If you were an alien from another planet, or say, someone who was too busy trying to make the world a better place to follow a Twitter feed or even vaguely care about the Internet’s mindless natterings, you’d probably look at Katy Perry and Madonna’s V Magazine shoot from this week and think something along the lines of, “Those two 25 year olds are being quite sexy.” It’s a confusing image, and the concept of a 29-year-old Perry and the 55-year-old Madonna looking equal in age as they played out an S&M fantasy, made me ask: who needs who more in order to be relevant?
Katy Perry—despite meeting Michael Jackson’s record for five number one hits from the same album and being the only woman to do so—is a relative newcomer to pop. Particularly in comparison to Madonna, veteran who radically altered the way we see sex and women in pop music. Ergo, being photographed for a high fashion mag with Madge legitimizes her as a “serious” popstar/woman/sex symbol. On the other hand, Madonna, despite her icon status, has been putting out mediocre records and not really adding anything of particular pertinence to the pop culture conversation, needs to be photographed with hot young thing Katy Perry in order to maintain relevance in the fickle public consciousness. It could be that both women need each other equally, but Madonnna, despite her legend, seems increasingly unequal as her flirtations with the new guard seem to be the only thing keeping her from fading into contemporary irrelevance. And it’s not like Madonna to fade.
Madonna has been Madonna going on 35 years now, and in the heyday of her career revolutionized pop, femininity, sex, and fashion. We agree on this. We should also agree that Madonna is obsessed with youth and in maintaining the illusion of her own. Essentially, all Madonna has done in the last decade is attempt to convince us that she’s still 20, with varying degrees of success. In my opinion, the last good album Madonna put out was Ray of Light in 1998 (everything before this was—and it should go without saying—The Best). Music, released in 2000, was passable, and depending on your mood, quite possibly enjoyable. “What It Feels Like For A Girl” actually holds up better than I thought it would. Then came the middling This American Life in 2003 and the very special moment that opened the MTV Music Awards: the Britney-Madonna-Xtina kiss sandwich, which we still haven’t stopped talking about.
Despite her stuttering musical output, in 2003 Madonna still had the clout to take two young chart toppers, at the apex of their careers, and turn them into icons. Madonna won’t be remembered because she was the lady that kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but they will be remembered for being the girls who smooched Madonna. If, in 2003, anyone had any doubt that Brit and Xtina were the reigning princesses of pop, such doubt was erased when God herself came down and bestowed her kisses upon them. And next to their young bodies, Madonna pulled off the deceit she’s been obsessed with ever since—she made us forget that her body was old.
Since then, Madonna’s mostly been accused of “desperation.” She certainly has not been accused of making a great album. With Confessions on the Dancefloor and that purple leotard in “Hung Up,” Madonna gave up the ghost, and it was that moment in which we became collectively aware of her crusade for youthfulness. And now, Madonna—icon, boundary-breaker, history-maker—relies on the appeal of fresh young stars to legitimize her continued participation in pop music. From Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. flanking her at the Super Bowl to her appearing with Miley Cyrus for the younger woman’s MTV Unplugged special (and painfully mimicking Miley’s trademark tongue), Madonna could be accused as riding on infant coattails. Having brought nothing interesting to music or performance in arguably a decade, Madonna is like that little kitten on a string, just hanging in there, hoping that the glow of youth will reflect off her and we won’t notice that she’s old hat.
Madonna’s appearance with Katy Perry in V Magazine will, ultimately, do more for her than it will for Perry, who, in the midst of a world tour, would likely garner as much attention posed on her own. Ironically, Madonna as the submissive in the S&M shoot says a lot about the authorial voice in pop—it still belongs with the younger woman. Which is a sad thing for women because, with age comes experience, and with experience comes a more interesting conversation. It pains me that men, The Rolling Stones for instance, strut about stages like saggy nutsacks just barely holding together their contents, ragged with years and wrinkles and drugs and stories, and women like Madonna, who are just as accomplished, cling to their own shadows.
People listen to Keith Richards tell stories about drinking piss out of the carpet or whatever the fuck other disgusting shit men do when they’re spastic on drugs like they’re listening to a church sermon. I want the same for this woman, for this Madonna, who’s been to hell and back, who changed everything for women in pop, who was challenging and different and brave, who was beaten down and who got back up again. I want more for her than the stretched mask made of her own skin that’s taut across her face as she emulates a barely-accomplished-by-comparison Katy Perry. I want to see her as we so often see iconic men, absolutely falling apart from the years of changing the face of our culture, and absolutely unashamed for the basic crime that belongs to women and women alone: the crime of getting older.
Kat George risks life and limb (see below) to put her well thought opinions out there and for that we thank her. She's on Twitter - @Kat_George.