Rebellious pop stars

Redefining old(er) age

1. Elza Soares

(°1930-1922; Brazilian) was known as the queen of Brazilian samba, literarily put on a throne during her last concerts. She was also celebrated for her rebellious attitude, always championing social and racial justice. In the course of her six decades career, she released more than 30 albums, including the 2018 album Deus é Mulher (god is a woman). This album is about the subjugation of women, about politics, and about the teaching of Brazilian culture. She explained: ‘Even though it deals with strong and necessary themes, Deus É Mulher is sunny, it has a pulsation of hope, like a hug in Brazil.’ In the title song Deus é Mulher Soares asserts herself without fear or shame as a woman, including no shame in her physical desires. In Eu Quero Comer Você we find a woman ready for the game of seduction. ‘I want to give it to you, but I don’t want to tell you/ You need to know how to read,’ is heard in the refrain of a pretty explicit song. The album entitled A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo (the woman from the end of the world), which Soares released at age 85, is about the favela, loss, anger, racism, violence against women, gay and transgender people, sex work. In the song Pra Fuder, she sings about the joys of sex: ‘I look at my body and I feel the lava dripping. I can see the fire itself there’s no strength to stop it. I melt in dizziness, my whole skin will burn. My chest on fire unleashes the running beast.’

2. Yoko Ono

(°1933; Japanese-American) is a fearless avant-garde, conceptual and performance artist and one of the pioneers of multimedia art. She is also well known for her feminist and peace activism, and for bringing her message to the world through her words, installations, music, and performances. She has also spoken out explicitly against ageism. On the negative reactions to her video for her 2013 track Bad Dancer which stated that wearing hot pants was not appropriate for her age, she responded: ‘Please don’t create another old person. I am afraid of just one thing, that those ageism criticisms will finally influence me… Because dancing in the middle of an ageism society is a lonely trip.’

3. Brigitte Fontaine

(°1939; French) is a French poet, actress, playwright, novelist and activist, and a punk, subversive and rebellious icon. She is known for her avant-garde experimental and provocative style, melding different genres such as rock and roll, folk, jazz, electronica and spoken word poetry. She was one of the 343 women signatories of the 1971 Manifesto of the 343, a petition written by Simone de Beauvoir that denounced the criminalisation of abortion. Activism and protest characterise her entire career, and that is no different in old age. In Gilles De La Tourette, for instance, one of the tracks on her 2020 album Terre Neuve, she employs the uncontrolled language use associated with Tourette’s syndrome to shame the immorality of financial capitalism. Prohibition (2009), the title song of an album described by Fontaine as rebellious, is a song that condemns ageism. She sings: ‘Old people are tossed aside, put to the asylum, to the castle of oblivion. Here is what’s waiting for me tomorrow, if I ever lose my way. I have other perspectives, you see: I am going to have sex, to drink and smoke; I’m going to invent myself other skies, ever broader and more precious.’

4. Madonna

(°1958; American), the queen of pop, has been praised for her ability to reinvent herself time and time again and to shift her musical, dance and fashion styles ahead of trends. In her work, she has consistently challenged the rules and definitions of femininity and sexuality. This brought her fame and recognition, but at the same time made her the target of a lot of ridicule and criticism. More recently, she has on top of that become the object of ageist jokes and comments. Already in the early nineties Madonna spoke out against ageism in the music industry and beyond, and she is still shocked at how ageism particularly affects women. In 2019 she said: ‘People have always been trying to silence me for one reason or another, whether it’s that I’m not pretty enough, I don’t sing well enough, I’m not talented enough, I’m not married enough, and now it’s that I’m not young enough. So they just keep trying to find a hook to hang their beef about me being alive on. Now I’m fighting ageism, now I’m being punished for turning 60.’ Madonna’s strategy against sexageism is to break stereotypes about what is age-appropriate. Being in the spotlight of the media that meticulously scrutinise her body for signs of decay, she keeps fighting against ageing through plastic surgery and working out. While this strategy will not do away with the youth myth, the powerful erotic energy and sexuality that she demonstrates may nonetheless be a middle finger to the voices calling for older women to disappear into the backstage area. Bitch I’m Madonna, she cries out. Doing so, she may kick down some doors so that the women following her will have to deal with ageism a little less.

5. Peaches

The flamboyant and provocative feminist musician, artist and activist Peaches (°1966; Canadian), has become a cult symbol of sexual expression. Her music has centred sex positivity, and women and queer people’s pleasure in particular. Her more recent work also includes attention for the subjects of ageing and ageism. Some of the tracks in her 2009 album I Feel Cream deal with the subject of ageism, and her 2015 album Rub, as she explained to Cosmopolitan, aims at ‘celebrating being comfortable with who you need to be and trying to dissolve a world of ageism too’. The Teaches of Peaches Anniversary Tour 2022 website says about her 2015 album Rub: It is ‘her most audacious and unequivocal work to date, and she continues to tour behind it relentlessly, spreading joy and empowerment around the world as she mixes the profane and the political in the singular way that only Peaches can.’ Her video for the track Dick in the Air follows her and musician, actress and stand-up comedian Margaret Cho (°1968) as they wander through L.A. in fuzzy skintight suit with attached knit penises.

6. Skin

The charismatic Skin (1967, British), lead vocalist of the rock band Skunk Anansie is a singer, songwriter, fashion icon an social and political activist. Skin is known for her powerful soprano voice and for her rebellious attitude with which she fearlessly kicks down stereotypes. Many of Skunk Anansie’s tracks (e.g. Selling Jesus, Intellectualise My Blackness, Little Baby Swastikkka, etc.) are politically charged and confront racism, abuse, organised religion and capitalist greed. In response to a review of Skunk Anansie’s 2012 album (Black Traffic) that said the band should retire, Skin claimed: ‘Ultimately it was very ageist. If you were to apply that level of ageism to racism or homophobia everybody would have gone crazy. If you don’t like the band and you don’t like the album and all you can say is that we’re old then just don’t fucking review us. I mean everybody gets old, but this is a fucking good album!’ In a 2019 interview she gave the following advice to the readers: ‘Age with grace, or age with disgrace. Nothing in between.’

For more music by 50+ women,check the playlists in our resources section

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