I see Madonna has got t’Internet smoking like a pistol over her performance of Living for Love at this year’s Grammy awards. M returned to the Hispanic bullfighting theme previously explored in Take a Bow and La Isla Bonita. Her black muscle boy dancers wore crystal bull’s head masks and devil’s horns. Madonna wore very little.
The production was spectacular as befits one of the greatest live performers of our age. The song was a bit cuter and catchier than the dismal club drug anthems on her last album MDNA. But the minute M dropped her matador’s cape even diehard fans such as us had to concede that all was not well. Weren’t you willing her to be fabulous and put Rita, Rihanna, Gaga and Katy Perry in their place? Did she? Almost.
Madonna has maintained the body a woman a third of her age would be proud of. The tousled blonde hair is softer and the face as tight as a drum and plump as a capon. Does she pull off the matador-showgirl costume? Well, yes and no. Anything was an improvement on the monstrosity Ricardo ‘Givenchy’ Tisci put her in for the red carpet.
Didn’t your mouth hit the Aubusson when Madonna hit the red carpet? Thigh boots, fishnets, a veiled Montera, lace epaulettes and a corset shouldn’t appear in the same sentence let alone the same outfit. The creepy/kinky Karl Lagerfeld fingerless gloves are becoming a worrying ubiquity and the mini bustle that when lifted revealed butt cheeks like Seville oranges in a string bag was just wrong at any age.
I presume the red and black leotard M wore to perform Living for Love was also Givenchy. The cut and M’s low heels reminded me of that 40s bathing costume cheesecake shot of Betty Grable peeping over her shoulder. What it lacked was Madonna’s specialised subject: sex. Sex was also curiously absent from the Living for Love dance routine.
With the best will in the world M’s moves – pelvic thrusts, running skips and legs akimbo – are inevitably less feline than when she danced the superlative Confessions tour. How could it be otherwise? When she’s passed from one horny devil dancer to another both she and they show the strain. Madonna is an unapologetic fan of young flesh who has dated several Latino dancers in their twenties. As staged Living for Love had all the appearance of a cougar’s last dime in the juke box.
The idol who sprang to mind when watching a woman approaching sixty surrounded by muscle men was Mae West. Mae’s star rose in the 1930s before the censors called time on her innuendo-laden sex comedies such as I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong. West was a smart gal and a talented writer. Her screen persona was a belle of the nineties as in 1890s. Belle Epoque fashions suited the hourglass figure that inspired Schiaparelli’s Shocking corseted perfume bottle later borrowed by Madonna’s best costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.
West walked away from Paramount in 1937 at the height of her fame and after a couple of flops worked-up a nightclub act in Las Vegas with a troupe of bodybuilders. Already in her fifties West could just – just! – get away with recreating her screen presence with corseted costumes, wigs and the flash of her famous diamonds. She had the swagger of a saloon bar madame and a knowing twinkle in her eyes.
Then somewhat inexplicably Mae West decided to come back again in 1970 in Gore Vidal’s surreal Myra Breckinridge and Sextette in 1978. Mae was eighty-five when she filmed Sextette and was shot so blatantly out of focus that it could have been the PG Tips chimp in a wig rather than the woman who created Diamond Lil.
Writers who encountered the aged West still trying to turn the trick she perfected in 1930 were cruel. Truman Capote called her ‘a sexless symbol of uninhibited sexuality’. Cecil Beaton photographed her in 1970 noting ‘the neck, cheeks and shoulders were hidden beneath a peroxide wig. The muzzle, which was about all on could see of the face, with the pretty capped teeth, was like that of a nice little ape’.
Not being a show business professional, it has always baffled me why Mae West, having managed to resist the temptation to trust the cameras with her face for thirty years, should decide to return in her eighties. Sextette’s is a particularly grotesque plot working on the premise that a gaggle of young men all want to make love to Mae’s character. The actress could barely stand thus stretching credulity too far.
I’m afraid seeing Madonna at the Grammy Awards this year called to mind Mae West and her muscle men in Las Vegas. The act is still good-humoured and there’s a delight in watching Madonna defy age, gravity, expectations and her many critics. But there does come a time when it might be wise to make adjustments to the act however minor to retain dignity and self-respect.
Flashing your ass on a red carpet is neither feminist, feminine or positively provocative. It is desperation. Madonna does seem to be a crusader in the quest for eternal youth. But it is simply not possible to share a stage with Taylor Swift or Beyonce and be compared favourably as a sex symbol. Like Mae West, Madonna always did sell sex but she was X-rated whereas Mae used innuendo as her seven veils. Madonna dropped the last veil decades ago. We’ve seen it all before. The only novelty now would be for she to stop dressing like a pole dancer and start acting the grand dame. Just a suggestion.