There are many things one thinks of when considering artists in today’s pop music industry. Over the course of the last 30-40 years the changes within it have been monumental – style, attitude, artistry, industry practice, norms, conventions, taboos… have all undergone major changes. Only the strongest, most versatile and adaptable can, and will survive. [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

A different kind of feminist


There are many things one thinks of when considering artists in today’s pop music industry. Over the course of the last 30-40 years the changes within it have been monumental – style, attitude, artistry, industry practice, norms, conventions, taboos… have all undergone major changes. Only the strongest, most versatile and adaptable can, and will survive. The question arises as to whether gender too plays a part in the process. Whether being a male in the pop music industry is an advantage over being a female…not for the grit or strength it gives you, but rather for the opportunities…whichever way one views it however, there is perhaps one point that many can agree on – very few artists have the drive, fortune and ability to go the distance and seem to be blessed with the power to endure and stay ‘current’….there are a few iconic male artists – but even fewer women. One such woman – a very visible artist, but probably an unlikely champion for many; her ability to re-write the rule book only superseded by her ability to re-invent herself; who has been known to change not only her music with the times, but also her style; an artist who embodies the very concept of being fearless; who has survived the gruelling world of pop for 34 years and been at the very top for most of it, and was adjudged the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, “Woman of the Year”: Madonna.

Few artists – in any genre, field or generation – have ever been as controversial, talked about, misunderstood and revered as Madonna. The moment one hears her name, it brings to the fore a very complex range of extremely diverse opinions in anyone and everyone….for anyone to say they have not heard of her would be very rare and this in itself is testimony to her staying power 30 something years later, and ultimately her credibility as an artist. One thing few people would disagree about however, is that – to the public eye at least – she has always owned her life. Taken responsibility for her weird  and wonderful tastes and choices….never felt the need to apologise for her often ‘controversial’ artistic choices…and never – ever – letting herself get stale and obsolete.

There is however another side to this unique artist. A side that many may have missed or just simply not realised they were seeing. Throughout her career, no matter how unusual or unconventional her choices may have been, Madonna’s conviction, drive, sheer self-belief and strength of character to stay the course and go the distance despite any and all obstacles, cannot be ignored. Almost 35 years after being in the Pop music business, people still talk about Madonna…thousands upon thousands line up for hours to go and watch Madonna…and even more numbers have been inspired to follow their hearts and individuality and become artists like Madonna. There are others still, who have taken a page out of her book, thrown caution to the wind, owned their individuality and become what she so publicly and proudly called herself to be at the Awards Ceremony: a “Different Kind of Feminist”.

In her controversial, brutally honest and incredibly moving acceptance speech at the ceremony, she spoke about enduring 34 years in the industry “in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse”. Few who merely see the popular public image of the pop star may know that the beginning of her career was a very inauspicious one. She talks of starting out in New York in 1979 when it was a very scary place: “In the first year I was held at gunpoint, raped on a rooftop with a knife digging into my throat. And I had my apartment broken into and robbed so many times I just stopped locking the door. In the years that followed, I lost almost every friend I had to AIDS or drugs or gunshot.” She talked about feeling paralysed by the shock of it all, needing to pull herself together and getting on with her artistic life. She mentioned taking “comfort in the poetry of Maya Angelou…the writings of James Baldwin…and the music of Nina Simone” – all iconic figures in the world of arts – and very touchingly, she says “I remember wishing I had a female peer I could look to for support…”

To hear someone with the strength, courage and daring of an artist like Madonna, speak of wishing for a female peer to support her, was unexpected to say the least. It had never occurred to me personally, that it would have been a trial to find such support, nor that she would have wanted to. She talked about realising early on that there were different rules for men and women in the industry. She says, “There are no rules — if you’re a boy. If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. What is that game? You are allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion. Don’t have an opinion that is out of line with the status quo, at least…Be what men want you to be. But more importantly, be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men”. Disturbing words to hear from one who has always seemed so invulnerable and strong.

I often wonder, do many of us live our lives according to the unwritten rules set down by men…? That our society is guided by certain….customs, norms, traditions and rules is an accepted fact. Most of us do what we do because they are accepted as being the ‘right’ thing to do…the socially acceptable thing to do. Those who question, don’t follow or dare to be different, are labelled as controversial…weird…even immoral and disgraceful. The question is, who finally decides what is acceptable and what is not? Why do we impose our own values and so called morals on other people? Why are those ‘guidelines’ different for men and for women?

In her conclusion, Madonna said “What I would like to say to all women here today is this: Women have been so oppressed for so long they believe what men have to say about them. They believe they have to back a man to get the job done. And there are some very good men worth backing, but not because they’re men — because they’re worthy. As women, we have to start appreciating our own worth and each other’s worth. Seek out strong women to befriend, to align yourself with, to learn from, to collaborate with, to be inspired by, to support, and be enlightened by…”

When apparently a famous feminine writer Camille Paglia accused her of ‘setting women back’ by objectifying herself sexually, Madonna – being the outspoken, strong and steadfast believer in the power of women – says she thought to herself, “Oh, so if you’re a feminist, you don’t have sexuality, you deny it….So I decided….I’m a Different Kind of Feminist.” Irrespective of one’s own opinion of such an unusual and different woman, one cannot deny that she has always stood up for her beliefs, stood by her own convictions, supported a woman’s right to choose to do and be anything she wants to be and always, always, lived life according to her own rules.

Whilst the traditionalist in me is intrigued and spurred on by this sentiment, the feminist in me is thrilled with the prospect of women having the courage, conviction and confidence to defy the norms, break social taboos that restrict them unfairly and ultimately take control of their own lives. Whilst I wholeheartedly believe in respecting respectable rules and traditions, I rile against them being imposed on me and my kind unfairly and unjustly, simply because we are women. If one is not hurting another and is being true to oneself and is prepared to stand by the consequences of their actions and beliefs, then maybe the world of women would be a better place with many more such…Different Kinds of Feminists…!

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