Madonna has always been an example of a strong, subversive woman in the music industry. But her speech at this weekend's Billboard Women in Music Awards — where she was honored as Woman of the Year — highlighted her struggle as a female in an industry that historically favors men. "Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant misogyny, sexism, constant bullying, and relentless abuse," Madonna said, effectively silencing the entire room of attendees. But she continued, bravely recounting the story of her rape on the rooftop of a New York City apartment building, as well as the backlash she encountered from both men and women as a female performer who owned her sexuality. But one of the more poignant points of Madonna's lacerating speech was the music industry's unwillingness to support women of a certain age. She sent out a warning to women, detailing the "game" they must play in order to survive as a musician. The caution finished with a whammy: "And finally, do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticized. You will be vilified. And you will definitely not be played on the radio." Madonna's warning is more true than we've likely realized. Female musicians have a much harder time maintaining a career over the age of 40 than their male counterparts. Think about it: David Bowie recorded well-received music until his death earlier this year at the age of 69. The Rolling Stones just released their 25th album this month, even though most of their members are well into their 70s. And older men in the industry are pulling more coin touring than their female counterparts. According to Billboard, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band headlined the highest-grossing tour of 2016 as of July. Madonna was second, pulling in over $123 million. But she was also the only female act over 40 on the entire list. As for the men? Aside from 'ol Brucie, you have The Rolling Stones, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and Iron Maiden — so four out of 10 spots are taken by dudes over 50. Angry yet? What's more is that these aged male rock stars maintain the status of "sex symbol" they earned in their youth. Mick Jagger just welcomed his eighth child at the ripe old age of 73 and no one batted an eyelash. For older female musicians, their sexuality is a joke to be made on Twitter. Madonna, who was once the pinnacle of sexiness, walked the red carpet at this year's Met Gala in a sheer dress that exposed her (amazingly taught) butt. When she was younger, this look was her signature, and one that launched a thousand look-alikes. But this year, she was smeared, and the image was slapped across a handful of "worst dressed" lists.
It begs the question: Why do we champion aged male rock stars while completely forgetting female musicians?
When it comes to their careers, female musicians tend to fade from our purview without much fanfare. And when they do pop up, the only way they're considered icons is if they take up residencies at Las Vegas hotels. Céline Dion has held a residency at Caesars Palace since 2011, where she performs roughy 70 shows a year. But the highly personal album, Encore un Soir, she released in August was practically ignored. The last time she won a major music award was in 2003 — back when she was 35. If they're not brushed aside icons, they're kooky personalities or caricatures of their former selves. Instead of focusing on her music, Alanis Morissette's website is now mainly dedicated to health and wellness. Mariah Carey, unable to shake the washed-up-diva label that's followed her around for a decade, is now starring in her own reality television show — her singing career is more a punchline for the internet than a legitimate business. And it's not as if we're talking about women who haven't had storied careers. Carey, Morissette, and Dion have a combined 17 Grammy awards between them. It begs the question: Why do we champion aged male rock stars while completely forgetting female musicians? It's almost too easy to pretend that this kind of sexism doesn't exist anymore, since so many female artists are outspoken about their sexuality and their feminist beliefs. Beyoncé is the modern example of this. She samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speeches over songs about owning her sexuality while dancing on stage with the word "Feminist" in bold letters behind her. But what will happen in five years when she turns 40? Will her fans still see her as a beacon of raw femininity, or will radio stations skip over her tracks during their commercial-free hours? Will she usher in a new way of thinking about female artists, or will she too be put out to pasture, forced to perform "Single" Ladies" and Destiny's Child deep cuts in Vegas? In this sense, Madonna's ability to keep her head above water, and continue to play the game by her rules is her greatest feat — and she acknowledged that in her speech. "People say that I'm so controversial. But I think the most controversial thing I have done is to stick around," she said. Madonna has always forced people to challenge the way we think of female sexuality. Perhaps now she'll force us to question what happened to the female musicians the music industry left behind.