Eight ways Madonna changed the world

Section
Celebrity,
Publish Date
Tuesday, 31 July 2018, 12:35PM

She's sold 300 million albums, her tours have grossed $1.31 billion, and she's one of the most famous women ever to have lived – and next month, in a milestone, she turns 60.

But these days the Queen of Pop is much more likely to be attacked than appreciated: for years she has endured mockery of her refusal to dress demurely, her taste for younger men, and that one time she fell over on stage.

Amid this, it can easy to forget quite how influential she has been: without her, from music to fashion to the whole concept of celebrity, today's pop culture landscape would simply not exist as it is.

And that's not to mention the impact she's had on her on her fans, like my own teenage self, whose love for her I have channelled into a new novel, The Madonna of Bolton, which celebrates the impression she makes on a young working class man's coming of age in the Eighties and Nineties. So to mark the big occasion, here are a few ways in which her Madgesty has conclusively changed the world.

1. She laid out the template for the modern female pop icon

Long before Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, Madonna was the first female pop star to project an image of control, drive and fierce independence. For all her personal suffering (her mother died when she was five), she has rarely betrayed any emotional fragility. Rather, she has worn costumes that looked like armour, such as the famous corset designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier for the Blond Ambition tour.

Madonna wore a Jean-Paul Gaultier corset for her Blond Ambition Tour. Photo / Getty Images

And in the video for Express Yourself, a rousing anthem to female empowerment, she dressed in a man's suit and presided over an army of male underlings. 'I'm tough, I'm ambitious and I know exactly what I want,' she once said. 'If that makes me a bitch, OK.'

2. She helped define the modern music video

"Kids today worship the television," Madonna declared in a press conference in 1984, suggesting videos were "a great way to reach a lot of people who wouldn't be able to come and see you live". Her words were revolutionary in an industry still adjusting to the advent of MTV. In her early days, especially, she pushed the limits of what could be explored through the medium, and each new film was a major event. She's made exquisite narrative videos (the teenage pregnancy story of Papa Don't Preach, below); re-worked pre-existing cultural imagery, such as, in Material Girl, Marilyn Monroe's performance of Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend; and served up iconic dance sequences (Vogue and Hung Up.)

Perhaps most importantly, she's always used the music video as a medium for expressing ideas: for instance, in early videos such as Like A Virgin and La Isla Bonita, she played the dual role of Good Madonna/Bad Madonna that challenged the virgin/whore dichotomy of her Catholic heritage.

3. She brought female sexuality front and centre

From her first performance of Like a Virgin at the MTV Music Awards in 1984, which saw her writhing around the stage in a low-cut wedding dress, she fought against the double standard that allows a man to express his sexuality but encourages a woman to suppress hers. Most notorious, in this respect, is Erotica, her 1992 concept album, and the accompanying Sex, a coffee-table book of explicit photographs exploring her wildest sexual fantasies.

Madonna poses at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1984. Photo / AP

The latter represented the most transgressive move of Madonna's career saw many mainstream media outlets subject her to an onslaught of slut-shaming before the term had even been invented; in recent years, the book has undergone a reappraisal, with many critics claiming her message was ahead of its time.

4. She paved the way for reality TV

In many ways, Madonna's 1991 tour documentary In Bed With Madonna can be seen as the precursor to the modern wave of manipulated and "structured" reality TV. The film contrasted footage of the Blond Ambition show with black-and-white backstage scenes that blew apart the mystique surrounding global superstardom. But, while In Bed With Madonna did represent a radical exercise in self-revelation, it's since become apparent that much of the action was set up for the cameras. Unlike the "fly-on-the-wall" tour documentaries that had gone before it, it was built around a plot that was constructed – a combination of reality and invention whose influence runs all the way to this summer's Love Island.

Before Madonna, the concert tour was a visually dull affair. Then, in 1990, Madonna created her Blond Ambition show, which was far more theatrical than anything that had been seen before. The show was made up of four themed sections, or "acts", which comprised multiple costume and set changes, revolutionary lighting designs and screen projections, and ambitious dance routines made possible by a specially designed microphone worn like a headset. It caused a sensation - and the set the stand for the modern pop concert. Ironically, in his book Life With My Sister Madonna, her brother Christopher suggests it was Madonna's insecurity about her vocal abilities – and her worry about exposing these by simply singing on stage – that inspired her to reinvent the live experience.

Madonna performing in New York in 1998. Photo / Getty Images

6. She popularised reinvention

David Bowie may have originated the art of pop reinvention but it was Madonna – a huge fan of his – who took it to the next level, and led to it becoming part of the strategic repertoire of every star since. Her talent for this first emerged in March 1986, when she cast off the punky look that had made her famous – the lace gloves, crucifixes, rags in her hair, and underwear as outerwear that had inspired a generation of "wannabes" – and released the video for Live to Tell (below), which revealed a new stripped-back look of golden blonde hair, subtle make-up and a simple dress. Since then, we've had everything from Earth Mother to Cowgirl Madonna.

7. She broke down social barriers

"Diversity" may be one of the buzzwords of the entertainment industry today but Madonna has always produced work that has brought marginalised groups to the fore. As a girl brought up in multi-racial Detroit, it was natural for her to surround herself with multicultural collaborators and to feature black and Latino characters in her videos. Equally, gay and lesbian characters appeared in her videos from as early as 1986, Vogue was directly inspired by gay culture, and she has never missed an opportunity to proudly parade her gay dancers, friends and collaborators.

At the height of the hysteria around the HIV/Aids crisis, she performed Aids benefit concerts and used her album Like A Prayer to campaign for greater awareness of the disease; each copy carried a leaflet in which Madonna insisted that "People with AIDS – regardless of their sexual orientation – deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry."

8. She's dared to grow old

"Act your age," Madonna is often told when she appears on stage in revealing costumes. But what many of those who age-shame Madonna don't realise is that she was always old – and from the very start of her career has been mocked for it. Madonna didn't have her first hit until 1983, by which time she was 25.

Compare that to the likes of Britney Spears and Beyoncé, who were teenagers when they became famous – or Madonna's fellow Eighties icons Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince and George Michael, who were all much younger than her when they first enjoyed success. Perhaps tellingly, Madonna is the only one to have survived. In recent years, she's begun to fight back against ageism. In her speech at the Billboard Women in Music event in 2016, she said that in the world of music, 'to age is a sin'. 'People say I'm controversial,' she added, 'but I think the most controversial thing that I've done is to stick around.'

This article originally appeared on the Daily Telegraph.