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Madonna tour to defy societal limits on female stars

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Rewriting the script: Madonna, now 64, will be touring this year and expected to perform as of old

Madonna has announced the North American and European dates of her concert tour, during which she will perform her most popular, era-defining songs. That’s 40 years worth of club dancing, provocative shape-shifting and sex-positive proselytising. Madonna was one of the foundational female artists of the MTV dance-pop genre, and this tour will be a testament to that legacy and a test of cultural boundaries. In “Madonna: The Celebration Tour”, the performer will be pushing against time-worn assumptions about gender and age at a moment when public dialogue can be very mean and very unforgiving on those very subjects. Godspeed, Madonna.

She announced her intentions on social media in a video that features a game of truth or dare — a reference to her 1991 film of the same name — with a clique of pals including Jack Black, Amy Schumer, Judd Apatow and Lil Wayne. The video is shot mostly in black and white and at times looks out of focus. Everyone appears a bit scruffy and like they have had a long night of loopy carousing. The effect is a video that is raw and self-consciously, gleefully transgressive, which is Madonna’s favourite kind of story to tell.

At the height of her fame and influence in the 1980s and 1990s, Madonna managed to offend pretty much everyone who considered themselves part of the establishment or who believed themselves to be charged with setting moral codes of conduct and defining social acceptability. She rankled the sensibilities of the Catholic Church, Moral Majority and evangelicals. She made a career out of punching up at the powerful and the privileged. She stood on the side of outsiders. And for this — and her danceable beats and keen sense of aesthetics — she was beloved. She was especially vocal in speaking up for the LGBTQ+ community and celebrating elements of its culture, including ballroom and drag.

Most everything that made Madonna such a compelling cultural figure now has become a test, a challenge, a question. When she incorporated ballroom culture into her video for Vogue, she was applauded for shining a spotlight on this dance style created within the Black and Latin LGBTQ+ community. Now, there are conversations about cultural appropriation and whether she did enough to elevate the originators.

As a performer, she was always moving forward, always latching on to the next thing simmering just outside the mainstream. She altered her look to mark each new chapter, and her audience applauded her. But the culture is less likely to applaud the looks of a 64-year-old woman unless she is perceived as somehow defying the march of time or ageing gracefully — which is to say walking quietly into the sunset wearing expensive cashmere and sensible shoes.

And Madonna has not been quiet. She recently caused a kerfuffle on social media for making note of how, with her book Sex in 1992, she paved the way for performers such as Cardi B and Miley Cyrus to sing freely about their sexuality; she has been taken to task for wearing the traditional attire of people from North Africa; she likes to craft social-media videos of herself in extreme close-ups that make her look ghostly and imperfect rather than glamorous and flawless. She continues to provoke. Her admirers applaud her for maintaining the same edgy sense of indiscretion that she had in her twenties. She is also admonished for still having such audacity. Madonna has not changed, and the culture is conflicted about that.

It will be quite something when Madonna takes the stage and all the familiar beats begin to play. Fans will not be coming to see her stand behind a microphone and belt out a ballad. The performance, in all its sweaty and sexy athleticism, has always been the draw: the vogueing, the bullet bras and, of course, the look. She was the club-hopping ragamuffin, the Marilyn Monroe doppelgänger, the dark-haired heretic, the platinum sex goddess. Her look has always told her audience something about how she sees gender and sex at a particular moment. Her body has been a statement about the politics of sexuality.

What will that look like now in this sixth decade of her life? Surely, it can be wondrous and engaging and tantalising. But it can be hard to convince popular culture of that. When the fifty-something actresses returned to the Sex and the City revival with all the familiar outré costumes and melodramatic storylines, they were practically pilloried for having the nerve to have aged.

Society has been terribly begrudging of women as they get older. Each milestone brings new rules and limitations related to appearance. At 30, women are expected to be womanly rather than girlish. At 50, they are to aim for sophistication or elegance. After 65, there are no rules because women basically become just a head on an invisible body — exceptions are few.

Madonna is the MTV godmother bringing her personal playlist and bump-and-grind aesthetic back to the stadium crowds. There is something exciting and unnerving about the prospect this high-wattage video star returning to the stage with such bravado. Her brand of exhibitionist feminism put the female body directly in the spotlight, and that became fundamental to her public identity. As she goes back and performs her catalogue now, how will the music change? When she sings “Beauty’s where you find it” from Vogue, will it resonate differently?

One wants her to be as dynamic as she was decades ago. After all, there is a good deal of nostalgia embedded in this tour. But the reality is that no performer can ever go backward. (Most probably don’t want to.) The excitement is not in a repeat performance of Vogue or Like a Prayer. The thrill is in the possibilities of what those songs can become.

The anticipation is not merely in hearing a fresh take on the old tunes. It is also the exhilaration of this Madonna, still disruptive and full of swagger. Just by stepping on stage, she gives popular culture a new chapter in the female story.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, she has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press

• Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, she has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press

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Published January 20, 2023 at 7:56 am (Updated January 19, 2023 at 3:39 pm)

Madonna tour to defy societal limits on female stars

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