What can we learn from Madonna?

Photograph by Lauren Holley

Photograph by Lauren Holley

I confess I’ve had a long fascination with Madonna. She burst into the music scene just as I was entering my teenage years and I found myself captivated by her combination of sexiness, streetwise confidence, creativity and capacity for reinvention. I sang along to her songs, choreographed dance routines to them, watched her movies and even dressed up as her for my 13th birthday fancy dress fondue party (well it was the early 80’s and fondue was a thing!)

Throughout her career I have observed her being arrogant, cruel, controversial and crude as well as intelligent, thoughtful, spiritual and provocative. I have cringed almost as many times as I’ve been enthralled. Yet, her so-called flaws only add to the sense of the fascination. Like so many, I grew up with Madonna. She entered my life at a formative time and has remained present ever since. And now, like her or not, at the age of sixty Madonna is still here, defying conventions and expectations around what an aging woman can be.  

I was eagerly looking forward to seeing Madonna perform at Eurovision this year and had given my eldest daughter dispensation to stay up to watch it with me. But disappointment followed. The staging was dramatic and high impact, in true Madonna style a political point was made, but her singing was noticeably off key and it made for uncomfortable viewing. In an instant Twitter was awash with shock, horror and glee at the fall of the great icon.

My response was an empathic one. Although I’ve never performed in front of millions I’ve taken my own risks, and dealt with humiliation before. Risk taking is a part of life for anyone who wants to grow.  Rather than delighting in mockery I was wary of being critical. I was reminded of the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

But it also got me thinking about age and limitations. Whilst Madonna has helped to change the narrative of what aging means for older women, broadening the range of expectations for all of us, she also has to deal with her own changing physicality. I too love singing (albeit in the comfort of my own home) but have noticed as I have aged that my range has narrowed. Those top notes that I used to reach effortlessly are now a little out of my reach. A whole rafter of songs has been eliminated from my vocal repertoire much to my disappointment.  

Photograph by Lauren Holley

Photograph by Lauren Holley

It raises the question; how can we respond to these limitations and changes?  Do we blithely carry on as if nothing has changed? Do we hold on tight to the things that identify us? Or do we adjust accordingly? In my own case I do what I can to protect my voice through exercises and I sing different songs. They are good songs too, just different. I adapted in a similar way to when I injured my knee and could no longer dance, that time I turned to another passion, writing.

If we take a leaf out of Madonna’s book it is about reinvention. Reinvention is not without its pain, it often involves giving something up, letting something go, but this leads to the discovery of something new. Most of us have multiple interests, and ageing gives us the opportunity to explore some of the interests that may have fallen by the wayside in our earlier years.