It goes without saying that we all exist in a culture that is infected with youth obsession. Anyone who claims immunity or existence outside of this bubble entirely, is also entirely lying to themselves. Whether yours is an internally wagging finger or one that you have openly pointed at others, each and every one of us can surely think of a situation where we have shunned an idea, a piece of art or another human being because of our perceptions surrounding age appropriateness.
I hate to admit that I’ve often been plagued by feelings of concern about this idea of “what’s appropriate” as I navigate through my thirties. Is it “appropriate” that I, a 34 year old man, like to watch TV shows and listen to music that is marketed to teenagers and young adults? Is it “appropriate” that as an undeniable adult, I still like to play video games and watch cartoons? I like to think that it’s a hang-up that anyone can easily understand, given the messages and visual cues we receive every day in popular culture. It is drilled in to our collective consciousness that getting older is inevitable obsolescence and that as you age there are expectations for you to behave in a specific fashion, to age “gracefully.”
Several years ago, though I can’t pinpoint when exactly, I used to buzz my hair in to a non-committal type of mohawk. By non-committal, I mean that I only buzzed the sides, as opposed to shaving them bald. (See: Left, Selfie – 2007.) To anyone who is more than a poser in the punk scene, my small act of rebellious hair-cutting was relatively tame, but to me it felt a little bad ass, and bad ass was something I had really only flirted with. I decided, after some consideration, that it suited me and I kept the hair style in varying degrees for the better part of my late twenties. It had become sort of a calling card; a signature look.
That said, as I passed from the naively-assumed immortality of my twenties to the soul searching, thinking-about-my-future thirties, I began to move up the ladder in my day job. With that, I started feeling the pressure to “grow up.” I shaved off the poser-punk hair and stopped wearing attention-eliciting accessories, even outside of the workplace. (Aside: I think I miss the 1″ button with the word “cocksucker” printed on it the most.)
One would argue that this was a necessary change to aid in my professional advancement, but deep down, I will admit that I had a nagging voice in my head telling me that it isn’t appropriate for a man in his thirties to wear a mohawk, to be “fun” and to express himself in whatever way he saw fit. There was zero pressure to make these changes from my (very casual) place of work, and all of my insecurity and shame was entirely self-imposed. I was thirty one years old, and had already sentenced myself to a life without any more rebellious, fashion-related fun. In retrospect, this begs a question: WHY!?
I’ll come back to that question later, but humor me now, as I return to 2015, where society and most of all, popular culture is more youth obsessed than ever. In this age of take down culture and endless think pieces, we have rabid opinions en masse, and nearly direct access to celebrities by way of social media. No longer vulnerable to only the mudslinging of magazine critics and the occasional over zealous activist group, artists these days are damned if they don’t, damned if they do, like never before. Artists who refuse to go under the knife, or cater to the teen and young adult demographics get pushed systematically towards the trash bin by the industry, and those that try to maintain a youthful appearance, or stay current in their chosen creative medium, invite direct public scorn and scandal as media spin turns in to venomous tweets and unbearably ignorant comments on articles and social media posts.
Arguably few artists have been subject to a level of public scrutiny greater than that of the ever-reigning Queen of Pop (don’t even start with me, Stans!), and long time provocateur, Madonna. While it’s clear that Madonna has always invited controversy and debate, the criticism thrown at her in recent years, both by anonymous social media “trolls,” and by people who call themselves journalists, not only flirts with, but fully immerses itself in the sexist, ageist waters of counter-progressive thought.
In 2015, when Madonna expresses support for a younger generation of pop artists, works with of-the-moment producers or experiments with unconventional genres, she’s accused of being a “vampire” and riding coattails of current artists to stay “relevant.” When she releases a glossy album cover image, she’s crucified for the excessive photoshop manipulation that all modern promo images and album covers are subject to. When she suffered an unfortunate fall on stage at the 2015 Brit Awards, immediately got back up and gave her all, she still became the subject of countless silly memes criticizing her for being “too old” to do what she’s been doing for over thirty years; in a pop landscape she all-but sculpted for her many would-be predecessors.
All that said, for true rebellion to exist there must be be opposition; Madonna has seemingly always understood that fact. One could argue that without the haters, Madonna might have never made the headlines that catapulted her in to the very heights of pop infamy. In fact, her legend is built on giving an unapologetic middle finger to those who would try and hold her back. She did it when she bared her belly button, writhed around on the VMA stage in a wedding dress and advocated for gay rights and HIV prevention to the scorn of right wing conservatives in 1985. In 1988, she adopted religious imagery to much controversy during her “Like a Prayer” album campaign and in 1992 she challenged sexual taboos with the release of her much maligned coffee table book “Sex” and companion album “Erotica.” (The first CD I ever owned, at age 12, but that’s a whole other story.) From her disco crucifixion in 2006’s “Confessions” tour, to her appropriation of hip hop beats (years before it became the norm) on 2008’s “Hard Candy,” Madonna has always met our expectations by rebelling against ideas of “acceptable” or “appropriate” behavior, and yet many would somehow expect all of that to change just because she has a few more candles on her birthday cake. Again, I ask the question: WHY!?
The thing is, that nagging voice that made me cut off my mohawk is a social construct, and one that is very deeply ingrained in almost each and every one of us. While my place of work never pressured me to “act my age”, it is evident that years of being conditioned to think that thirty year old men were to behave a certain way, has had a definite effect on me. It has had an effect on you too, if you really think that a 56 year old woman is not “acting her age” when she revels in an empire she built, reflects on her tremendous accomplishments and still decides that she’s not finished, that she will continue to push buttons and break down barriers that we will all face as we too, continue getting older and start feeling the limitations that society will try and force on us for doing so.
Madonna doesn’t listen to her affected inner dialogue the way I once did, and the way each and every one of us do when we decide to shame any artist for defying some antiquated, conservative idea about what, within the law, is “appropriate” behavior for a capable and consenting adult to engage in.
In the three decades that have passed since she entered the scene, a lot of things have changed, but despite what many have said, her relevancy is not one of them. Being Madonna in 2015 continues to mean what it always has; expressing oneself, demolishing suffocating social taboos and refusing to accept a world that would not only expect, but actively campaign for someone to suddenly stop standing for everything she consistently has in her unparalleled, trailblazing career-to-date.
Madonna should be an inspiration to us all. She has lived her life in the public eye, unapologetically, fought and worked her ass off and stood behind her work time and time again, ride or die. In a world where human beings are living longer than ever, we should all hope to have that much courage, drive and determination.