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Madonna, Annie Lennox and 'Acting Your Age'

02/10/2015 03:18 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
Christopher Polk via Getty Images

It's far too common to pit women in popular music against one another. And, after Madonna and Annie Lennox delivered their respective performances on the 57th Grammy Awards on Sunday, that's exactly what happened. As both these strong female trailblazers came to prominence in the 1980s, many in the cyber sphere wanted to admonish one over the other.

But, first off, comparing Annie Lennox and Madonna musically is a false equivalence. They are, generally, two different types of artists, popular for different reasons, each with separate skill sets: one is a rock, blue-eyed soul vocalist about big vocal performances, the other is a dance-pop, self-proclaimed "show girl" with a talent for theatrics, messages, dancing and spectacle. Both are entertainment masters in their own right.

But, simmering underneath their performances was a vitriolic conversation online and in the media about age. With just four years difference (Lennox, 60 and Madonna, 56), there were countless remarks on how one was acting "appropriately," and one was not. One was "a class act" and one was not. But when it comes to aging -- just like their musical careers -- these women have two separate approaches and journeys entirely their own.

Annie Lennox is a spectacular musical talent, and she's pushed identity roles throughout her career through strong feminist activism. As she's matured, she has also, in many respects, "followed the rules" of aging as dictated by society: She doesn't try and disguise her age, she wears nice "age appropriate" attire on the red carpet, covering most her body (omitting the outrageousness of her neon-orange crew cut, 80s-breakout, Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams" era, and the dramatics of her 90s diva days), her "current" song "I Put a Spell on You" is a stunning rendition of a 1956 standard and her latest album of jazz standards is called Nostalgia. It's very comforting on a certain level because it's what we're used to experiencing with people "of that age." It meets our collective expectation. We've seen mothers and grandmothers like this. And there's a certain glorious-ness to Lennox seemingly accepting herself and meeting herself at her own age (or what being that age means to her).

Madonna has opted to go a more modern and, dare I say, subversive route. Physically, she tries to look the best she possibly can for her age, even decades younger (utilizing everything from intense workouts to diet to alleged surgery), and she dresses unconventionally and scantily (even cheekily flashing the Grammy red carpet her bare bum).

Musically, she works with younger producers and continues creating modern music. And she is not about to stop being the same provocative artist she's always been. "Is there a rule? Are people just supposed to die when they're 40?" she famously said in a 1992 interview at age 34 , lamenting how people aren't supposed to be "adventurous" or "sexual" after maxing their 30s. Madonna has always challenged culture norms and "rules" about behavior, particularly rules in relation to women and how people are told they can and can't express themselves.

And rules about age are rapidly changing. Marianne Williamson in her book, The Age of Miracles: Embracing the New Midlife, makes an invaluable point: While a rapidly growing segment of our population is living to be over 100, it's not that our lives are getting extended at the end, but in the middle. With the help of modern medicine, cosmetics and a better understanding of diet and exercise, we are staying healthier and looking better longer, and we are becoming more fully ourselves -- or, at least, we have the potential to do so.

This creates a new space to recreate what it means to be "you" in those middle years of life. Williamson says:

If we allow ourselves the power of an independent imagination -- thought-forms that don't flow in a perfunctory manner from ancient assumptions merely handed down to us, but rather flower into new archetypal images of a humanity just getting started at 45 or 50.

Madonna might actually be helping reshape the paradigm for what it means for people to self-express in their 50s and beyond. Her unparalleled success as a global cultural icon means she charts territory no one has quite navigated before at such huge level. It makes us initially uncomfortable. It pushes buttons. But, ultimately, it creates a path for people to choose outside what's expected and what current norms allow.

Her ability to do this throughout her career, to create paths for people previously untraveled, has been one of her greatest gifts. In the 1980s and 90s with her sexual politics, she helped redefine what it meant to be a "feminist," from the 70s stereotypical "bra-burner" into a woman who could be sexy and overtly sexual (even wear bras as outerwear!), yet still very much in control of her own destiny. It was a new way of being. She also deeply pushed boundaries of comfort by embracing gay rights at a time when nearly no celebrity would touch the topic (much less show it on stage, TV or in movies) and she was an AIDS activist and safe sex advocate in the early days of the 80s and 90s AIDS crisis -- she contributed to the advocacy of gays becoming commonplace as she played a role, remodeling minds and attitudes.

And in the 90s and 2000s -- from Catholicism to Kabbalah -- she has helped audiences rethink religion and spirituality and their ties to patriarchy and sexuality. Her hallmark has always been subversion. She is part of the system, of mainstream corporate pop -- which is her platform -- yet, she is often subverting it and its ingrained misogyny, homophobia and ageism.

There's a reason the current crop of pop princesses (Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and even queen Beyoncé) all have made a point to pay respects: Madonna helped create the model of sustaining relevancy in a pop music career for over four decades. According to TiVO, Madonna's performance was the most-watched part of the entire Grammy night, and the day following the Grammys, three songs from her new album Rebel Heart hit the top three slots of the iTunes music chart, and her single "Living For Love" reemerged into the Top 40 after previously reaching the top in December.

She -- more than 30 years after her debut single in 1982 -- remains the definition of relevant. Madonna opened her Grammy performance with a quote that highlights her career-long message: Be who you are, "someone unique and rare and fearless." And part of her enduring appeal is people like witnessing someone fearlessly (and rebelliously) doing something outside the standards of conventions and cultural expectations. Even if some are keen on slagging it off in the press and on social media. After all, those that dare go against convention are often the most maligned and criticized.

Annie Lennox and Madonna have different paths. BOTH of these remarkable, self-empowered ladies' paths are valid. And we can honor and respect the choices each of the these women have made for themselves. Some will find it silly that one "doesn't act her age," but others will wonder why the other "acts so old" when people live past 100 these days. Both women have chosen what works for them. And let us celebrate them both for giving us all options.