Billboard's Women in Music: Madonna Reflects on “Sexism and Misogyny and Constant Abuse” Over More Than Three-Decade Career
“To all the doubters and naysayers and everyone who gave me hell and said I could not or would not or must not, your resistance made me stronger, made me push harder, made me the fighter that I am.”
Madonna — a global icon who extended her record as the highest-grossing female touring artist of all time in 2016 — was honored as Woman of the Year at Billboard’s Women In Music 2016 event on Friday (Dec. 9). And during her acceptance speech, she was fully ferocious, funny and brutally honest — in other words, she was the Madonna fans have known and adored since she debuted more than 30 years ago.
Anderson Cooper introduced Madonna with a heartfelt tribute to her ongoing influence. “Madonna is Billboard‘s Woman of the Year, but as far as I’m concerned in terms of music and impact and culture, she’s been the Woman of the Year every year since she released her first single ‘Everybody’ in 1982.”
Hailing her as not only “relevant but revolutionary” up to present day, Cooper noted the importance of Madonna to him “as a gay teenager growing up… Her music and outspokenness showed me as a teenager a way forward. Through her music, she told me and millions of teenagers — gay and straight — that we are not alone. We are connected to each other.”
Following Cooper’s personal tribute, rising British singer-songwriter Labrinth took the stage for a stirring medley of Madonna’s Ray of Light ballad “Frozen” and her immortal “Like A Prayer.” Naturally, a choir was brought onstage to recreate the church-meets-pop anthem ecstasy of “Like a Prayer.”
But Madonna, unsurprisingly, stole the show the moment she took the stage. Her weapon? Something you can’t contain, fake, reproduce or put a price on: Blunt, personal truth.
After opening with a joke — “I always feel better with something hard between my legs” Madonna said, straddling the microphone stand — she got candid very quickly.
“I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer,” Madonna said. “Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant abuse.”
Madonna’s sprawling, revealing speech took us back to her life as a teenager when she first moved to New York.
“People were dying of AIDS everywhere. It wasn’t safe to be gay, it wasn’t cool to be associated with the gay community,” Madonna recalled. “It was 1979 and New York was a very scary place. In my first year I was robbed at gunpoint, raped on a rooftop with a knife digging into my throat and had my apartment robbed so many times I stopped locking the door. In the years that followed, I lost nearly every friend I had to AIDS or drugs or gunshots.”
From that, Madonna told the Women In Music crowd she learned a vital lesson: “In life there is no real safety except for self-belief.”
Madonna also talked about a lesson she thought she learned from David Bowie … Only that lesson, it turned out, didn’t quite apply to her. “I was of course inspired by Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde and Aretha Franklin, but my real muse was David Bowie. He embodied male and female and that suited me just fine. He made me think there are no rules…. But that was wrong. There are no rules if you’re a boy. There are rules if you’re a girl,” Madonna said.
Among those rules: “Don’t be too smart. Don’t have an opinion that’s out of line with the status quo…You are allowed to dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness… Be what men want you to be and be what women feel comfortable with you being around their men. And do not, repeat do not, age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticized and vilified and definitely not played on the radio.”
Madonna also opened up about the time in her life when she felt “like the most hated person on the planet,” with her eyes tearing up and her nose running a bit.
“Eventually I was left alone because I married Sean Penn and he would bust a cap in your ass. For a while I was not considered a threat. But years later, divorced and single — sorry Sean — I made my Erotica album and my Sex book was released. I remember being the headline of every newspaper. Everything I read about myself was damning. I was called a whore and a witch. One headline compared me to Satan. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, isn’t Prince running around with fishnets and high heels and lipstick with his butt hanging out?’
Yes, he was.
“This was when I understood women do not have the same freedom as men,” she said.
Madonna also recalled that at one point in her life, during all the public vitriol, “I remember wishing I had a female hero I could look to for support. Camille Paglia, the famous feminist writer, said I set women back by objectifying women. So I thought, ‘Oh, if you’re a feminist, you don’t have sexuality?’ So I said ‘fuck it. I’m a different kind of feminist. I’m a bad feminist.'”
Closing out her speech, Madonna offered thanks to her haters and advice to other women in music.
“I’m not here so much because I care about awards,” Madonna said. “I’m here because I want to say thank you. To all the doubters and naysayers and everyone who gave me hell and said I could not or would not or must not, your resistance made me stronger, made me push harder, made me the fighter that I am. It made me the woman that I am today. So thank you.
“What I would like to say to all women here today is this: Women have been 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…. As women, we have to start appreciating our own and each other’s worth. Seek out strong women to befriend to align yourself with and to learn from, to collaborate with, to be inspired by and enlightened by. True solidarity amongst women is a power on its own.”
Prior to Madonna, Shania Twain was honored as this year’s Icon at the 2016 Women In Music event. Also honored this year are Halsey (Rising Star), Andra Day (Powerhouse), Meghan Trainor (Chart Topper), Maren Morris (Breakthrough Star), Kesha (Trailblazer) and Alessia Cara (Rule Breaker). Billboard’s Women In Music airs Dec. 12 on Lifetime.
This story first appeared on billboard.com