Last night, in the big finish of a performance at the annual Straight White People Give Each Other Awards for Doing Black Music About Gay Rights Better Than You Convention, Madonna shuffled weirdly out on stage with a bejeweled cane like a Country Western Barbie Yaga. She belted her way gamely through a few choruses of "Open Your Heart to Me," then joined the lovely Mary Lambert for the last few lines of "Same Love." Is that who Madonna is now? An awkward novelty cameo at the end of a Macklemore song? How strange. How sad. Madonna is vamping for attention on someone else's coattails.
I have affection for Madonna, and I think that a lot of criticism aimed at her is misdirected. I do not care about Madonna's wiry hands. I am not offended by clothing that is "too young." I appreciate the way that Madonna refuses to become invisible in her middle age, as women are so aggressively encouraged to do. I appreciate the fact that Madonna is at least attempting to stay connected to youth culture (because why not?). I appreciate that Madonna refuses to conform to ageist expectations for the way older women "should" dress and speak and conduct themselves.
Implicit in all of those positives, however, is the constrictive pressure on women to cling to youth artificially, to not "let" themselves get old. What part of Madonna's current persona is choice and what part is cultural coercion?
And, more importantly, what the fuck does Madonna mean now? How can you hope to keep up with the future if you're clinging to the past?
To me, the meaning of the Madonna of my youth always vastly trumped her (in my opinion) rather average voice. She was a provocateur who made womanhood feel powerful and disemboweled her critics with a haughty absence of fucks. She moved culture forward on purpose.
The Madonna I saw at the Grammys last night sang a song about equality while wearing a gold grill and carrying a pimp cane just a week after she famously called her child the n-word and wasn't sorry. It meant fucking nothing. If anything, it moved in reverse. It was the dinner-table obtuseness of your worst uncle. It shit on intellectual curiosity. It stank of not getting it.
It made you realize: Oh. Madonna is finite.
At a certain point, with age, we lose our grip on which ideas are cyclical and which ideas are perpetual and which ideas have died out. Madonna is just mimicking modes of edginess that worked for her in the past—that were new and important in the past—but what was once progressive nearly always becomes regressive. Because we learn so much all the time. The racial exploitation of Sex-era Madonna was provocative once; now it's just exploitation. So when do we cut our idols loose? When does the Queen of Reinvention run out of raw materials and turn into the, um, Lesser Duchess of Recycling? When does the awkwardness of New Madonna obliterate our teen-feelings for Madonna of Old? When do we ourselves realize that we're falling behind?
There's no shame in obsolescence, really—it happens to everyone. I get the same sinking feeling every time a comedian I idolize rails against "political correctness," or a gay icon throws around "trannies." Oh. It's happening. You are getting old. You don't get it anymore. You don't know it, but you have become the bearer of old ideas. And I know I'll be there eventually too. I am way more terrified of that not-getting-it than I am of crow's feet and saggy neck-skin.
When we talk about "old" Madonna, we're almost always talking about the wrong thing: It's not that she's forgotten how to be young, it's that she's forgotten how to be new. But obsolescence is not terminal. It simply requires a willingness to listen, weather discomfort, be embarrassed, make some room, and own your mistakes. That's what "call-out culture"—for all of its flaws—is all about.
There's still time for Madonna to mean something again, if she feels like it. It's just probably not the meaning she envisions.