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What Madonna can teach Taylor Swift Pop survival isn't always pretty

Madonna in Rotterdam, 1990. (Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

Madonna in Rotterdam, 1990. (Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)


October 20, 2023   6 mins

There’s a moment in Taylor Swift’s music video for “Look What You Made Me Do” in which all the ghosts of her past stand in a line as though they’re about to be executed by firing squad — only instead, they begin sniping at each other. The geeky, T-shirt-wearing Taylor of the early-career “You Belong With Me” is dissed by the prima ballerina from “Shake It Off”; the ringmaster Taylor from the 2012 Grammys calls the weeping young “Fearless” Taylor a fake and a victim. It’s played for laughs, but there’s a darker subtext, one of deep shame and self-loathing. “Oh, you hate me?” it seems to say. “Not anywhere near as much as I hate myself.”

There are other ways to read this scene, of course, including as a metaphor for the adolescent search for one’s most authentic self: these Taylors must be destroyed so that the one true Taylor can rise in their place. It’s also a clear aesthetic precursor to her current, worldwide “Eras” tour, in which Swift cosplays her way through her twenties, performing hits from throughout her career.

But the squabbling Swifts are also an apt representation of the life cycle of any American pop star, whose survival in an ever-shifting culture relies on continuous self-reinvention. It’s not enough to keep writing, singing, performing; she also has to metamorphose, emerging every few years as something enticingly but not entirely different. Remaining nimble, fresh and hungry is paramount. There are, after all, a thousand slavering ingenues ready to take her place.

This cycle is inescapable, whether the pop star is a young woman at the height of her power, like Swift, or a grande dame looking back at a career that has spanned five decades, eight presidential administrations, and the dawn of a new millennium. Madonna, who stepped back onstage last weekend for a six-month “Celebration” tour across Europe and the US, is joined during the performance by lookalikes sporting her most iconic outfits from albums and tours past: the Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra from “Blonde Ambition”, the diamond drip of “Material Girl”, the Marie Antoinette getup from “Vogue”. Unlike Swift, Madonna doesn’t fight with the ghosts of her former selves. She flirts with them, fondles them, welcomes them like old friends.

This is an extraordinary moment in musical history: two of the most powerful and successful female musicians ever to exist, each back onstage in a blockbuster, career-spanning spectacle centred on her own timeless status. The obvious difference is that only one of these women has been around long enough to merit such a sweeping retrospective; the unspoken absurdity of Swift’s tour is that she’s not just revisiting her past artistic personas, but also acting like a far older, more seasoned performer than she is.

At 33, Swift doesn’t have eras to look back on; she has phases. And while her adolescence may not have been typical — professionally, at least, she’s accomplished more in the last 10 years than many people will in a lifetime — precociousness is not a substitute for the perspective that comes with age and experience. It certainly doesn’t put her in the same league as the 65-year-old Madonna, a mother of adult children who performs with a face shot full of dermal fillers and a brace on her arthritic knee.

As a product of the Xennial microgeneration born between 1978 and 1984, I’m almost exactly the same age as Madonna’s career, which also makes me young enough to remember when Taylor Swift was a teenage country singer whose song-writing skills were superior to her singing voice by an order of magnitude. What strikes me most now, comparing them, is that neither would have thrived in the other’s time. Madonna, with the physicality of a modern dancer and the sensuality of a teenager in the throes of sexual awakening, was made in and for the Eighties. Swift, a famously bad dancer but extraordinary lyricist, understood intuitively how to exploit the power of both online fandoms and the new tabloid press, titillating both with songs that may or may not have been cryptic diss tracks aimed at the famous men she’d dated.

With their sexual politics, both women know how to manipulate their particular cultural moment: in her mid-20s, Madonna was triggering the prudes with “Like a Virgin”, not to mention the Pope with “Like a Prayer”; at the same age, Swift shrouded her sexuality in a high school-style coyness that coincided perfectly with the neo-chaste mores of the #MeToo movement. Even now, in the midst of a high-profile romance with NFL player Travis Kelce that saw reporters staking out Kelce’s home in order to breathlessly report that Swift had spent the night, her public persona is still, to borrow a phrase, like a virgin.

This dichotomy also extends to their wardrobes for their respective tours: Madonna has fully leaned into the dominatrix aesthetic with which she’s been flirting since her 1992 Erotica album. She showed up at the Grammys this year carrying an actual riding crop. Swift, meanwhile, takes the stage wearing spangled leotards that look like adult-sized reproductions of the outfits the contestants wear on Toddlers and Tiaras.

And then, there’s their actual politics — or conspicuous lack thereof. Madonna was an icon for gay men at a time when doing so was politically unpopular if not artistically risky: her new show features a video memorial to all the friends she lost to the Aids epidemic. For Swift, meanwhile, it was remaining apolitical that attracted criticism; her refusal even to signal her leanings eventually became something of a media obsession. The Christian conservative Moral Majority that commanded Madonna to shut up in the Eighties was replaced in the 2010s by an equally powerful cabal of influencers on the now-culturally-dominant Left for whom Taylor Swift’s political silence was taken as an affront. Madonna was banned by MTV and excommunicated by the Catholic Church; Swift, who had the bad luck to be wildly successful at the precise moment that the culture declared war on basic white women, was accused of courting white supremacists and neo-Nazis as fans — and perhaps being a closet fascist herself. Finally, she “came out” as a Democrat.

But you could tell she didn’t want to — nor has her heart really been in her subsequent, tepid engagements with the culture wars. Even the rainbow-spangled video for “You Need to Calm Down”, which stars various Queer Eye cast members and is the closest Swift has ever come to an anthem for the LGBT community, feels more like a Walmart Pride Month commercial than a bold political statement.

After all, Swift is far more interested in her own career than its cultural backdrop. And in that respect, she has a lot to brag about: 12 Grammy awards, nine number one hit singles, a $740 million fortune. But the one thing she doesn’t have, at least not yet, is a cultural legacy that merits a three-hour celebration of her eras. Even the music she performs on this tour has no broader relevance, no anchor point outside the artist’s own life. The only way to identify a given Taylor Swift era is to look at Swift herself: who she was dating, what she was wearing, which ex or fellow artist was she beefing with.

Madonna’s music, meanwhile, is inextricable from its historical context; her concert is a journey through time from the excesses of the Eighties, through Y2K, and into the glittering now that is also the twilight of her career. Although she doesn’t say so outright, and although she’s certainly in great shape for a nearly-septuagenarian, it seems likely that this is Madonna’s last tour. Even her eerie waxwork appearance, the object of almost as much scrutiny as the music itself, ironically highlights just how long she’s been with us; in 2023, a preternaturally smooth face is as much a marker of age as a wrinkled one. Looking at her, we understand: this is the face of a woman who has seen some shit.

What has Taylor Swift seen? Not much, but maybe enough to know that she doesn’t want to be a Madonna, that surviving for decades in this industry isn’t always a blessing. Consider the personas of her “Eras” tour, and what they truly represent — not the musical evolution of a veteran artist, but a young woman’s multi-year battle for control over her public image. All these different Taylors — the princess, the rebel, the baby feminist, the hipster — are less a creative product than a reactionary one, an attempt to wrestle her identity back from a hostile media apparatus that wants to conscript her unwillingly into the culture wars and define her in the most unflattering possible terms. “No, this is who I am.” And yet, Swift must also be aware that if she sticks around long enough, that battle will eventually end.

The new challenge, as the years go by and the culture evolves, will be convincing people to care about her at all. You could forgive Swift for deciding she would prefer not to do this — that she would rather take her eras in the form of a 15-year retrospective than one three times that long — especially when Madonna is onstage as the living, breathing, knee-braced embodiment of what it takes to stay in the game. Swift has been around long enough to reinvent herself a few times, but she hasn’t experienced the brutal highs and lows that come from a lifetime in the spotlight, the devastation when, say, the album you poured your soul into becomes a critical disappointment. Or when Patti Lupone tells the world you can’t act. Or when your ageing body becomes an object of mockery — but then so does whatever you do to address it. When nothing will ever be good enough for the people who want to see you fail, and the only person who believes in you is you. Madonna is an icon, a queen, a goddess — but she’s also a 65-year-old woman in a leather bustier, saying, I deserve this. Saying: Look at me.

And if you’re a young star, perhaps you do look. You look at her life. Look at her face. Look at the risks she’s had to take, the hardships she’s had to endure; look at what it looks like, what it really looks like, to try, and fail, and flop, and finally claw your way back to relevance. It’s audacious. It’s awesome. It can even be sexy. But it’s not pretty.


Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.

katrosenfield

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Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
7 months ago

I found this piece interesting and insightful, but then I’m a woman of Madonna’s age who lived through the eras she represented.
The dismissiveness of some (presumably) male commenters — your piece is fluff, not worth their consideration, and these women aren’t either, beyond being graded for their gams — is boorish. I appreciated Steve Murray’s more thoughtful response.
Thanks for this commentary,

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
7 months ago

I don’t mind reading pieces about recent pop culture, including Taylor Swift, but this piece was indeed fluff.
One of the problems with the current music industry is that a small minority of artists have a sort of monopoly power within the industry, while the vast majority of artists struggle to make a living. There was a far more healthy churn and turnover between new and old artists from the 50s-90s.
This doesn’t exist anymore. In another 20 years we will still be reading the same fluff pieces about billionaire Taylor Swift’s trials and tribulations.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago

Elderly man thinks his thoughts on the current music industry are somehow relevant.
They aren’t.

Nona Yubiz
Nona Yubiz
7 months ago

Literary men once deemed Jane Austen’s output fluff. Men whose names are now lost to history.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago
Reply to  Nona Yubiz

Who’s Jane Austen?

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
7 months ago

Why not?

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
7 months ago

I’m in my 30s

laura m
laura m
7 months ago

Madonna and her music bore me to death, despite Paglia attempts to make her interesting. Boomer from LA, at 68 women tell me I have great legs.

Last edited 7 months ago by laura m
Geoff W
Geoff W
7 months ago
Reply to  laura m

It wasn’t just Paglia. There were quite a lot of references to Madonna in academic writing in the 1980s and ’90s. There aren’t any now.

Nona Yubiz
Nona Yubiz
7 months ago
Reply to  laura m

She fascinates me, I must admit. A force of nature. Some of her songs still get me up and dancing. Vogue, Ray of Light. Her voice was never great. I’m 62 and also have great legs, or so I’m told…

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
7 months ago

I wouldn’t be able to identify a Swift song on pain of death. I can identify a Madonna song, and it pains me to admit it.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago

Grandma is proud of being ancient and ignorant.
World yawns and moves on.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

And you madam are just a smug, ignorant moron, or can you do any better?
Surprise me if you can.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
7 months ago

Calm down. After all, Taylor Swift is undoubtedly talented. But all pop music is inherently trivial no matter how hard it strives for significance.

Nona Yubiz
Nona Yubiz
7 months ago

That’s a bit arrogant, dontcha think? You aren’t “the world”.

N Satori
N Satori
7 months ago

Taylor Swift: great leg-show; shame about the music. In spite of high praise it’s really just more of that slickly produced international pop music churned out by girl-singers the world over.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
7 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

I saw an ancient video of Carly Simon recently singing ‘Move in together ‘ and was amazed at her leg-show (as Rod Stewart would have it ‘she’s got legs right up to her neck’). Marlene Dietrich’s legs were famously insured for millions by her film studio. Ahhh, happy days.

Last edited 7 months ago by Mike Downing
Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Ick.
Guys, please save your old man erotic fantasies for the Daily Mail comments section. Nobody here wants to hear them.

Liam F
Liam F
7 months ago

Mmm, I do.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
7 months ago

Well, you’re middle-aged too. Don’t you have fantasies – or are they all of a more violent nature?

Geoff W
Geoff W
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

If the clip I’ve just watched is the one you’re referring to, I think it’s more significant that Carly S just walks on, sits down, introduces the song, and sings it to her own piano accompaniment – and that’s all she needs.
Madonna needed an avalanche of pre-publicity, some supposedly daring but actually rather trite sexual adventurousness, dancers in bondage gear, and full music-video music and production values – none which ever induced me, at least, to watch one of her videos all the way through. And I was in my 20s when her popularity was at its peak.

Nona Yubiz
Nona Yubiz
7 months ago
Reply to  Geoff W

Carly Simon is under-appreciated.

Geoff W
Geoff W
7 months ago
Reply to  Nona Yubiz

You prob’ly thought my post was about you!

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
7 months ago

finally an article for all the Unherd readers who are teenaged girls

Geoff Wilkes
Geoff Wilkes
7 months ago

And not very bright teenaged girls, at that.

Nona Yubiz
Nona Yubiz
7 months ago
Reply to  Geoff Wilkes

Ooh, wow: brilliant dig. Teenage girls are so deserving of your snark.

Geoff W
Geoff W
7 months ago
Reply to  Nona Yubiz

Some of them aren’t very bright, just as some of my own demographic (ageing men) aren’t very bright.
My dig was directed at the writer of the piece, and the editor of the site. I don’t think either Madonna or Taylor Swift particularly merits intellectual attention, beyond P.T. Barnum’s (or whosever it was) quip about fooling some of the people some of the time. Others will take a different view, of course.

Last edited 7 months ago by Geoff W
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

It’s so obviously about much more than that, but perhaps that’s the best response that can be expected from certain quarters.

Just to start with: fame, notoriety, battling the music establishment, womanhood, aging, survival, guts, overcoming failure, political pressure, idiotic comments… and i’m not a particular fan of either of them.

Last edited 7 months ago by Steve Murray
N Satori
N Satori
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

All part of that highly bankable girl-power drama.
An observation that has been made many times over many decades: fans go to pop concerts not to listen to music (recordings are always easier to enjoy) but to pay homage and be in the presence of their idols. A carefully curated heroic (or tragedy queen) back-story stimulates the adoration.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
7 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

My daughter paid four figures to see Beyoncé’s birthday concert in LA. She said it was absolutely worth every penny – an unforgettable life experience. She’s not a teenager, but she isn’t a mother yet, so unforgettable life experiences vary.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago

N Satori is one of many male misanthropic misogynists commenting on an article that they shouldn’t have bothered reading and in fact many who haven’t bothered.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

How come your cartouche has changed to PINK?!

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

”battling the music establishment”

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

Swift has been embroiled in long-standing battles to secure the rights to her own material, which previously would’ve been held by the record companies who’d then have their musicians over a barrel. If you’re going to make comments, best do so from an informed position rather than one of ignorance.

Eliza Mann
Eliza Mann
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

She lost the rights to her first six albums of recorded material but not to the songs themselves. She has solved that problem by re-recording each of these albums in turn. The next one, 1989 (Taylor’s Version), is coming out next week.

Nona Yubiz
Nona Yubiz
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

That’s a bridge too far.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
7 months ago

Dunno about that. Champignon Squatchalist hasn’t commented.

Nona Yubiz
Nona Yubiz
7 months ago

Oh, the biggest insult in the world: to be likened to a teenage girl.
The horror, the horror.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
7 months ago

Diva lesson # 1 :
Choose a stem cell clinic where you don’t have ‘dead person smell’ afterwards.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
7 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

I didn’t want to laugh, really I didn’t mmmmffffph.

William Tallon
William Tallon
7 months ago

“This is an extraordinary moment in musical history: two of the most powerful and successful female musicians ever to exist…” More than a little over-the-top! Both are purveyors of bubblegum pop, nothing more. Both put on an excellent show, but high art it ain’t. As for powerful? Well, maybe in the pop music business, but not in the real world. Taylor Swift can reasonably and accurately be described as a singer and musician given that she plays guitar, ukulele, banjo, and piano. Madonna is a singer and dancer only, not a musician…

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
7 months ago

I have no real interest in Taylor Swift, but I hope she doesn’t take advice from the writer of this article. Madonna is, was and always will be an example of vulgarity and bad taste in entertainment. Those who like and applaud her should know better. Taylor Swift at least has sex appeal like her music or not.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
7 months ago

Prime Madonna would use Taylor as a toothpick.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
7 months ago

Too many plazzy nipz’n’tucz leave you looking like a munchkin ?

(Didn’t read the article obvs).

Last edited 7 months ago by Mike Downing
Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
7 months ago

Madonna had a string of well-known hits until she was well into middle-age but Taylor Swift´s music has virtually no recognition factor to under-40s.
However if you told that Gen X age group she was the anti-Lana Del Rey, they would understand that she makes weak bubblegum pop that never stays in the mind.
I can only position this as an Internet phenomenon driven by the cultural politics of the Millennial generation. She is a very pretty young woman who complains a lot in the media and is reasonably charming when she appears on a British talkshow.
And I can´t recall anything about the song she recorded with Lanita. It had Snow in the title? She played something on the piano on Strictly Come Dancing last year and it was pleasant Lana-lite but instantly forgettable

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

This is literally gibberish.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

Do better you worthless hypocrite, if you can, which I very much doubt.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

And during the 80’s not many of those over 40 would have cared about Madonnas music. It’s simply generational, you like what’s about when you’re around 20, then it slowly moves on

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I wasn’t over 40 when Madonna came on the scene, but as the press gushed about how provocative she was, I was thinking “Mae West did all this already”.

George Scipio
George Scipio
7 months ago

What the article overlooks is that at the level of both Madonna and Taylor Swift (and Lady Gaga, mostly) entertainment is a huge business, like the movies. The word for their tours is extravaganza. The actual music is secondary and the “message” is always just a marketing hook. Madonna has a weak voice and can’t play an instrument; hence the whips, etc., to distract us. Swift is an actual singer, composer and player. Her success represents the global crossover triumph of mainstream country music — i.e. not urban, not kink, not aggressive, not preachy, just catchy tunes about relationships. Articles like this one are absurd overthinking of these performers’ depth and aims. The point of it all is simply to make as many millions as possible in the time available. As Frank Zappa observed of the Beatles in 1968 in his charmless irresistible way, they’re only in it for the money. (Philanthropy, too, I guess, to ease everyone’s consciences.)

Michael Shevock
Michael Shevock
6 months ago

Very thoughtful piece, but Ms. Swift is a self-made billionaire. Maybe, just maybe she doesn’t need advice from journalists.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago

Lots and lots of highly-triggered middle-aged Alan Partridge types commenting below on things that they don’t understand but make them very angry!
Very amusing!

William Tallon
William Tallon
7 months ago

Your comment doesn’t seem to have elicited the response you were presumably trying to provoke from that particular group! Rather too obvious a ploy on your part, I imagine…

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  William Tallon

Yet here you are.
I’m sure the Jeremy Clarkson fans are sitting out there just steaming about being called out and trying to think of something funny to say.
We’ll be waiting a while…

William Tallon
William Tallon
7 months ago

Well yes, I suppose I had to be here in order to make my point. You’re very observant, not to mention a dazzlingly clever and witty provocateur! Mea culpa, I lied about that last bit…

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  William Tallon

You had to respond to my comment to make your point about my comment not eliciting a response thereby invalidating your own response to my comment?
With talent like old Bill on your side its amazing that anyone could think that conservatives are all morons…

William Tallon
William Tallon
7 months ago

I’m sure that exercise in verbosity sounded better in your head than it reads on the page! This is what happens when you start to disappear up your own, not inconsiderable, ego. Responding to this post will only serve to confirm that to be the case.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
7 months ago
Reply to  William Tallon

I know you’re impressed, Bill – don’t be ashamed of it, embrace it!