We pride ourselves at The FADER on scouring the globe to introduce you to some of the most left-field music around. But in our monthly column Popping Off, Aimee Cliff takes the temperature of mainstream pop music.
“What the fuck just happened?" asked Drake, and the world, two Sundays ago, after Madonna surprised him with a lengthy kiss onstage at Coachella 2015. The moment itself was difficult to understand and awkward to watch. For his part, the rapper appeared to be genuinely blindsided by the whole thing, unsure what to do with his flailing arms or his dumbstuck face, which afterward seemed on the verge of tears. Meanwhile Madonna, wearing a shirt that proclaimed her “big as Madonna" (a quote from Drake's “Madonna") announced “I'm Madonna!", ICYMI, before bounding offstage.
You'd think that Madonna snogging people onstage wouldn't be shocking today, considering pulled the same stunt with Britney and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 VMAs. And yet, those screencapped images of Drake's twisted facial expression and wavering arms are still making the rounds two weeks later.
Of course, Madonna knows better than anyone that cheap shock tactics are part and parcel of her brand. The kiss itself seemed an awkward and eye-roll-inducing move to drum up controversy—not totally unexpected from a woman whose latest album campaign has included a comparison of musical leaks to “rape," the appropriation of images of black leaders and icons, and an Instagram post honoring one of Britain's most controversial Conservative Prime Ministers. It also raised concern about consent, given that was unclear whether Drake was expecting the kiss, or willing to participate in it at all. As writer Arthur Chu put it in a piece for Slate, “If you actually nonconsensually 'surprise' someone on stage with a kiss? That's super gross, regardless of who's doing it to whom."
Still, what seems to be getting everyone worked up is not the fact that Madonna is behaving like Madonna, but the fact that she's continuing to do so at the age of 56. The media and meme-wagon that leapt to criticise the singer for her actions at Coachella mostly didn't seem concerned with questions of consent or taste; they seemed more interested in what kissing Madonna might feel like. Shockmongerer Piers Morgan tweeted that he imagined it would be “ghastly"; journalist James Brown compared it to being kissed by an “auntie with a moustache." Lil Wayne poked fun at Drake on Instagram with a joke that was somewhat akin to an eight-year-old yelling “ew, cooties!" A burger brand decided it would be good advertising to share an image of Drake and Madonna along with the promise that “nothing gets out the taste of old lady" like their food.
Many commentators, likewise interpreted Drake's reaction to the kiss as physical disgust—TMZ wrote: “Drake fulfilled every young man's fantasy (in 1985) of making out with Madonna, but it's 2015 and he looked disgusted by the whole thing." This reading became so ubiquitous online that Drake himself was forced to take to Instagram and reassure everyone that he felt a-ok about the whole thing, insisting, “Don't misinterpret my shock!! I got to make out with the queen Madonna and I feel 100 about that forever."
Madonna herself has long been vocal about feeling that the media is discriminating against her because of her age. After wearing a revealing outfit to the 2015 Grammys, she told the New York Daily News, “I take care of myself. I'm in good shape. I can show my ass when I'm 56, or 66 — or 76. Who's to say when I can show my ass? It's sexism. It's ageism." In her Rolling Stone cover story back in February, she reiterated the sentiment, arguing that age gives the media license to “totally discriminate against somebody and talk shit...only females, though. Not males." During the fall-out of the Coachella kiss, she posted about the issue on Instagram numerous times, sharing Rita Ora's thanks to her for “fighting all these ageist battles," and stating, “I hope people are not mean to [Drake] when he is 56 and still working the stage!"
Like many of her recent choices on social media, some of Madonna's points about ageism are a bit sus—she claims it's the “one area" in which people can still be discriminated against, citing the civil rights and gay rights movements as examples of causes that are more widely discussed and coming dangerously close to suggesting that those problems are solved today. Still, Madonna's suggestion that Drake won't be discriminated against in the same way when he's still performing at 56 is on point. Crucially, he won't be discriminated against in the same way because our view of female pop stars depends on them being primed for sexual consumption, something society tells us that women past a certain age are not. Just because Madonna is no longer in her twenties or thirties, she's relegated to being an “auntie with a moustache," a desexualised familial figure who—yuck—probably has facial hair to boot!
Pioneering second wave feminist Germaine Greer recently spoke about her belief that ageism is one of the most pressing issues facing feminism today; “Give me the right to grow up, let me age," she told an International Women's Day conference in Australia. She explained that the media's exclusion of older women and children, in favour of focusing on females of childbearing age, meant that there was no “respect" for older women in society at large. Greer may have made her points by throwing unnecessary side-eye at Kim Kardashian, but the core of what she said rang true: women need to be sexualized and conform to certain very specific beauty standards in order to remain relevant in pop culture right now. As Amy Schumer and co. recently put it on Comedy Central's Inside Amy Schumer, they need to be of a “fuckable" age.
That isn't great news for women who dare to live past society's accepted “fuckability" cut-off—but it doesn't mean good things for women inside that age bracket, either. Just look how Julia Louis-Dreyfus's face lights up as she contemplates being past being “fuckable" in the aforementioned sketch: “I'm thrilled! Ecstatic! I don't have to deal with maintaining this any more," she quips, gesturing to her face and body, before chugging a pint of ice cream.
Women in the public eye at any age are held up to impossible standards; just look at the scandals that have played out around 21-year-old Ariana Grande over the past few weeks. Before Madonna was pinning Drake to a chair at Coachella, Grande was filmed being cuddled from behind by a creepy Justin Bieber as the pair performed her song "Love Me Harder" in Los Angeles. The photos sparked an outpouring of tweets on how humiliating the performance must have been for former boyfriend Big Sean, as though Bieber and Sean were engaged in a long distance game of pass the parcel with Grande. The frenzy focused around a tweet from Sean that sent a public warning to Bieber, which a rep for Sean later claimed was a fake. The following week, Sean—for real this time—wrote on Instagram, "I give her that D," a quote from his verse on "Mercy." An account posing as Grande's father commented beneath the photo, "that D better be Detroit, Sean." Again, a screenshot of the comment went viral; again, it was revealed to be fake. Why did anyone create these fake statements about Grande purporting to be her boyfriend and her dad, and why did the public's imagination latch onto them? The running theme seems to be that Grande's body is a prize to be guarded by the men around her, and that any threat to her implied purity is a humiliating, emasculating strike against them.
The latest in the ongoing drama is the suggestion across various celebrity news outlets that Big Sean's lyric about Ariana's billion dollar pussy, on his track “Stay Down," is what caused their break-up. While Ariana has stayed silent on all of this, the world has revealed a total fascination with who gets to talk about (and touch) her body. We read her quietness as passivity, and speak about her as if she had no part to play in her onstage cuddles with Bieber. Never mind that Grande is a grown woman who frequently expresses her sexual desire on record with lines like Get on your knees/ Wanna see you looking up and Anybody could be good to you/ You need a bad girl to blow your mind. The public is still incapable of viewing her as a sexual agent.
Not surprisingly, the internet's favourite running joke about the former Nickelodeon star is that she is actually a baby. Frequently referred to as wearing diapers and depicted as a child, Grande is stuck in the sort of Peter Pan realm that seems to be applied to all female stars who find fame young—take a look at the paternalistic way Sinead O'Connor and many others reacted to Miley Cyrus back in 2013 when she started, well, being Miley Cyrus. We talk about Ariana and Miley as though they are vulnerable and in need of protection; we get anxious seeing them put in sexualized situations, imagining their fathers wringing their hands backstage. Imagine for a second if Ariana had kissed Drake at Coachella instead of Madonna. It would have blown up with coverage, but more than likely the centre of the speculation would have been: “What does Big Sean think?"
Women in pop culture are presented with a lose-lose situation. Be Ariana Grande, consistently denied your own sexual agency while being sexualised; or be Madonna, whose sexual agency is “ghastly" because she doesn't fit society's criteria of sexiness. These are two ends of a spectrum, but to watch the headlines surrounding them play out in tandem over the last few weeks, you'd think it really was that black and white. I'd hesitate to agree with Rita Ora that Madonna is “fighting" a worthy “ageist battle" when that fight involves her surprising her co-performers with her mouth mid-set, but all that story seems to have revealed is that our attitudes towards women in pop culture are pretty much prehistoric. We tell women, “be sexy and let us own you, or be unsexy and let us throw you away." Female performers don't just start fighting battles when they hit 50; the fights change, but their bodies are battlegrounds from the start.
Header image: Getty Images / Christopher Polk