Today, The New York Times’ style section takes Madonna to task for no longer being a fashion leader, and–better steel yourself for this one–wearing sensible, loose-fitting clothes in her downtime. It’s a fairly mystifying piece, mainly because the writer seems to willfully ignore the obvious: Even if it’s kinda your job, you can’t remain young and ahead of the curve forever, especially when it comes to women’s fashion. Madonna may be in peak physical condition and have the money and resources to appear 10 to 15 years younger than she actually is, but there’s no way for her to single-handedly reverse our cultural bias against older women.
If anything, this constant pressure on Madonna to push at the boundaries of pop culture has made it increasingly difficult for her to actually influence much of anyone. In her prime, she embraced subcultural trends in music and fashion in a way that seemed like a personal expression of taste and inspiration, but since she’s been saddled with the expectation to constantly break new ground, she just can’t win. She either flits around from one image or sound to the next without connecting with it or her audience in any meaningful way, or she settles into her age, and she gets slammed for no longer pretending to be the sassy libertine she was back in the ’80s. It’s most depressing when she attempts to reconcile the two impulses; in those cases, we get bland, confusing compromises like Hard Candy that doesn’t seem to please anyone, including herself.
If people really do want Madonna to be meaningful, we as a culture need to give Madonna the permission to give up on her quest for eternal youth and relevance, and to reconnect with her muse. It would be far more interesting to watch her embrace her advancing age, and to find ways to shatter our preconceptions about mature femininity. She could be profound and fascinating again, but only if we stop expecting her to be permanently 26.