Papa don't preach: Fortysomething women still rock

Madonna's Super Bowl show has drawn criticism for nothing other than the material girl's age. Fiona Sturges is indignant

Madonna's Super Bowl performance was an absolute doozy. With its massive supporting cast of cheerleaders, gladiators, tightrope walkers, guest singers, marching bands and choirs, it was a wildly over-the-top and joyful celebration of everything she is best at. So on the subject of Madonna's talent, let's not hear anything more about it.

However, amid the varying and inevitably deranged assessments of her performance both online and in print, one element had been both consistent and consistently depressing: that of her age. Madonna is 53, we have been repeatedly told. And what of it? She is also still vital, still causing consternation and still turning cartwheels in six-inch thigh-high stiletto boots. I'm 15 years younger and I can barely touch my toes. But the carping didn't stop there.

"The thigh-high boots cover scars from her hip replacement," declared one wag on Twitter. "Is that Madonna or my handicapped grandmother," hissed another. One man, a photographer from Baltimore, tweeted: "Good news: unlike Lady Gaga, Madonna didn't wear crusty old meat as a dress. Bad news: she is wearing crusty old meat as skin." Even The New York Times breathed a sigh of relief the following day with the headline "Madonna Acts Her Age".

It's already written into pop history that Madonna has spent much of her career baiting detractors by daring to revel in her sexuality; daring to use religious iconography; daring to make films and daring to speak her mind. But daring to be old?

Her situation is particularly dispiriting given that fact that pop has always prided itself as a progressive force, one that historically has looked beyond race, sexuality and gender long before other mass media. But where discussions regarding ageism have at least arisen, if not been resolved, in the worlds of television and film, there remains an unspoken and largely unchallenged attitude within the music industry that musicians are washed up at middle age.

But where on one hand the shelf-life of the new artist is shortening, the countless musicians still touring and selling records in their fifties, sixties and seventies, easily dispels the idea that we prefer our pop stars fresh out of the womb. You need only look at the love and respect that has greeted Leonard Cohen's 12th album last month, released at the venerable age of 77, to realise that growing old needn't be a barrier to continued success.

There is, along with a clear intolerance of the middle-aged, a deep-rooted sexism at the heart of the Madonna complaints. Did Tom Petty get lambasted for being 58 when he performed at the Super Bowl four years ago? When Springsteen played the half-time slot in 2009, at seven years older than Madonna is now, did people bitch about his age? Of course not. There is something distinguished, so the thinking goes, about grizzled old men with guitars singing odes to the American dream. But a woman singing and dancing in her fifties? Plain disgusting.

Alison Goldfrapp, a singer in her late forties, has famously struggled to get her records played on Radio 1 on account of her being considerably older than the channel's target audience. In 2009 Macy Gray wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about age discrimination among female singers, after meeting a recording executive who had confessed to not knowing how to get a 40-year-old woman on the radio.

"While a 46-year-old president is the 'new kid on the block'," she wrote, "a singer over 30 is just a few songs away from the nursing home of music."

Nine years ago I interviewed Siouxsie Sioux, then 46, and rightly got a flea in my ear for asking if she had considered retirement. She pointed out that I would never have asked a 46-year-old man the same question.

Look at any successful female pop star today, from Beyoncé and Rihanna to Lady Gaga, and you sense an artist desperately wringing every last drop from their youth before both the music industry and the media deems them past it. For women in particular, youth and desirability is paramount to their record-company paymasters. Granted, men are not immune from such criticism – Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, bona fide geriatrics compared to Madonna, are among those frequently upbraided for refusing to retire.

Some might argue that pop music is a young person's game. It's an industry that is meant to push against the previous generation and doesn't wear well with the oldies. This was certainly the case once. But, now, in an age where parents and their offspring frequently buy the same albums and attend the same gigs, these boundaries are breaking down. Pop music has got old and so have those who listen to it.

Of course no one wants to see Madonna writhing on the floor and simulating masturbation at this point in her career, in the same way that they don't want to see Iggy Pop waggle his wang at audiences half his age. But neither Madonna nor Iggy nor Macy nor Mick should have to retreat from their career on grounds of their age.

With 111 million watching Madonna turn cartwheels at the Super Bowl, I think we can all agree she's got a few years left in her yet.

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