ageist backlash Madonna tour

The ageist backlash against Madonna is predictable and tiresome

“People say I’m controversial,” Madonna said in 2016, “but I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.” Bingo. 

I had no intention of writing about Madonna, but the amount of ageism I’ve seen openly expressed since the iconic 64-year-old performer announced her new world tour compelled me to comment. 

I’m not a die-hard Madonna fan, but I’d have to be living under a rock to deny her 40-year-career accomplishments. In a cutthroat industry that chews artists up and spits them out, her longevity and continued popularity are momentous achievements, and this ageist backlash is uncalled for.

Whether you like her or not, she’s been a ground-breaking icon, paving the way for new generations of female entertainers to unapologetically be who they want to be, dance how they want to dance, celebrate their sexuality, and constantly challenge societal expectations. And she’s done so while constantly reinventing herself year after year, decade after decade. Madonna has been pushing the envelope and provoking for a long time — and fighting ageism long before she was even old. 

Pushing societal boundaries

In 1992, when Madonna was only 34 years old, she was already being asked if she intended to continue being overtly sexual past the age of 40 — the implication being that if you commit the cardinal sin of aging, you best be going quietly into the night, never to be seen or heard of ever again. 

“Once you reach a certain age, you’re not allowed to be adventurous, you’re not allowed to be sexual and I think that’s rather hideous,” she replied. “A lot of people have said, ‘Oh, that’s so pathetic, I hope she’s not still doing that in 10 years’ — I mean, who cares? What if I am? Is there a rule? Are you just supposed to die when you’re 40?”

The truth is Madonna has always pushed the envelope, pushed back against ageism and made people squirm with her sexually provocative performances, often with scandalous religious undertones. From the Pope to the religious right, to average folks simply uncomfortable with women comfortable and forthcoming with their own sexuality, she unsettled them. Throughout her career, the singer has always managed to stay one step ahead of trends, constantly calling out the outrage over the nudity and sexuality in her music videos while gun violence and misogyny were so often given a pass. Madonna was also one of the very first musicians to advocate in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, donating millions of dollars to research and support to the LGBTQ+ community and using her star power to make a huge difference. She hasn’t always gotten it right, but I think the intention has always been good. 

Whatever anyone thinks of her talent, there’s no debating her staying power and the incredible career she’s had. If she wants to stage a “Celebration Tour” to highlight her extensive catalogue of music from the past four decades, why in the world shouldn’t she? Hasn’t she earned the right? If she has the energy and ability to do so, and the fans to support the tour, what’s it to the haters? 

Glaring double standards

Madonna ageist backlash
Madonna, Aug. 23, 2022

Why all the nasty comments about her age, her looks, her “past due date,” her “irrelevancy,” her “senior-citizen status,” her “Geritol tour?” Piers Morgan, who’s only seven years younger than Madonna, called her “the most grotesque, train-wreck embarrassment and biggest cringe-making fiasco in world entertainment.” 

The double standards are brutal for female entertainers. “Don’t you think you’re too old to sing rock n’ roll?” the iconic Cher was once asked, to which she quickly replied: “I don’t know. You’d better check with Mick Jagger.”

Bruce Springsteen is 74 and still performing and I don’t recall anyone calling him a “has been” and a “senior citizen.” Mick Jagger is turning 80 in a few months and he’s still on stage, gyrating to the Rolling Stones tunes, while the band’s faithful line up to see them perform. No one seems to care that his face is lined with wrinkles or that he’s eligible for a senior discount. When people joke about Keith Richards outliving us all, they don’t allude to his advancing age, but mostly to how he seems to have escaped the drugs and drinking unscathed. Paul McCartney, also 80, was busy performing a 13-city tour in 2022 and I don’t recall anyone telling grandpa to take a break. 

I still don’t have a clue what Bob Dylan is saying half the time, but the 80-year-old is still going strong. Heavy metal band Metallica are all hitting 60, but they’re still rocking — and most importantly still allowed to rock with few comments about their age, their looks or their performing style. Leonard Cohen was 78 years old when he last performed in his hometown and all I remember is the joy he gave fans like me during that vibrant three-hour performance. No one called him old. On the contrary, the Montreal Gazette wrote at the time, “Watching the 78-year-old singer-songwriter and poet tucking into his formidable repertoire with such glee, it was hard to imagine anything quite as life-affirming.” 

An old male artist performing is “life affirming.” An old female artist performing is just cringingly sad. 

‘But it’s about the way she looks…’ 

Of course, many will argue their reactions to Madonna have less to do with her age and more to do with how she’s responded to the aging process itself. I get it. The singer has unquestionably altered her appearance over the years with a series of radical plastic surgeries that have left her face unnaturally smooth like a baby’s bottom, and she often tries too hard to act young on social media. I, too, miss her old face and sometimes find myself uncomfortable with the choices she makes. Perhaps some of that reaction taps into our own deep-seated discomfort about the aging process and what we fear or expect of it.

But, if we’re being honest, Madonna has always made people cringe with her choices. She’s always loved to cross the line. Why would Madonna in her 60s be any different than Madonna in her 30s and 40s? At her very essence, she hasn’t changed. She’s still her, that cat that pushes the glass off the coffee table to see your reaction because she knows you’re watching. She’s still pushing boundaries, still challenging limiting notions of what we’re allowed to do (or not) as women. She’s still changing and altering her looks, like some crazy chameleon. 

People don’t automatically become different people because they enter a new decade! They’re still who they are — and should be allowed to be. Maybe we would prefer the plastic surgery was more subtle, less noticeable, that she “toned it down” or acted more “dignified” — but that’s not what she chose to do. If this is how she deals with the aging process, who are we to judge her? 

Aging for women in the spotlight a losing proposition 

Madonna, ageist backlash
Madonna, currently

If most people have a complicated relationship with aging, then women in the entertainment industry must have the most complicated relationship of them all. I don’t know what it feels like to spend so much of your life being scrutinized, celebrated and revered for your sexuality and looks and have so much of your artistic identity hinge on and be defined by that fierce physicality on stage, only to start fighting the inevitable signs of aging and the relentless pull of gravity. I can’t imagine it being easy. 

Women in the limelight are screwed no matter what they do. If they don’t opt for plastic surgery they’ll be ridiculed and pitied for committing the cardinal sin of aging, and if they do opt for plastic surgery they’ll be ridiculed and pitied for not “growing old gracefully.” The only thing that would satisfy their relentless critics is if women were to stay exactly as they were, unaltered by time and life, or disappear, never to be seen or heard from again. It’s a battle they cannot win. 

Sold-out shows in hours

How Madonna has chosen to deal with aging is her choice and hers alone. We can ignore her, laugh at her, pity her, but her reaction to the aging process takes nothing away from her career, her legacy and her ability to draw fans to see her. Because no matter how much mockery she’s sustained in the past few days as a “has been” and an “old hag,” the public’s reaction to her tour announcement firmly contradicts her critics’ assessment of her.

Madonna, who remains the highest-grossing solo female touring artist of all time, sold out her global tour (600,000 tickets!!) within hours. Due to overwhelming demand, she had to add 13 additional dates, including a second show here in Montreal, despite tickets being quite pricey. One journalist called her upcoming tour a “global victory lap.” Not quite as “over the hill” as some people thought, huh? 

So, while bitter misogynist trolls like Morgan order her to “put on some clothes” and “sit in a rocking chair,” Madonna is gearing up for a world tour that has her fans around the world gleeful with anticipation. Perhaps this might be their last chance to see Madonna perform, or perhaps she’ll choose to still be performing in her 70s and 80s like so many of her peers. Who knows? 

Madonna is still Madonna

Madonna ageist backlash
Madonna, Halloween 2022

One thing is certain. Madonna was never going to “go gentle into that good night.” 

She was always going to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 

I suspect that, for some people, their anger and discomfort with the pop star isn’t because her exterior has changed, but because her interior hasn’t. Slightly different face or not, she’s still the same person. She hasn’t mellowed or softened or become apologetic and demure with age. She’s still provoking.

How she chooses to fight against the inevitability of old age and death, and how long she chooses to perform is her business, despite the piling on from those who would rather she go away. 

“People say I’m controversial,” she said in 2016, during her acceptance speech for Woman of the Year award at the Billboard Women in Music event. “But I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.” 


In a world that so often can’t wait to put older women out to pasture, Madonna doing things on her terms and in her own time is, of course, going to create a backlash. 

I predict she might continue to stick around, just to continue pissing those people off. She’s that girl. She’s always been that girl. ■

To read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis, please click here.