immense awareness for the country. Her outspoken opposition of conservative world leaders and open support of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, integrated in both her live performances and day-to-day work, undeniably influenced the age of political activism and social justice movements we live in today.
“Why is the music industry so homophobic?,” she was asked in a 1991 interview with The Advocate. “They’re not going to be when I get finished with them.” We’ve still got some ways to go, but don’t act like she hasn’t helped immensely.
While the individual talents that female artists of today bring should not be negated, it’s undeniable that Madonna paved the way for their success. Being unapologetically open about sexuality and opting to flaunt it at every opportunity has allowed Britney, Miley, and numerous others to go farther with it, still shocking but not at risk of their careers. She made girl power a thing before the Spice Girls simply because she assumed power and never let a single word or mistake make her lose it. All of us could take a few notes, especially in an age where it’s hard to find a powerful presence outside of social media, even amongst our most beloved singers and public figures.
And most importantly, there’s the music. After over three decades of hits, she’s proven time and time again to have an innate ability to stay ahead of trends or completely steer clear of them to create brilliant work. Madonna was one of the first big mainstream acts to work with SOPHIE, on the bonkers and brilliant “Bitch I’m Madonna” in 2015. She mastered a full-fledged dance record, Confessions On A Dance Floor, in 2005 before electro-pop and EDM was the go-to. Even 2008’s Hard Candy has proven to be rather edgy, latching onto Pharrell’s funky sound years before the likes of Daft Punk and Miley made it ubiquitous again. At her worst, she’s rarely managed to land in generic or uninspired territory.
It’s this hustle and eye for the future that’s allowed her to have hits that our current generation will know from the first second, from “Music” to “4 Minutes”, and landed her a Super Bowl Halftime Show slot three decades into her career (which still managed to court controversy, but not due to her for once). She is getting to a point where today’s mainstream radio won’t play her much simply due to ageism, and she’s very aware. “To age is a sin. You will be criticized and vilified and definitely not played on the radio,” she said at Billboard. But it’s too late. Her mark has been left on the young when it was never supposed to. Look at my merch collection for proof.
I fully believe that if there’s any keystone in the world that’s destined to survive the worst of disasters on Earth, it’s Madonna (and Cher, but that’s a conversation for another day). She’s proven herself to be indestructible in the face of whatever you throw at her, even on the few occasions where she’s been wrong. She’s made a living out of provocation, innovation, and specifically doing the opposite of what you want from her—which, in turn, is what I want from her. The steely 26-year-old talking to Dick Clark didn’t just rule the world, she seized it, and will continue to hold onto it way past our time. As a self-proclaimed queen once said, "There's only one queen, and that's Madonna, bitch." Long may she reign.