Madonna was at the Brits, performing her totally boss I Will Survive-style single Living for Love, when it happened. “Took me to heaven, let me fall down … lifted me up and watched me stumble.”
So she prophesied it, and so it came to pass. It wasn’t a trip or a tumble. It wasn’t funny; it was terrifying and so brutal that the audience fell silent. It was the kind of accident that breaks necks, damages brains and haunts Cirque du Soleil performers’ nightmares. The Armani cape Madonna was wearing as she approached the podium was tied too tight and didn’t fall undone when her dancers pulled it. She was yanked back by the neck and flew through the air over three steps, landed hard at the base of the podium and for a split second didn’t move.
Watching at home, my heart stopped. Is that all it takes to kill a queen? Milanese outerwear?
The hateful hashtags #shefellover, #Fallenmadonna, immediately began toxifying Twitter: “I get it, Madonna. My grandma is exactly the same.” “I hope grandma’s ok. A broken hip at her age could be a death sentence.”
But as Madonna also sang last night, “I picked up my crown, put it back on my head. I can forgive, but I will never forget.” After a fall like that, anyone else would roll around screaming in agony then look for someone to blame.
She drew on a higher power: herself. Showing her famous mental and physical strength, she got to her feet, picked up the choreography and tune, un-lip-synced and note perfect – as the isolated vocals from her performance at the Grammys show – and finished triumphantly.
That is the Madonna I’ve loved for ever, starting with the flamenco moves of La Isla Bonita. They say you’re not supposed to believe the hype. But with some people, the mythos is real. She has mystique, the rare bulletproof real-deal charisma. She has never been defined by men and has always advocated for other women, pointing out in her upcoming Rolling Stone cover interview that “people like to pit women against each other”.
But it’s not just about individualistic survival ability, sisterliness or externals like Vogue style or Desperately Seeking Susan attitude. Madonna is not worthy of respect simply for surviving, having sass or cannily working out how to play every capitalist angle. She has a brilliant and indeed record-breaking talent in her discipline, which is music. She’s been making great albums including Like A Prayer, Ray of Light and Confessions on a Dancefloor throughout her career, and the latest, Rebel Heart, is up there with them; she is “in the game again”, as The Telegraph says.
But how many times does Madonna have to prove that she’s a worthy player? How many times does she have to break records by selling more, touring more lucratively, flexing harder than everyone else on the planet? Her many colleagues have paid tribute to her exceptional skills as a producer, songwriter, lyricist; but whenever Madonna successfully works with a male producer it is he who is given the credit.
Where her abilities are not ignored, imputed to men or praised in passing as though they have now faded, they are actively mocked. I loved her film WE, comparing it favourably with the risible King’s Speech, where the women were two doting wives with barely a line between them and Wallis Simpson was a depraved shrew. I saw WE with a historian friend who was astounded by its accuracy and detail; I loved the women characters, the aesthetic, the mournful realism behind the romance. It’s a feminist film, psychologically acute.
But she was brutally mocked in the reviews. And that laughter is growing louder and crueller and uglier, as the Twitter response to her fall illustrated. Madonna’s longevity was first admired and is now actively sabotaged by editorials which never fail to mention her age, as though it is something to be ashamed of. I am shocked by the uninflected scorn, the derision and foul-mouthed trashing she is dealt, and how much of it is grossly visceral: hatred of her flesh, physicality, sexual confidence, athleticism, ambition, her preference for Latin spunkbots, her alternating bossiness and vulnerability and romanticism and eroticism and playfulness, her performance ability and hunger. All the things which were once admired about her are now used to bash her and make her appear laughable or monstrous or desperate.
Madonna is no stranger to misogyny. She is a rape survivor and a domestic assault survivor. How much worse is this going to get?
Madonna is only 56. She is in the prime of her life, she has power, talent, experience and wisdom, in addition to her natural intelligence and rigour. She is about to release her 13th album – one of her best yet. The things she is ordered to do – age gracefully, put it away, retire, crawl away and die – have behind them a desire to shame, permanently destroy and negate this woman who dares to be vocal and visible, physical and political.
In order to withstand this, one would have to be superhuman. Luckily, Madonna is.
But why should anyone have to swallow the world’s unstinting hatred when she wants to be remembered for her brilliant artistry?