The Nerve of Madonna to Pull It Off, Again

Eighteen years ago, Madonna observed: “Once you pass 35, your age becomes part of the first sentence of anything written. It’s a form of limiting your options and almost putting you in your place. For women, naturally.” She was 47 when she said that and intent upon challenging the cultural script that suggested women, especially female performers, had a use-by date.

“Why is that acceptable?” she asked music writer Brian Hiatt nearly 10 years later, still battling critics who told her to dress her age, act her age, in short to pack it in and retreat from the spotlight because she was past her prime. “Women, generally, when they reach a certain age, have accepted that they’re not allowed to behave a certain way. But I don’t follow the rules .…”

To the question “Is she still relevant?” her Celebration Tour, which concluded this month, is proof that she is. Madonna performed before the largest audience ever gathered to watch a female artist and mounted the single biggest free stand-alone concert in history: 1.6 million people turned Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach into a dance floor on May 4. According to Billboard, her six-month, 80-show tour grossed $225.4 million, making her the only woman in history to gross more than $100 million during six concert tours. (The only solo male in that category is Bruce Springsteen.)

But there’s so much more to her triumph than numbers. That a 65-year-old female pop star pulled off this tour and, despite our increasingly intolerant times, the performance was her most relentlessly and delightfully queer since the 1990’s groundbreaking Blond Ambition Tour would be unimaginable, except that it was Madonna. The Celebration Tour proved that Madonna wasn’t afraid of drawing attention to her long career; she owned it proudly.

All of her past selves showed up, in role and in costume, to help celebrate the many ways she has evolved and the many ways she and her collaborators have explored and expressed gender throughout the years. It was a beautifully inclusive, encouraging spectacle. If history is a guide, the social and artistic ramifications of her performance will extend well beyond the numbers and long after her tour.

Madonna’s 1985 Virgin Tour, her debut, included only 40 shows in North America and grossed about $5 million. But its impact on young lives is immeasurable. The young women and girls in her audience were on the cusp of unleashing their sexual selves and embracing their independence, which is what made them so terrifying to a broader society intent upon keeping them polite, passive and manageable.

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