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What Madonna Taught Me About Fashion, Sex And Ageing

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As Madonna celebrates her 60th birthday, Polly Vernon pens a love letter to the Queen of Pop...

Happy bloody birthday Madonna! 60 years old, which is... Well. Extraordinary. To say, ‘You don’t look it’ would be to understate the situation considerably, never mind: fall back on a drab old cliché. Drab old clichés are no way to talk about you. A disrupter of clichés. A woman who has devoted her professional life to challenging everything from the Catholic church to homophobia to pervading ideas about whether one can wear a second-hand wedding dress over leggings for a day trip in a Venetian gondola. ‘Don’t look 60...’? You make us wonder what 60 is supposed to look like at all.

I haven’t got you anything, which is rude, given how much you’ve given me. How much you’ve given all of us. The thrills and the spills and the pop, the drama, the marriages, the spectacle. Your outfit in Like A Prayer, aka the look toward which part of me is always aspiring.

You have never been boring; but we – I’m ashamed to say – haven’t always been grateful. Haven’t always Got It. The time you simulated masturbation on stage at the Toronto ’91 performance of the Blonde Ambition tour, and nearly got arrested. The time Pepsi dropped you as a spokesperson after the Vatican threatened to boycott all its products, because of your perpetual questioning of Catholicism, the faith in which you were raised. The live and on-air swearing, the live and on-stage kissing of both Britney and Christina at the 2003 VMAs; the cone-boobed bodices; the 1992 coffee table book SEX, which seems in retrospect, through the filter of an age which offers us hot ’n’ cold running porn on our smart phones, really quite tame... But at the time, caused all that fuss.

The time you refused to hide your face and body away from public sight, despite the fact that you’d had the audacity to get just a little older.

I don’t doubt you like bothering us, Madonna. I don’t doubt that you enjoy winding us up and setting us off, making us gasp, recoil, then return for a second look. I don’t doubt that you get off on all that, in and of itself. But at the same time, I appreciate there’s a bigger point to it. One that’s kind of defined me, in a way for which I’ll never be able to adequately thank you.

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The first thing you gave me was fashion. I was – what? Nine? 10? 11? – when first you erupted on to the scene; a small town girl (me, that is), with nascent but rapidly evolving ambitions to be glamorous. And there you were, frolicking and posing and cavorting and exploding in clothes I either didn’t know could be combined (fishnet vest tops over bralets over cycling shorts) – or didn’t even know existed. The creativity and imagination and magpie pick ’n’ mixing that went into your wardrobe! The way you ripped it and shifted it and wrapped it around; then changed it up, from vid to vid, from tour to tour, from film to film! You were the reason I felt OK to experiment with clothes. You were the reason I didn’t care if my schoolmates laughed at me. They didn’t know. But you did.

The second thing you gave me was sex. At first, I didn’t fully understand what it was you alluded to, with your every lip-lick, hair flick, face-grip. Your lyrics whispered about something I instinctively understood to be potent – but was, nonetheless, beyond me in terms of specifics. But I got older, and more sexually aware; and what you were impacted me profoundly. You weren’t merely a sex icon. You were an icon of female sexuality. A profoundly sexual being. You were predatory, pleasure-seeking, scary, powerful. As I became a teenager, got my first boyfriend, started having sex... That early, defining influence left me utterly sexually entitled. I knew – absolutely and without question knew – that sex wasn’t about men. It wasn’t for men. It was about me. It was for me. If some guy got me naked, then he was damned lucky – and had better make it worth my while. In my late teens, my friends and I developed a ‘two fails and they’re out’ policy on boys, meaning, they had two chances to make us come; and if they didn’t, they were dumped. I remember one friend ending a relationship with some inadequate guy, by saying: ‘Do you not know I’m faking it – or do you just not care?’ (‘Fanny is a cruel mistress, Polly,’ she later explained.)

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This was you, Madonna. You seeded these expectations of sex in us, and they have served us so well. I look at women and girls 20 years younger than I am now and genuinely, truly, deeply unsettled by a wolf whistle in the street... And I wonder how differently they’d feel if they, like I, had been lucky enough to grow sexually aware on your watch. Oh, and while we’re kind of in that territory: I have no doubt you are part of the reason that when I, aged 18, was violently sexually assaulted by a stranger, I not only survived, I thrived. I was certainly le thinking of my attacker: ‘You may have a hideous, damaged relationship with the opposite sex, and with sex itself. I however, do not; and I am buggered if I’m going to let you change that in the tiniest way.’

The third thing you have given me is reduced shame about ageing. I watched you perform for the first time at the O2 in December 2015 and I was mesmerised. It sounds absurd given how much you have meant to me, and for how long: but I had never fully understood how good you are at being a pop star. How meticulous, hard-working, inventive – how funny. How unafraid to surround yourself with dancers and singers better than you – because you know that’ll a) make the overall show stronger, and b) make you up your game. I also watched you – then aged 57 – portray nothing but physical and emotional strength. I watched you, and understood that you can do the same thing for women and ageing that you did for women and sex. Reinvent it. Reappropriate it. Rob it of shame.

So: Happy Birthday, Madonna. And thanks.