FEATURE: Madonna of Bay City: The Icon at Sixty: How the Pop Innovator Has Reshaped and Changed Music Through Fashion, Expression and Campaign




Madonna of Bay City


IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in a promotional shot for her 1984 album, Like a Virgin/PHOTO CREDIT: Rex Features

The Icon at Sixty: How the Pop Innovator Has Reshaped and Changed Music Through Fashion, Expression and Campaign


IT seems Madonna is never far from the news…


IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna on stage in 1984/PHOTO CREDIT: PA Photos

even when she is not releasing any music! The latest bit of Madonna column-inch involves her attending Hamilton (the musical) and being snubbed by its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Madonna, apparently, turned up late and was seen texting through the performance – something that did not best please Miranda! Maybe there was an emergency at home or she was lapsing into boredom. In any case, it seems that part of Madonna has not faded with time; the ability to do what she wants and not be beholden to schedule and protocol! Not that this is a bad thing at all. As I will investigate; her rebellion and speaking out has helped to change music and see her crowned as the Queen of Pop. I am not sure why Madonna attended Hamilton – if her mind was elsewhere – but that is by the by. The legend turns sixty on Thursday and it is a great chance for people to look back at her incredible music and impact. Before I look back at Madonna’s career and study her changing fashions, the way she spoke out for women’s rights and why her personality showed Pop could be so much more than marketing and blandness; it seems she is preparing her fourteenth studio album and it seems like, on the as-yet-untitled album, Nicki Minaj could play a part:

Nothing official has been announced, of course. But should Minaj feature anywhere on this album, it would make the as-yet-untitled release her third Madonna album in a row to guest on. Which is a world record, in terms of pop music.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna pictured this year/PHOTO CREDIT: AFP/Getty Images

Minaj has already featured on two official Madge singles (Give Me All Your Luvin’ and Bitch, I’m Madonna) and performed alongside her at the 2012 Super Bowl. Why not go for a hat trick?

Speaking of tricks, Drake is also rumoured to feature on the new album, according to stories doing the rounds today. Given that he named a song after her and that infamous snog, it’s probably about time”.

It seems like there might be material or something, in some form, from Madonna by the end of this year:

In May, Madonna fansite DrownedMadonna reported that a music video had allegedly been filmed in London by Steven Klein.

Klein is responsible for some of the her more memorable concert backdrop videos and photoshoots, not to mention her 2013 short film SecretProjectRevolution.

So far no music video has yet surfaced. Yesterday, however, Madge posted to her Instagram a hyper-stylized video of her reciting poet Rupi Kaur. The video was shot by none other than Steven Klein.

It begins with Madonna apologizing to, ‘all the women I have called beautiful’.

The lead single for her next album is heavily rumoured to be Beautiful Game, a snippet of which she performed at the Met Gala in May”.

It appears something is brewing and the ever-evolving artist is preparing some fresh material. It will be good to see how she moves from 2015’s Rebel Heart.


IN THIS IMAGE: The tour poster for Rebel Heart/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

That album, whilst her lowest-selling in twenty years, it did get some great critical feedback and showed, thirty-two years from her debut single, she was capable of surprising and mixing her older and newer ambitions: AllMusic gave their views on Rebel Heart:

These are the anchors of the album, grounding the record when Madonna wanders into slow-churning meditation, unabashed revivals of her '90s adult contemporary mode, casual confession ("I spent sometime as a narcissist"), and defiant celebrations of questionable taste. Undoubtedly, some of this flair would've been excised if the record was a manageable length, but the blessing of the unwieldiness is that it does indeed represent a loosening of Madonna's legendary need for control. Certainly, the ambition remains, along with the hunger to remain on the bleeding edge, but she's allowing her past to mingle with her present, allowing her to seem human yet somewhat grander at the same time”.

It seems like there are positive signs for the near-future. Madonna has said, in recent interviews, how modern music is all the same: endless collaborations and stuff that is vaguely similar to other stuff; a rather wooden and insipid sound that needs shaking up. She resides in Portugal and has been compelled by the music culture there and the authenticity – an original and human sound that, one suspects, she might fuse into her upcoming record. Let us look back and see how Madonna’s iconic styles and her desire to stand aside from the pack marks her as a true icon and leader.


IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna photoed in 1985 at the American Music Awards/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Image

Vogue, fittingly, has published a piece that looks at Madonna’s changing looks and how, with each album and cycle, she would change it up and produce something stunning. I am no fashion expect – a T-shirt and pair of trainers are as cutting as I get! – but I have always been drawn to Madonna’s iconic make-overs. Today’s music seems to be more about streaming figures and airplay as it does any sense of uniqueness and colour. I cannot name any artist, male or female, that seems that have a distinct style that changes and updates. Can anyone really look out at the music sea and discover something eye-catching and influential among the rather hum-drum and routine?! It is said that Madonna arrived in New York, in the late-1970s, with a dollar or so to her name – one of those urban myths about the aspiring artist… - but was far from the eclectic and electric star she would become. By 1983, when Madonna was released, she was embracing fashion and using it as part of her identity. I was born in that year so was (luckily) not conscious to the high hair, shoulder pads and gaudy make-up that seems to define the 1980s. Madonna, instead, adopted crucifixes, necklaces and lace to create something that was of-the-time but much more ‘her’. Religion and spirituality were part of her aesthetic from the start and, by the time she released Like a Prayer (album) in 1989; that distinct look was on the cover – the star was heavy with beads, rings and jewellery that has a sense of class, religious symbolism and youthful-cool!


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

Look at the period between 1983-1985 and you notice a bolder and more experimental Madonna coming through. I will talk about her sexuality and role model speeches in a bit but, in terms of future, the stage and studio Madonna was altering her looks between albums. One can see the blonde and cool star that was introduced to the world in 1982. The look was starting to take shape and, by 1984, Like a Virgin saw her performing in a mini skirt, lace tights and headscarf. A promotional image for the album sees dark red lipstick and jazzy, Punk-like hair (a rather male description) mix with these signature bangles and something edgier. Look at the change between her stage outfit in April of 1984 – the headscarf and floral jacket – to the more spiky and alluring look that we saw upon the arrival of the album. Her famous ‘boy toy’ belt was out for the Like a Virgin video but it is interesting to see how subtle alterations came into her look by 1985. As her albums matured and Madonna was getting more of a creative say; she was breaking from the bright and traditional looks of the 1980s and bringing in crucifixes and gloves; her hair, now, was straighter and it seemed a more ‘mature’ and serious artist was coming through.


IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) wearing thrift store clothes/PHOTO CREDIT: Shutterstock

Her appearance in Desperately Seeking Susan seemed to define where she was heading; the smoking (literally) heroine and the headscarf; the cool jewellery and mix of New York chic and a distinct Madonna perfume – she had created a signature look that, two years after her debut album, was a bold move forward. If you match the outfits and style of her Material Girl video – part-screen siren, part-innocent and sexy – she was embracing a more thrift shop-born style that showed she was a humble and rooted artist who was more concerned with creating something pure and meaningful – against the glamour, record label-directed fashions and rather boring styles of the time. The period between True Blue (1986) and Like a Prayer (1989) saw new changes and developments. 1987’s Material Girl tour saw her break out a red flamenco dress; power-dressing and flirt came in by 1988; 1989’s Like a Prayer (song) saw her wearing a black slip for the video. There was a definite sense of raunch and confidence appearing by 1989. Her young fans were emulating her looks between 1983 and 1989 but it seems, by this point, Madonna was very much becoming a sexualised and primal woman. Her music was becoming bolder and more expressive and, even though there are differences between the slip of 1989 and her Jean Paul Gaultier corset of the 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour; it signified a move from the girlish and uber-cool Madonna to an artist becoming more daring and revealing than any of her peers. She was never far from the press regarding her sexuality, videos and the latest fashions. In my mind, her changing wardrobe was a way of shaking up music and getting girls and young women to embrace something rebellious and different.

It sounds like a controversial statement but, rather than getting them to dress ahead of their time and cause problems; she wanted them to break away from the boring and reserved: capture something that was new and strange; exciting and womanly. The early-1990s found her embracing the corset and adopting a more controversial look:

The corset became a dominant fashion theme in Madonna's look of the early 1990s. Madonna collaborated with the controversial couturier Jean Paul Gaultier for her 1990 Blonde Ambition world tour. Known for his fetishistic fashions, Gaultier designed Madonna's memorable pink corset with cone bra for her 1990 tour. Not only did Madonna's wearing of exaggerated foundation garments (sometimes worn under menswear-inspired fashions as in the "Vogue" video) toy with accepted notions of femininity, it also launched the trend of underwear as outerwear still prevalent today, seen on celebrities and in street fashions alike”.

From the virginal and street-cool Madonna of the early/mid-1980s; she was turning the provocateur and temptress. The diamond-encrusted Bob Mackie dress she wore for the 1991 Academy Awards was a huge departure from the more casual and affordable fashions she was sporting at the start of her career. Rather than buy from the high-street and take from New York; she was hooking up with designers and pushing convention.


IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna wearing a Bob Mackie dress to the 1991 Academy Awards/IMAGE/PHOTO CREDIT: Bob Mackie/Getty Images

Religious symbolism and Indian-style costumes were introduced into her 1993 stage show; she was experimenting with flapper-chic and high-glamour during 1984-1985. Even though albums like Erotica and Bedtime Stories looked at sex and embracing the self; that did not mean Madonna fell into the tawdry and media-baiting. There was some revelation and sexiness but was bringing Hollywood glam into the mix. She was inspiring legions of fans – new discoverers and girls who had followed her from the start maturing and developing – and showing the music world you did not need to follow labels (record) and be honed. You could express yourself and not have to follow the beat of the marketing drum. She opened doors and minds and, by 1998’s Ray of Light, another huge change had come in. Inspired by Kabbalah – one of the more divisive aspects of her beliefs/personality – darker clothing and gothic hair replaced the distinct blonde locks. Geisha and Eastern fashion were sitting alongside kimonos (she wore one for the 1999 video, Nothing Really Matters). Consider the difference between the Frozen video (all in black and a rather gothic demeanour) and Nothing Really Matters; her more modest and conventional look in Ray of Light (video) - all from the same album but completely different and unexpected.

The new century saw Madonna dispense with Eastern fashions and mix classic sexiness – inspiring in a woman who was approaching middle-age – and Disco chic. The Confessions on a Dance Floor album (2005) was Madge bringing in another iconic look: bits of 1970s Disco but more proactive, evocative and Madonna. Music (2000) and Ray of Light (1998) were celebrated: Confessions on a Dance Floor was probably the last of her modern records that gained a huge amount of love. Many critics felt Confessions on a Dance Floor was her strongest effort since the early days; a consistent and ever-curious artist looking at Dance, Disco and days gone by. Madonna, even when looking back, was futuristic and herself on the records that followed. Hard Candy (2008) is an ultra-sexy and stirring cover; MDNA (2012) and Rebel Heart (2015) mix bright make-up, alluring looks and a slight revocation of the Like a Virgin look – albeit it a more grown-up and of-the-times.


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

That is a bit of a rush through her career wardrobe and how she transformed from a shy if hungry artist influenced by the street and religion to a sexual and iconic star who mixed high-fashion with allure; to the Eastern mystic and spiritual goddess; right through to a middle-aged icon who proves/proved she is as bold and expressive as anyone in music. In any period, you can see how she leads rather than follows. Madonna has inspired legions of fans – who replicated her looks – and changed their lives. Cresting more confident, colour and style; it was a revolution in the 1980s and, through the 1990s and 2000s, she has managed to be that style icon and pioneer. One expects this to carry on through her sixties: an exciting decade that will bring new music, influences and alterations. Alongside the brilliant looks and fashions; the way Madonna spoke out and up stunned and moved a generation…

A recent article in The Guardian talks about Madonna being bigger than any man out there. The way she spoke out at the Billboard’s Women in Music ceremony – as she collected her Woman of the Year prize – shook and opened eyes. I shall quote from the piece:

When she collected her woman of the year prize at Billboard’s Women in Music awards in 2016, she said she stood before the crowd “as a doormat”. “Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse.” This is genuine, rightful anger and ferocity. The level of ageism and sexism directed at her is femicidal, even matricidal, visceral loathing. When people say they want Madonna to age gracefully, what they really mean is: become beige, shut up and go into a corner. And she refuses to do that. Instead, she continues to produce brilliant, captivating and thought-provoking work”.

Madonna has, as the piece continues, outlived many of her male peers like Michael Jackson and Prince and is stronger than any collaborator she has worked with. We know William Orbit and Timbaland has worked alongside her but they are producers and writers: Madonna is the central figure, strongest fire and core. More and more female artists are speaking out against abuse and sexism but the way in which Madonna delivers and projects makes an enormous impact.

There is no demure and sense of compromise: she is angry and pissed she and her peers have had to endure decades of imbalance and patronising attitudes. It is the way she has spoken throughout her career and shown she is more than a puppet and shill that goes hand-in-hand with the fantastic and evolving fashions. That strength and defiance, as the article continues, is not reserved to the verbal and psychological:

It is impossible to talk about Madonna without talking about power. She is an athlete. I once read an interview where her trainer said she is so strong that he has to invent new exercises for her because she can’t feel exercises for mere mortals. Her muscularity is not about appearance; it is an indication of her mental strength and resilience. She is indestructible. But she has survived so long not just because of her talent, and not just because of her physical and mental strength. It is also that she is intelligent, professional and always engaged – she has seen the world, brought up children, worked in multiple fields. She is mentally alive and this is what keeps her searching, moving and creating”.

Madonna ruffled conservative feathers when she showed her affinity for gay culture and gender roles. She was never a fan of macho men or those who tried to buy her. She was bold and brash when it came to gender roles and celebrated gay culture.


IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna during her Girlie Tour in 1993/PHOTO CREDIT: Rex Features

At a time when HIV was claiming lives and making the news; some saw that as controversial and irresponsible. Rather than cause a stir, she was giving voice to the gay population and bringing them into popular culture. She did not care whether it meant losing fans or pissing the record label off. She was not your average Popstar who talked about cute boys, being taken out to the cinema and courted – maybe there was some of that in Material Girl but it was a brief flirtation -; she was someone who had independence and was calling the shots. Speaking out against sexism and the crap of the industry; she was waving a flag (colourful and bold) for the rights of those trodden on and overlooked; a confident and unique woman who was never going to be submissive and scared. The media pictured her with various suitors – including her then-husband Sean Penn and Guy Ritchie – but she was always the one that gained the most attention. From the earliest days of her career, she was writing songs and keen to establish herself as a singer-songwriter as opposed a ‘Popstar’. There was that need to speak her own mind and not be controlled. This spilt into her fashion and sexuality. As recently as 2015, Madonna has been outspoken regarding nudity – she rebelled against Instagram’s nudity rules in a controversial snap – and was pictured at various parts of her career wearing very little or nothing at all.

Unlike a lot of controlled Pop artists and no-talent reality T.V. stars; this was not a chance to gain hollow popularity and court media attention. This was part of her personality and who she was as a creative soul. Madonna has attacked ageist interviews and commentators who feel she needs to produce music/videos befitting of someone of her age – never one to take that sort of insult with any patience and calm. Back in 2016, when she collected her award and attacked sexism, she was interviewed about her stance regarding sex and sexism:

The 58-year-old went on to discuss the time period surrounding the release of her album “Erotica” and her book Sex. She recalled being called “a whore and a witch” in the press, and even being compared to Satan. At one point during the speech, she began to tear up.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t Prince running around with fishnets and high heels and lipstick with his butt hanging out?’ Yes, he was. But he was a man,” she said. “This was the first time I truly understood women do not have the same freedom as men.”

“People say that I’m so controversial,” she added. “I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around”.

Whether you see her confidence, sexual expression and controversy-causing comments as the signs of a good or bad role model, it shows, at every age, she will not be silenced and wants to say what many are not. Madonna has always said how she’d rather live fierce and fast and does not want to be like everyone else. She does not care what anyone else thinks – make of that what you will... – and she always speaks up rather than remaining silent.

That need to be expressive and not be silenced is a reason why many consider her an icon and role model. There are those who argue she sets a bad example but Madonna will not care. To me, she is one of those rare artists who produced endlessly innovative and quality music and mixes that with a voice and style that is her own. She states how modern music is samey and plastic: we need to take more from Madonna and encourage our mainstream artists to take from her. As she turns sixty; I wonder whether those fighting sexism, boredom and a rather bland scene will take a cigarette from Madonna, light it up and stub it in the face of the modern scene – something we need to see! She remains that divisive, extraordinary and quotable star that has not grown quiet with age. Whereas many of her peers are settling and calming their workload; Madonna is preparing new work and getting into the news.

At a time where there is stagnation and sexism continues; she is someone whose opinions and guidance are sorely needed – she has lived through decades of change and imbalance. The fact she is a survivor and constant innovator should be celebrated as much as anything. Even without her fantastic back catalogue...Madonna’s sixtieth is a chance to look at the iconic looks and changes; the way she speaks up and out for the minorities and the judged; the bold and confident star who has managed to change and revolutionise the music world as we know it. Let’s just hope, as she enters her seventh decade of life, we see no…


IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna at the Met Gala in 2017/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

END in sight.