There's been much talk in the last couple of weeks about Madonna turning 50
, but little discussion of what — if anything — it all means. Most of the chatter has concerned the seeming miracle of her physical preservation (though I much preferred the far more natural, ever-so-slightly-potbellied version that first bounced onto the scene way back in 1984) rather than any examination of her artistic progression over the course of the past 25 years. With an icon, of course, it's all about surfaces.
Part of the reason I wrote I Shot a Man in Reno is because I'm fascinated by the sight of all these rock and pop stars trooping into middle age and on into their dotage. How do they react to the process of getting older? They can either wrestle with the implications and incorporate their feelings directly into their music — David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Richard Thompson spring to mind here — or they can blithely ignore the passing of time and persevere with their tight jeans and improbably youthful haircuts, still singing the songs they wrote in their teens and early twenties without an inch of irony or awkwardness.
The latter approach remains the most popular, and the Rolling Stones are a fine example. I talked with Mick Jagger (aged 65-1/2) for the book, and he had some interesting things to say. "In a way we're in a bit of a pioneer area, because pop music doesn't really deal with [death and ageing] as a major topic," he said at one point, in the course of rather tartly conceding that the music of the Rolling Stones might not be, well, very grown up. "You're writing within certain conventions — which you can break, but you're still working with them — and you have to recognise what they are. For years the three-and-a-half minute pop song has been an absurd convention, but we're still in it more or less. That's just one of the conventions and there are many, many others that you tend to follow. And one is that it's not conventional to write about too depressing subjects all of the time."
It's a mistake to simply assume that rock stars ever truly grow up. Few do. Unlike the Caesars of old, most of them don't employ someone to whisper "Remember you are mortal" in their ear. Instead, they model themselves on Peter Pan and surround themselves with the lost boys and girls. Jagger knows better than most that pop music is a grand illusion and we are all — artists, audience, journalists — complicit to some degree in keeping it that way. Acknowledging the mortality of our rock heroes means acknowledging and confronting our own mortality, too, and that's something we're increasingly unwilling to do in western society. Of course, middle age hits us all considerably later these days, but standing in a field with thousands of baby-boomers singing along to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" or "My Generation" isn't simply an exercise in nostalgia; it's also a kind of communal incantation, an attempt to keep the vagaries of Old Father Time at bay.
But I don't want artists to hold back the tide of time; I want them to embrace the ageing process, or at least to confront it. The truly pioneering musicians, the ones who have found a way of remaining culturally relevant into their old age, have not shirked from addressing issues concerning mortality: Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, even Neil Diamond. Then again, you could argue that these are artists who have always been attracted to the darker side of the human condition. Madonna, on the other hand, is all about creating and indulging a fantasy version of ourselves.
But where will Madonna go in the next ten years — will she still be singing "Hung Up" in a pink leotard? I hope not. I hope she has something a little more interesting to say. I'd love to see her become more vulnerable and honest in her music; I'd love to hear about her hopes and fears as a mother as she gets older; love to see her become some kind of truculent old diva, dispensing her womanly wisdom with a take-it-or-leave-it defiance, rather than chasing the youthful zeitgeist with an ever increasing sense of desperation.
I notice she's been playing a little more guitar on her current tour; maybe that's her concession to becoming a "mature" artist. Maybe that's all we can expect.