Female power

Singer Madonna performs during a concert as part of her tour 'Rebel Heart' in Manila, on Feb 24, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

Depending on which side of the divide you are on, Madonna's first concert in Singapore will be a cause for rapturous celebration or an ominous sign that Singapore has lost its moral compass to a marauding she-devil in hot pants.

Before the historic Singapore concert date was announced, many of her fans here had already, over the decades, fanned out across the seven seas to catch her concerts in foreign lands. In recent months, her fans have seen her perform in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Macau on her current Rebel Heart Tour.

But such is the measure of the woman that many of these fans will probably be packing the National Stadium on Sunday to finally see her in Singapore.

Such is a sign of our times that 34 years after Madonna unleashed herself onto the public consciousness, she is still considered shocking, controversial and ban-worthy.

Even The Rolling Stones, with their legendary associations with drug-fuelled orgies and Satanism, have played four concerts in Singapore to date. And this is a band whose infamous concert in Altamont, California, in the United States in 1969 saw the murder of a fan.

Madonna's biggest offences so far have been going against conservative and religious mores. She arrives here at a time when we are very much at a cultural crossroads in our evolution not only as Singaporeans, but also as global citizens.

The Media Development Authority has banned the performance of the song, Holy Water, because the segment contains "religiously sensitive content which breaches our guidelines".

Singapore's OB markers are clear in that respect and the country resolutely sings a different tune from the rest of the world on issues such as freedom of speech and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, another cause which Madonna champions.

Much of the rest of the world has seemingly moved beyond these issues. But it is a world that is no less divided. In fact, it is a world that is, arguably, more fractured than it was when Madonna first burst onto the music scene in 1982 with her first single, Everybody.

Immigration, religion, racism and women's and minority rights are very much at the core of widening fissures in society today.

Madonna has played a part in stoking the conversation. When Like A Virgin was released in 1984, she raised eyebrows simply because the song title contained the word "virgin". Plus, the irresistible ditty, sung in a little-girl voice, was an unabashed celebration of the joys of sex.

Papa Don't Preach (1986) caused a stir with its lyrics about an unmarried girl who chooses to keep her baby. Interestingly, it earned her rebuke from some feminists even as it garnered praise from some religious pro-life groups for its apparent anti-abortion stance.

In the music video for Like A Prayer (1989), she is seen praying in front of a cross from which a black Jesus descends.

And on it goes. Madonna has always tested the limits of what society deems acceptable. She doesn't push the envelope as much as rip it to shreds.

Her biggest impact has been on young girls and women. She showed the world what female power looked like - yes, a feminist can wear skimpy clothes and be a sexual being - with a lot of hard work and sacrifice thrown in.

After all, she didn't become the world's best-selling female recording artist, according to Guinness World Records, by sipping pina coladas in the Bahamas. The woman works hard for the money.

While women have made great inroads, there is still much that has not changed in people's attitudes. Just ask Hillary Clinton, running for the Democratic nomination in the American Presidential election, who still faces criticisms based on her gender. Do You Know What It Feels Like For A Girl?

Madonna is not infallible, of course. As much as she tried, she could never make it big in the movies. And she has made questionable forays into endeavours such as the Sex book of 1992, a pictorial journey of naughty snaps which, let's say, basically left no part uncovered in her body of work.

But for all the things she has done right, she has secured a place as one of pop music's top artists of all time - not only in terms of album sales - she has sold more than 300 million records worldwide - but also in cultural impact and influence.

Universities offer cultural studies courses on Madonna, assessing her multimedia appeal across the disciplines of music, fashion, movies and TV.

She has paved the way for countless artists; in particular, Lady Gaga, who has been accused of apeing Madonna's style. She has also stayed relevant by working with new artists. Her latest album, Rebel Heart, sees her collaborating with top songwriters and producers, including Diplo and Avicii.

We don't know what she will be doing 10 years from now. Maybe she will become an anti-ageism poster child because there is no reason to doubt that she will still be wearing hot pants at the age of 67.

But that's neither a relevant thought, nor is it in our hands.

As the world today appears to slide into brutality, ugliness and divisiveness, maybe we could, as she sings, just open our hearts on Sunday.

After all, when all is said and done, Madonna has really always been about love, whether it be sticky and sweet, a confession on the dance floor or simply, a rebel heart.

  • Ong Soh Chin is a former journalist with The Straits Times and a director of her own media consultancy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2016, with the headline Female power . Subscribe