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Madonna is living to tell

Madonna has always questioned contemporary social norms. Why would we expect her to change now?

Madonna’s appearance at the recent Grammy awards has led to much speculation over her new look. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty/ Recording Academy

Just a few anecdotes from back in the day when nobody knew who Madonna was, but she certainly knew who she was.

Word got back to me from friends that there was this weird girl who used to dance by herself in front of the DJ at the nightclub Danceteria. There she was twirling around, quite clearly a real dancer, maybe even trained.

Nevertheless, it was just weird. And definitely not “down”.

Danceteria was one of Manhattan’s hottest clubs in the early 1980s. I’m not sure there was a British equivalent at the time, although it directly inspired the Haçienda in Manchester. It was a place where, while people were saying that disco was dead, everybody kept dancing anyway.

But unless you were just really out of it and had no idea what was happening, you never just performed all by yourself in there.

Yet there was Madonna in her frilly, short skirt with her curly hair, twirling around as if nobody else was in the place. That’s because, as far as she was concerned, nobody else was in the place.

I found out later that the DJ, the stellar “Jellybean” Benitez, was her boyfriend, so maybe that’s why it happened. When the snobs discovered that this person was called “Madonna” and that she was from Michigan – the “boondocks” – her don’t-care naffness made sense.

After all, the only place anybody ever heard of in Michigan was Detroit and if you came from there, you said you were from “Detroit” or “Motor City” rather than the state.

Madonna came up again when a friend of mine was playing a gig at a club called The Bottom Line in the Village. The Bottom Line was where people went to get started in the business and where stars came to play for real, in contrast to the big stadia.

The thing is that, no matter how big you were, everybody was treated equally. You could be Lou Reed or just another fledgling from the Midwest who called himself Prince, nobody was better than anybody else.

My friend had a gig there and afterwards told me that Madonna got a dressing room. On her own. She did what she wanted.

When I was living near St Marks Place in the East Village, and being a feminist, I was really dismayed by the shops filling up with Madonna regalia.

In this bastion of us Serious Women were shops selling belts that said “Boy Toy”; and fishnets and skirts that stopped at crotch level.

This was retrograde, out of order. Nevertheless, we made it to where she was filming Desperately Seeking Susan, which was actually a Rosanna Arquette movie. But she was Rosanna Arquette transformed into Madonna, lost in the mania for second-hand clothes and fingerless gloves and crucifixes.

Not long after, Madonna literally rolled around on the stage of Radio City Music Hall in a wedding dress singing her hit Like a Virgin, which led Bette Midler to pronounce on stage after it was all over: “She’ll go far.”

And she did. And she has.

Now her face has changed, and the world is divided.

The worry over what looks like plastic surgery is about not the plastic surgery itself. But that she shows us that it’s obviously plastic surgery.

A woman’s body is still a kind of colonised space, and that becomes apparent to any female from an early age.

Just the other day at a TV studio, I sat in the makeup room between two people.

One person got a light dusting of powder. Five minutes in and out. The other person had been there for 15 minutes and counting.

What’s known as “slap” – the makeup – is something done to females because women are dissed, especially by other women.

One TV anchor guy told me once that his co-anchor gets comments about her appearance all of the time. Nobody emails in about his

This isn’t a gripe, but a look at how much of a favour Madonna has done us.

She is showing that we are so used to the idea that a woman must age in a so-called “graceful” way that we never have to ask “why does she have to?” Guys never do.

After her Grammys appearance, one woman anchor said on air that Madonna must have what she called “body aphasia” because clearly she couldn’t see herself.

The idea that there’s a lack of self-awareness on the part of the Material Girl is one of the more laughable things you could say about Madonna.

I’ve never been a fan, but this face, this new look, got me thinking: what is she saying? What works for me is that she is questioning, maybe even exposing and exploding fashion itself.

She has shown up recently in a denim outfit that looks like cats had randomly shredded it, but was also a spectacular one finger to fashion.

The thing is, and maybe this has always been true, that Madonna is curated by herself. We are talking and writing and maybe even thinking about her. Again.

I think that she constantly asks us: Who are we looking at? And why are we looking?

Maybe she wants us to ask these questions and more, maybe even to laugh at her, pity her because then what happens is that we carve her out. Choose to render her an individual. Separate her from the others. Maybe even look at our own lives in the bargain.

I have no idea whether Madonna Louise Ciccone from Michigan is a provocateur, a transgressor re: the status quo etc.

But she remains a strange and mysterious figure, a kind of cipher who, as Shakespeare wrote, does “hold the mirror up to nature.”

Most of us are busy one way or another, seeking to conform. Many, too, are trying not to stick out. Madonna is the opposite.

And so we watch her and we watch her detractors and we watch her acolytes and the haters, too. Madonna constantly questions the time she lives in, whether she intentionally does so or not.

I look forward to her next provocation.

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