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Hail to the queen

How quick we’ve been to mock and chide Madonna—when what she deserves, really, is immense respect
November 1, 2023

When Madonna finally began her Celebration world tour in mid-October, it was amid a haze of anticipation and apprehension. Planned to launch in North America in July, the 78-date expedition actually kicked off in London, following the singer’s hospitalisation with an infection this summer. Many wondered if Madonna had pushed herself too far; if a career-encompassing two-hour multi-date performance was just a little too ambitious at this stage in her life.

Still, there she was, filling the O2, navigating umpteen costume changes, erotic dance routines and a spot of aerial suspension to sing “Like a Prayer”, “La Isla Bonita”, “Vogue”.

Alongside tributes to Prince and Sinéad O’Connor, the show also honoured Madonna’s contemporary Michael Jackson, melding their hits “Like a Virgin” and “Billie Jean” while a giant screen displayed their two silhouettes, embracing.

We know a little about what Jackson thought of Madonna: that she was pushy and rude, more about marketing than music. We know they almost collaborated and once shared a kiss after a chardonnay.

The O2 was the venue that Jackson was set to play, in a 50-date run, before his death in 2009. Three months later, Madonna read a tribute to him at the MTV Video Music Awards. She spoke about their Midwestern upbringings, their strange childhoods, their brief friendship in the early 1990s. She told of how, when she heard of his passing, “All I could think about… was that I had abandoned him. That we had abandoned him. That we had allowed this magnificent creature that once set the world on fire to somehow slip through the cracks… we were all busy passing judgement.”

In an essay published not long after Jackson’s death, John Jeremiah Sullivan explored everything from the singer’s slave lineage to the allegations of molestation, but most of all his evolution as an artist—studying everyone from Tchaikovsky to Stevie Wonder. “Michael wants access to the ‘anatomy’ of the music,” Sullivan writes. “That’s the word he uses repeatedly. Anatomy. What’s inside its structure that makes it move?”

The essay works to sift out the artist from the derision that has gathered around him, and it’s a hard job—even in 2009, Jackson was most often portrayed as a caricature of a superstar: at best, the breathy-voiced, bleached-skinned moonwalker; at worst, a chimp-owning baby-dangler with a taste for young boys.

Madonna is 65 years old, as many in the media never tire of telling us, not with wonder or admiration, but with a lick of reproach. She too is no stranger to mockery. As she has grown older, much of this ridicule has come to rest upon a perceived determination to stay young and relevant; muttoning about with surgical procedures and toyboys and fashion choices.

Among the whispers that greeted her tour postponement was the idea that she had done herself damage competing against younger artists such as Taylor Swift. Tabloid stories focused largely on the rumoured new proportions of her face. “Isn’t it time you grew up?” was Sarah Vine’s verdict on the actual show, in the Daily Mail.

In our focus on her age and her outfits and surgeries, we are abandoning one of our greatest artists

Somewhere, amid all of this, we have lost sight of Madonna the artist. Of the songwriter who, like Jackson, wants access to the anatomy of music. She has a sublime gift for the melodic hook, clear from the early days of “Lucky Star” and on to “Erotica” to “Hung Up” and beyond. She has drawn on dance-pop, electronica, fado and reggaeton, house, the Harlem ballroom scene and much more. She has worked with innovative collaborators, from Reggie Lucas to William Orbit, Shep Pettibone to Nicki Minaj.

If all of this means little to you, then know simply that Madonna is the most successful solo artist in the history of the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, the bestselling woman of all time, the first woman to earn $1bn in concert revenue.

Yet, of late, it strikes me how busy we have all been, passing judgement. How in our focus on her age and her outfits and surgeries, we are abandoning one of our greatest artists. How ungracious we have been. How churlish and dumb. We must not let this magnificent creature slip through the cracks; not when she still has a world to set on fire.