Madonna and her ‘new face’ are completely brilliant03/29/2023
In this column, we deliver hot (and cold) takes on pop culture, judging whether a subject is overrated or underrated.
I have a very distinct childhood memory. It is 1993. My sister, dad and I are in the lounge room of our rental property. Probably, because it is 1993, my sister and I are eating a morning tea of Roll-Ups and Le Snacks and washing it down with a refreshing glass of Cottee’s raspberry cordial. Rage is on the television. A woman identified as Madonna appears on the screen to sing – as far as I can tell – about rain. But something is wrong! Madonna looks entirely different. Her eyebrows are thin and angry. Her hair is not peroxide blonde, it is dark brown and cropped short.
I ask my dad about this, confused in the way only a child can be, as to how this woman can have suddenly different hair. My dad – progressive, artsy, Paul Keating apologist to the bitter end, sniffs. “She’s probably ruined her hair by dying it so much and this is all that’s left,” he says. This sounds quite judgemental of him, but remember that this is the 90s and things were very different. For example, we all genuinely thought Bill Clinton was a feminist and took Naomi Wolf’s opinions seriously.
If Madonna preferred not to look “done”, then she wouldn’t.
Flash forward to 2023. My children and I are watching television. I am feeding them rice crackers and berries because sometime in the last 30 years research popped up suggesting that giving children 85 servings of sugar a day might not actually be that healthy. Bill Clinton is now Bill Clinton*. The asterisk stands for “guy who was charming but who probably should have been impeached and definitely was a bit of a sleaze.” Naomi Wolf is a noted anti-vax lunatic.
Because I am tired, the kids and I watch A LOT of YouTube videos about transformer toys. The videos are made by children far more entrepreneurial than my own. After transformer toys we watch Beyonce’s Superbowl takeover (my oldest wonders aloud whether the pyrotechnics exploding in time with Bey’s dance moves are fiery farts from her and her backup dancers) and then, thanks to the magic of algorithms, Madonna’s shiny new face materialises before us. And my son, beautiful, innocent, asks if she is a monster.
Her face is certainly not the face of Rain. Or Madame X. It is fuller, more exaggerated, certainly “done”. Anyway, I laugh a lot at this and then tell my son Madonna is a singer who has put some things in her face to make it smooth and puffy to look younger – and then I feel privately sad that poor Madonna is making a fool of herself by not aging gracefully. Then we watch another five hours of YouTube.
There are many moments in parenting that assume retrospective significance. These moments typically strike in the middle of the night when I wake up to feed my youngest, and then take a few minutes to wonder just how much I’ve damaged my older two so far. Sidenote – I don’t spend the same amount of time thinking about how much my husband might have messed them up even though he has occasionally bribed them with Lindt balls to eat breakfast. No, my anxiety has taught me that the psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical development of the children is my cross to bear alone.
But that night, during my ruminations, I am struck by the unfairness of my response. Unfairness to Madonna, that is, but also to my son. This woman is intentional and she has always thrived on reinvention – as my childhood confusion with 1993 Madonna showed. She has access to the best practitioners of the dark aesthetic arts in the world. If she preferred not to look “done”, then she wouldn’t. She has not “aged badly” or made a fool of herself. Her looking new and shiny is not a response to getting old but the newest iteration of her creative restlessness. She also knows how to get people talking! She knew when she turned up at the Grammys her new face would be the face that launched a thousand think pieces. I also feel ashamed of my parenting. I should have told my son, “that is not a monster, that is just one glorious example of what female excellence can look like”.
Anyway, there are two morals to this story. The first is that Madonna’s new face is vastly underrated. She looks like that because she wants to, we’re all talking about her and isn’t that completely brilliant? The second is that children will remember the most mundane of moments (Hi Dad!), and remember them in possibly inaccurate ways and the best thing to do is always to know exactly what to say the first time and to express it perfectly, or not say anything at all.
Mali Waugh’s Judgement Day is out now via Pan Macmillan.
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