The moment Madonna lost us
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The moment Madonna lost us

In what might be viewed as a type of bizarre cosmic trade-off, Aretha Franklin died just hours after Madonna celebrated her 60th birthday, on Friday, our time.

It's hard to believe but there were only 16 years between them. It seems as if they occupied two separate lifetimes.

American singer-songwriter and actress Madonna (Madonna Louise Ciccone) posing on the set of the film Desperately Seeking Susan. New York, 1985.

American singer-songwriter and actress Madonna (Madonna Louise Ciccone) posing on the set of the film Desperately Seeking Susan. New York, 1985.

Photo: Supplied

Madonna, at 60, is technically eligible for retirement. It's shocking to learn that pop culture icons actually grow old. Not that Madonna has let herself look anywhere near her age for the last two decades. And why should she? You don't survive fame, and all of its horrifying scrutinies, if you're a woman who looks her age. Especially when the centrality of your brand has been built on a provocative sexuality, soaked in religious iconography, and designed to incite shock in whoever might walk past a television tuned to MTV at the time.

But that was then. It was easy to provoke in the 1980s, a time of rampant conservatism and Reaganomics. Madonna understood this, and, as time wore on, reinvented herself accordingly, morphing from exotic dancer and pornographer (remember the book?) to silver screen showgirl,  baroque performer, enlightened mystic, London chav and mother earth. And all the while remaining unapologetically Madonna. Well, kind of.

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Madonna performs at the MEN arena in Manchester at the start of her European tour in 2004.

Madonna performs at the MEN arena in Manchester at the start of her European tour in 2004.

Photo: AP

Madonna's cachet has waxed and waned throughout the years, to arrive in 2018 at a point of low-relevance. It's not simply that she is 60 and a woman (although that's a factor). It's that, somewhere along the line, the performer who led a generation of women - and tweens - out of conformity and deep into their own groove of sexual expression, began to appear ... a little embarrassing.

To understand this, it's useful to look at another woman who appeared in public life in the 1980s: Hillary Clinton. Like Madonna, Clinton has a preternaturally high IQ. Like Madonna, Clinton worked hard in her early career to move the needle for women by moving it for herself.

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In 1979 - the same year that Madonna settled in New York - Clinton became the first woman to be made full partner at her law firm. Her journal papers on the rights of children written during this period were seminal. In 1983, Madonna's single Holiday broke into the top 10, meanwhile, as First Lady of Arkansas, Hillary began adding Rodham to her name.

But it was the early 1990s that would see both women vilified for their choices. Remember when Clinton explained her choice to keep working, even though she was First Lady in 1992. "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas," she famously quipped. "But what I decided to do was to fulfil my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life."

 June 22, 1994: President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton wait to address a group of young Democratic supporters known as the Saxophone Club in Washington.

June 22, 1994: President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton wait to address a group of young Democratic supporters known as the Saxophone Club in Washington.

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite

Madonna, meanwhile, had taken to running marathons, lifting weights and smoking over-sized cigars in public, the latter functioning as the ultimate - if brazen - signifier that if she was going to be perceived as a castrator, she would play that part to the hilt.

Both women were punished for their ambition, and both women navigated the hysterical, sexist blowback by becoming sleek and impenetrable. This was how you did white, corporatised feminism in the 1980s and '90s - you gave them your best impersonation of a man.

But after the peak of "raunch culture" died down in the mid-2000s, taking with it half a dozen Madonna clones, including Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and yes, Lady Gaga, women were left with more ways of being.

By 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama was allowed to be a mum and a lawyer - and praised by her husband for lifting weights. But for women such as Hillary and Madonna, who blazed a trail by wearing invulnerability as a suit of armour, their brand of "girl power" appeared calculated and  inauthentic. Madonna, for example, is never going to talk about her FUPA, as Beyonce did for Vogue.

Sensing this, they both went to work - it is what they do best, after all. Madonna explored developing nations, settling on Malawi, and eventually adopting four children from the region. Meantime, Clinton ran for president of the United States.

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in 2016.

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in 2016.

Photo: AP

Both of these moves were perceived as stunts. And each time either woman tried to clarify their reasons for trying to change their corner of the world, they were mocked as phonies, or in the case of Clinton, "crooked". But somehow, neither woman could quite pivot away from their personalities, forged and hardened over years of attacks.

Clinton, with her awkward jokes, and her baffling alliance to Katy Perry (a woman who has borrowed extensively from Madonna's oeuvre). And Madonna herself, trying her best to clamber atop the Beyonce bandwagon, deaf to the racial insensitivity of such a reach -all of it, has combined to reach this moment of cultural distrust.

It is a sad but undeniable fact that the privilege, generated by the success they suffered so much for, has led them to a place so cloistered they have simply lost touch with what a new generation of young, socially aware, sexually comfortable and above all, canny women want now.

And so, Clinton lost her bid, and went hiking through parks, while Madonna has retreated back to the place from which she originally tried so hard to rebel against: a small Catholic town where she inhabits her most gruelling incarnation yet - a self-confessed soccer mum.