Madonna is 60 tomorrow. The papers and mags are rightly awash with how she changed the world for women like me, how she made us think we could be unapologetically ourselves until becoming whatever we wanted to be. They say how she made it all – success, sex, self-expression, assertiveness, unchecked creativity and unstinting confidence – suddenly seem possible for an entire generation. They’re all absolutely correct; it’s all true. Madonna is a goddess and I wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for her influence. But that influence didn’t end when Radio 1 stopped playing her records (as is their wont whenever female popstars start breeding), or when the Daily Mail became obsessed with her age-inappropriateness and ungraceful growing old, or when the proud dads of Twitter suggested she “put them away, love”. Me, I’m not looking back at a career that mattered – I’m looking forward at a woman who, once again, is two decades ahead of me, reinventing what it means to be female, at a time I desperately need it.
When I was little, 60 meant cutting off your hair, fading into the background and preparing for an eternity of Fixodent, minding the grandchildren and peeling the sprouts. It was lovely for those around our grandmothers, enjoying the cuddles and carbs, but what did it mean for them, still the people they always had been? Growing old didn’t seem fun or interesting, and not a huge amount has changed. Even now, if I’m lucky enough to chance across a rare article about what I might expect in older age, the menopause is portrayed as the beginning of the end. I – a child of Madonna, Britpop, careerism, financial independence, illegal raves off the A1 – am invited 10 years from now to cover up in a waterfall cardi and drool over Paul Hollywood from behind my Cotton Traders catalogue. At 43 and always, Madonna is exactly the alternative I need to see.
Stop and think about it. Madonna: The Menopause Years have been spectacular. She fell off stage in a matador cape at the Brit Awards and, instead of waiting to be handed a blanket and a restorative tea, she got right back up and nailed the rest of her routine. Whenever Piers Morgan weirdly obsessed over what Madonna chose to do with her own body and wondered aloud whether this precluded her from his one definition of feminism? She let him squeal into the abyss and trolled him and his like by wearing even less. When critics slammed her wardrobe choices, mocked her Botox and fillers, accused her of desperation, she took to Instagram, singing, laughing and dancing with the relentlessly cheerful kids she raises alone. When there was a hideous terrorist attack on the audience at a pop concert in the Bataclan and everyone was understandably frightened of performing live? Late-fifties Madonna stood on a platform, before a screaming Paris arena audience, dressed as a Harlem flappergirl, strumming La Marseillaise on her crotch.
Hurtling towards her sixties, Madonna made one of the #MeToo movement’s definitive speeches on misogyny, at the Billboard Awards, she won a Golden Globe, pulled off one of the most high-energy Super Bowl half-time performances ever, opened her world-class medical facility in Malawi, helped fund a school in Detroit and made plans to open a football academy so that Portuguese children might follow her son David into playing professionally. Most of all, she has refused to retreat, shrink, fade or STFU when that is exactly what nice old ladies are expected to do. Reverential think pieces about the impact of the Blonde Ambition Tour on the Catholic Church, and the Erotica album on female sexuality, are all well and good but, since 50, Madonna has meticulously unpicked what it means to be a mature woman in the public eye and it’s been awe-inspiring.
She has refused to retreat, shrink, fade or STFU when that is exactly what nice old ladies are expected to do
Most inspiring of all is how fearless Madonna appears to be about turning 60. While older women routinely feel under pressure to lie about their age, Madonna’s social-media accounts have been on a self-described countdown to the big day and an enormous planned celebration. In recent years, she has discarded entirely the expectations of how a woman on the cusp of 60 should behave. Men should be older than their female partners; women over 40 should stop bleaching hair and showing skin, attracting attention, being sexual, outspoken and troublesome, to make others feel safe and comfortable. She has delighted in ignoring all of it and yet, in doing so, isn’t trying to stay young – only rejecting what others think it means to be old.
Whether she knows it or not, she is rejecting that definition for me. She is changing the world for future old me, just as she did for past young me. My fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties will be different because she simply refuses to leave the status quo untouched by Madonna. I suppose, having first fallen in love with her when I was nine, Madonna’s 60th milestone should make me too feel really old. What I actually feel is incredibly lucky that as much as she undeniably shaped me, us – the women who came of age during her rise and spectacular reign – Madonna at 60 will prove the most important yet to me and to womankind. All I ever wanted to be when I grew up was Madonna. As a 43-year-old woman, I still do.