Forgive me for doubting, Madonna: you are still a sister in arms

Madonna performs during the opening night of the Celebration Tour at the O2 Arena in London
Madonna performs during the opening night of the Celebration Tour at the O2 Arena in London - Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation

I owe one Ms Madonna Louise Ciccone a big apology. I had dismissed her and declared her irrelevant. A traitor even. And I was wrong. So wrong.

After adoring her in my twenties and thirties – seeing her at Wembley in 1987 – I had no interest in shelling out bundles of cash this time around, to see the now 65-year-old “Queen of Pop” on her latest “Celebration Tour”.

I’d seen the video of her tripping on a stupid cloak and falling off a stage. I’d seen her muttoning it up in the kind of corsets she’d made iconic in her prime. I’d seen the wrinkled-old-hands covered with gloves, which she adopted at a much younger age than Karl Lagerfeld did.

Madonna performs on stage on her Who's That Girl Tour at Wembley Stadium in 1987
Madonna at Wembley Stadium in 1987, where Maggie Alderson first saw her perform live - Pete Still/Redferns

Worst of all I’d seen the Wildenstein plastic surgery – and I took it personally.

Looking at those pictures of the polyester pillow lips and wipe-clean cheek implants, I felt betrayed.

Born just one year before me she was a trailblazer for showing how a woman can own and control her success. Which was particularly impressive in an industry where so many young women are egregiously exploited and manipulated – some by their own fathers, hello Britney, hello Amy.

In stark contrast even to Taylor Swift, she’s always kept a tight grip on her creative and management processes. Alongside being a constantly evolving, boundary-pushing artistic genius.

For all those reasons, I always thought Madonna was going to be the one to show my generation of women how to grow old with cool style. Instead, she seemed to be going down the Hollywood Boulevard route, but in public.

Apparently so desperate to retain the male gaze in later life she seemed to have mutilated herself in the deluded pursuit of youthful appearance. Far from looking young, she looked grotesque in those pictures.

I felt betrayed, because – born a year apart – we kind of grew up together and I’d thought we were sisters in arms in the more nuanced second-wave resistance to the patriarchy. So, it was bewildering when she seemed to have gone over to the other side, lip implants first.

Especially from a woman who collects artworks by Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer.

But on Tuesday night I went – almost accidentally, a friend had a spare ticket, so I pulled myself off the sofa and strolled along – to Madonna’s show at the O2.

Maggie Alderson at the O2 Arena to see Madonna on her Celebration Tour
Maggie Alderson at the O2 Arena to see Madonna on her Celebration Tour

I left feeling I might have been to the greatest concert of my life. (And I saw Blondie at the Marquee in 1977.)

Now I’m wondering if those plastic surgery pictures that upset me so much had actually been photoshopped.

Seeing her in real life, while she does have a forehead and cheeks as smooth as a crash helmet, she doesn’t have one of those weird American plastic flange faces, as she appears to in the infamous shots. She still looks like Madonna. With a slightly Barbie-doll finish admittedly, but still our Mads.

And in the context of her show, her surgically and chemically adjusted features didn’t seem jarring at all. It’s showbiz. All part of the razzle dazzle.

Because far more than just a creator of timelessly brilliant pop songs – and wow, did they stand up to scrutiny on Tuesday night – Madonna has always been a performer.

Madonna with one of her dancers on the opening night of the Celebration Tour on October 14 2023 in London, England
'On stage she’s a creator and a curator of visual astonishments,' writes Alderson - Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation

Just as in her 40-year oeuvre of iconic music videos, on stage she’s a creator and a curator of visual astonishments.

The whole theatrical spectacle of the Celebration show, compered by a larger-than-life drag queen (RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen) wearing an oversized version of her Marie-Antoinette costume, was about chimeric artifice.

Everything on her stage was fluid, from the expressions of her own sexuality to the gender of her dancers. At one point they were all nearly naked and some that you might have thought were men had breasts and some you might have thought were women, didn’t.

At one point Madonna snogs one of them with commitment. Gender mutable and completely irrelevant – and everything much more interesting for it.

Later in the show species also becomes fluid as she turns into an alien, in a skintight faceted metallic Versace-does-Barbarella catsuit, her image transposed onto a fantastical Avatar-esque distant planet landscape on the giant back screen.

Madonna performs in a skintight silver catsuit
Madonna performs in a skintight silver catsuit - Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation

She sang that entire song on a raised platform lying down, which I thought was pure genius for an artiste more than eligible for a London transport travel pass.

She does a lot of her amazing dancing in the show with a company young enough to be her grandchildren, so seamlessly factoring in a few rest periods for the older star was very smart.

For the same reason, she wears a knee support throughout the show, even with the skimpiest Gaultier corset costume. There’s no sad attempt to conceal it, instead she proudly owns it: I’m 65 years old, I’ve been dancing all my life, one of my knees gives me jip. Have you seen my upper arms…?

And it’s that combination of strength, fearlessness and sheer pragmatism, with sublime style and artistry that makes me admire her just as much now, as I did forty years ago.

Towards the end of the show phrases appear on the big screen, Jenny Holzer style. “NO FEAR” said one, which was more than apparent to everyone watching – and “TO AGE IS A SIN” was another.

Alderson: 'The Queen of Pop remains not only relevant, but a trailblazer for all women who don’t want to be told what to do' - Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Tears filled my wrinkled and presbyopic 64-year-old eyes as I read that (happy it was in large print). Those five short words summed it all up.

In our culture women now have equal rights in law, MeToo has done its bit and women occupy many significant senior roles. We’ve had three women prime ministers in this country. But still those words are true – for women, to age is still a sin.

Standing there watching my contemporary entrance 20,000 people – the vast majority of them much younger than me – once again it was Madonna kicking back at the rules and changing the status quo through sheer talent and bravura – and no fear.

Which made me think, as I got ecstatically into the groove with the young women on either side of me, the traitor wasn’t Madonna, for having plastic surgery – but me, for believing the propaganda that she was ridiculous and laughable and irrelevant for having done so; a silly old woman.

When, in fact, Madonna Louise Ciccone chose to have some facial adjustments for one reason and one reason alone – because she wanted to.

And for continuing to live by only her rules, the Queen of Pop remains not only relevant, but a trailblazer for all women who don’t want to be told what to do. She’s still my sister in arms. Except, her arms are so much better than mine.

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