Madonna confronts bias in blunt speech

Madonna at the Billboard Women In Music event.
Madonna at the Billboard Women In Music event.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Women are enjoying a moment of dominance in pop music. Take Beyonce and Adele, who will square off in the top categories at the Grammy Awards in February.

But in a lacerating speech last Friday, Madonna resisted the notion that all was well and fair for women entertainers, particularly as they get older.

Accepting a Woman of the Year award at the Billboard Women In Music event, the 58-year-old musician said she had faced sexism, misogyny and "constant bullying and relentless abuse" over the more than 30 years of her career.

She spoke about being raped on a rooftop with a "knife digging into my throat" when she moved to New York many years ago, an experience she first discussed publicly in 2013.

She took pride in her ability to persevere in an industry that she said did not look kindly on older women singers. "People say I'm so controversial," she said to the crowd. "But I think the most controversial thing I've done is to stick around."

In music, she said, "to age is a sin". "You will be criticised, you will be vilified and you will definitely not be played on the radio," she added.

In substance, the speech was not, of course, new for Madonna. She has challenged sexual norms through her music, image and writing since the start of her career.

In recent years, she has also become something of a warrior against age discrimination, publicly rebelling, with few subtleties, against the notion that age should slow her down.

But last Friday's speech was a blunt statement for the entertainer. And it came as debates over gender equality and latent sexism contributed to a national dialogue that grew more emotional amid the United States presidential election - a contest between a man and woman that served, in part, as a referendum on those issues.

At the Billboard event, she seemed to make a tacit reference to the election's outcome. "Women have been so oppressed for so long, they believe what men have to say about them," she said, according to Billboard. "They believe they have to back a man to get the job done."

She spoke about the rules of "the game" - the established ideas she said women are pushed to abide by. "You are allowed to be pretty, cute and sexy, but don't act too smart. Don't have an opinion," she said.

Another unspoken rule for women, she said, even more important than satisfying the expectations of the men in their lives, was to "be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men".

Towards the end, she mentioned other ground-breaking musicians, including Prince and David Bowie, both of whom died this year.

"But I'm still standing," she said. "I'm one of the lucky ones."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2016, with the headline 'Madonna confronts bias in blunt speech'. Print Edition | Subscribe