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As Madonna and the Billboard Hot 100 turn 60, challenges ahead for both

Despite record chart stats and decades of hits, her traction has steadily eroded in recent years

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Madonna, gay news, Washington Blade

Madonna in her ‘Rebel Heart’ era in 2015. The singer turns 60 next week. (Photo courtesy Live Nation)

Interestingly Madonna and the Billboard Hot 100 chart are both turning 60 this month and the industry Bible has announced she’s the all-time chart queen with 57 entries and 12 no. 1 hits (Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson are in second and third place respectively).

The numbers are impressive — Madonna holds the record for most top 10 hits of all acts with 38 and she’s had 46 no. 1 hits on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart, more chart toppers than any act has ever accumulated on any Billboard chart.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that despite consistently putting out solid material in the last 10-15 years, her chart dominance has waned considerably with only one of her last seven singles even cracking the Hot 100 (“Bitch I’m Madonna” made it to no. 84 in 2015), an unthinkable track record compared to her ‘80s and ‘90s heyday. Her last U.S. top-10 hit was “Give Me All Your Luvin” in 2012; her last no. 1 was “Music” in 2000.

But how much of it is — as Madonna has claimed — ageism? Do the men (Springsteen, Paul McCartney, U2) with new material fare any better than women (Stevie Nicks, Cher, etc.)? The short answer is not really. The only time McCartney has had hits in the last 30 years were his high-charting collaborations with Kanye West, Rihanna, et. al. (“FourFiveSeconds made it to no. 4 and “All Day” to no. 15, both in 2015.) When’s the last time you heard a new U2 song on the radio?

And are the numbers even relevant, as the Washington Post has suggested, now that Billboard records are constantly being broken as the agency continues shuffling its methodology to factor streaming into the popularity equation?

One particularly eyebrow-raising shattered record happened last year when Nicki Minaj passed Aretha Franklin for most Billboard Hot 100 entries of any female artist, amassing 73 since 2010 alone. She pulled off this astounding feat because she’s such a ubiquitous guest artist (occasionally with Madonna): 32 of her entries are as lead artist; she’s “featured” on the other 44. Just based on number of entries among women, Madonna comes in fifth behind Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Franklin and Minaj. She ranks higher overall based on her actual numbers (i.e. Madonna’s singles haver generally charted higher than Franklin’s, Minaj’s etc. so she has more overall chart heft despite fewer entries). 

Fans have been concerned as far back as 2006 when they launched an “End the Madonna on U.S. radio Boycott” aimed at Clear Channel Communications after her “Confessions” singles failed to generate much interest. It hasn’t improved. Madonna herself cried foul in 2015 when Great Britain’s BBC Radio 1 declined to play her then-new single “Living for Love.” And in a 2016 speech in which she was named Woman of the Year at a Billboard Women in Music awards ceremony, she said in the world of music, “To age is a sin. You will be criticized, you will be vilified and you will definitely not be played on the radio.” 

That pop music and the Hot 100 has always pretty much been a young person’s game is a fairly accepted music industry truism. Look at any female pop singer going back to the days of Connie Francis (53 Hot 100 entries), Brenda Lee (48) or Dionne Warwick (56) — none of them were having major hits into their 50s and 60s. Despite a major comeback in her 40s, Tina Turner’s chart power slipped as she got older. Even Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe,” often cited as an example of what’s possible for older women artists, was a bit of a fluke. When it hit no. 1 on the Hot 100 in 1999, she was 52 and became the oldest woman to have a no. 1 hit. But that was 20 years ago and only two of the 16 singles she’s released since then have even cracked the Hot 100, the highest (“Strong Enough”) at no. 57. Like Madonna, she’s fared much better on the dance chart. 

Pink, 38, told the New York Times last year while promoting her latest release “Beautiful Trauma” she knew her days on the chart were limited (she’s had 23 top 40 hits).

“I had the whole sit-down, you know: ‘Just be prepared — they don’t play girls over 35 on top 40 radio,’” she told the Times. “There are exceptions but they’re songs, not artists — unless you’re Beyonce.” 

Thus far Madonna appears fairly undeterred. With “MDNA” in 2012 and “Rebel Heart” in 2015, she’s kept to a fairly regular release schedule. She’s teased new material on social media and appears to still enjoy making new music and live performance. She wowed the crowd in May with an elaborate performance at the Met Gala performing “Like a Prayer” at the “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” event (right up her alley thematically). 

But how long will Madonna feel like going back to the well if this law of diminishing returns continues as it’s likely to? Sure, Madonna does lots of things — she writes, acts (not so much anymore) and directs, but what is she supposed to do when the thing she clearly does best no longer has a place in pop culture? One might argue we don’t expect our sports legends to keep up the pace and records they set in their prime but writing, recording and releasing a hit single doesn’t require one to be at peak physical ability. It could — in theory — happen at any age. 

The situation is somewhat exacerbated by Madonna’s own restlessness. Obviously from her comments, the way she constructs her shows, even down to the arrangements of her old hits live, she’d never be happy on a gravy-train nostalgia-fest which Cher, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross and most veteran acts are perfectly fine with. They paid their dues over many decades — now is their times to phone it in, never break much of a sweat and collect the dough. Madonna would be bored out of her mind with that approach.

Her tours are still massive extravaganzas that sell out all around the world (she’s the top-grossing female touring artist of all time) but she’ll never expand her considerable fan base into younger generations with zero radio support. Outside of touring, there’s nothing comparable in pop music for the way actresses like Jessica Lange, Jodie Foster, Kathleen Turner and Glenn Close (Meryl is, of course, in a league of her own, no pun intended) have managed to keep the creative fires burning with TV, directing and stage work. Younger audiences still have ways to discover them. 

It will be interesting to see how Madonna — and the Pinks and Beyonces of the world after her, for their time will surely come as well — tackles this conundrum in the years to come. 

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Music & Concerts

BETTY holiday show rocks D.C.

Queer band returns home

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BETTY (Photo by Gene Reed, 2021)

D.C. native band BETTY kicked off its “Holly Jollypocalypse” tour with a show at City Winery on Dec. 5. 

The trio, including ally Alyson Palmer and queer sisters Elizabeth and Amy Ziff, debuted several new songs at the show like “Snow,” “Choose You” and “Mistletoe.” 

“Half this set is brand new for you people. You know why? Because we knew we were coming home,” Palmer said at the show. 

The group also played long-loved songs by their fans, like “Xmas Ain’t Coming This Year” and “Miracles Can Happen.” After many requests from the audience, the band played one of their most famous songs —  the theme song from the show “The L Word” — as an encore number. 

Throughout the show, the group expressed their gratitude to be able to perform live again, and recognized the loss so many have experienced over the past two years due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“This really has been an unbelievably challenging time, so challenging that we can’t even really wrap our brains around the PTSD,” Palmer told the audience. “A lot of us have lost a lot. In the past two years, we’ve lost all kinds of things. We’ve lost a lot of people. And that’s a horrible, horrible thing. But hopefully those people are somehow still connected to us.”

There was a familial feel to the night — Amy brought her daughter onstage throughout the show and the band performed the song “Saylor,” which is about her daughter. 

“She’s pretty lucky to see a couple of great goddess moms,” Amy told the audience. 

The band also welcomed local queer artist Be Steadwell to perform a mashup of a an original blues tune and “Silent Night.” Steadwell will be performing her show Drummer Bois: Queer Caroling with Be Steadwell at the Black Cat this Friday. To learn more, visit besteadwell.com. 

The members of BETTY, who proudly label themselves as “rule breakers” and “equality rockers” have been touring, writing, and advocating for social change through their music since 1986. 

“We’ve been together for 35 years as independent artists, which is pretty miraculous when you consider that with a capitalist system and how hard it is to exist as independent musicians and artists,” Elizabeth said in an interview. “We’re really grateful to our audiences, in particular to our queer community, that has really supported us forever and still does.”

BETTY’s first show was at the 9:30 club, and the band was excited to return to their home, the trio said in an interview. 

“D.C. was a great place to be to come together as feminists and as queer people and as political allies,” Amy said. 

Coming back and seeing the same work done by the same people in LGBTQ and feminist spaces in the District is “wonderful,” Palmer said.

“We’ve been politically engaged for so long and socially active for so long,” Palmer said.  “We grew up playing for protests and playing for those huge Gay Pride marches and pro-choice marches. I mean, that kind of thing just stays with you forever.”

The band has been featured in shows like “Encyclopedia,” and created their own off-Broadway show “BETTY RULES.” The group also launched a podcast in 2019 where they discuss how their band came to be, LGBTQ life and current events. BETTY is slated to release a  new album in spring 2022 in honor of the band’s 36th anniversary. 

Next, the band will travel to New York City, Cincinnati, Ohio, and New Hope, Pa. for the tour. Getting back in the swing of touring has been “incredible” but a physical marathon. 

“You forget that it’s very physical kind of show … so it’s really been funny getting back into shape in that way as well.”

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Music & Concerts

Forget streaming, the holiday classics return to area stages

Bring your proof of vaccination and check out a local production this season

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A scene from a previous Gay Men's Chorus of Washington Holiday Show. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A year ago, the holiday season was streamed. But now, thanks to various protocols including masks and proof of vaccination, DMV theatergoers can come together and experience – live and in-person — both beloved classics and some promising new works. Here’s a smattering of what’s out there.

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello is thrilled to bring back “A Christmas Carol 2021” (through Dec. 26), his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story. Concerning returning to a live audience, Morello says, “While this is technically a one-person show, it’s really about the connection and collaboration with an audience, being in the same room, breathing in unison. I can’t do this without an audience and for a story that thrives on redemption, mortality, isolation, the need for community and connection, and the things that matter most, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Olney also presents “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 2. This musical “tale as old as time” stars out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero plays the Beast. olneytheatre.org

For the holidays, Synetic Theater at Crystal City is reworking “Cinderella” (Nov. 27-Dec. 26). Led by an all-female team of creators, this festive take on the classic fairytale is inspired by Afro-Latino music and dance. Directed and adapted by Maria Simpkins who also plays the title role. synetictheater.org

Last year, because of COVID-19, Ford’s Theatre presented “A Christmas Carol” as a radio broadcast, but now the fully produced play returns to the venue’s historic stage through Dec. 27. A popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years, the thoroughly enjoyable and topnotch take on the Dickens’ classic features Craig Wallace reprising the part of Scrooge, the miser who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org

Another D.C. tradition guaranteed to put audiences in a holiday mood is the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” playing at the Warner Theatre through Dec. 26. Set to Tchaikovsky’s enchanted score, this charming and superbly executed offering takes place in Georgetown circa 1882 and features a retinue of historic figures along with children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Choreography is by Septime Webre. washingtonballet.org

The Folger Consort, the superb early music ensemble in residence at the Folger, will be performing seven concerts of “A Medieval Christmas” (Dec. 10-18) at St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill. A streaming version of the concert will also be available to view on-demand. folger.edu

At Lincoln Theatre, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. presents “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 4, 11, and 12) replete with tap-dancing elves, a dancing Christmas tree, snow, and a lot more. The fun and festive program’s song list includes “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” and “Boogie Woogie Frosty.” Featured performances range from the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. gmcw.org

Arena Stage is marking the season with August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” (through Dec. 26), a drama about a small group of friends who gather following the untimely death of their friend, a blues guitarist on the edge of stardom. Directed by Tazewell Thompson, the production features an exciting cast that includes local actors Dane Figueroa Edidi and Roz White. arenastage.org

Creative Cauldron is serving up some holiday magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 9-19). Based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown, it’s the story of a lonely and bitter spinster who returns to happiness through a box of old toys. The commissioned new holiday musical is a collaboration of longtime musical collaborators and married couple Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (lyrics and book). creativecauldron.org

In keeping with the Yuletide spirit, the National Theatre presents two feel-good national tour musicals. First, it’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (through Dec. 5), a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ classic holiday tale featuring the hit songs “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas.”

Next up is “Tootsie” (Dec. 7-12), the hit musical based on the 1982 gender-bending film starring Dustin Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who disguises himself as a woman to land a role on a popular soap opera. The show boasts a Tony-winning book by Robert Horn and a score by Tony winner David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit). thenationaldc.com

Keegan Theatre presents its annual holiday offering, “An Irish Carol” (Dec. 10-31). Set in a modern Dublin pub, the funny yet poignant original work (a nod to Dickens) tracks the changes in the life of a rich but miserable publican over the course of one Christmas Eve. keegantheatre.org

At Theater J, it’s the Kinsey Sicks’ “Oy Vey in a Manger” (Dec. 17-25). Blending drag, four-part harmony, and political humor, the “dragapella beautyshop quartet” brings its own hilariously irreverent view on the holidays. theaterj.org

And through Jan. 2, Signature Theatre continues to brighten the season with its production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” directed by the company’s out artistic director Matthew Gardiner and featuring out actor David Merino as Angel, a preternaturally energetic drag queen and percussionist. sigtheare.org

The Music Center at Strathmore, also in Bethesda, is presenting a wide range of musical holiday offerings including “Manheim Steamroller Christmas” (Dec. 3 and 4), a multimedia holiday tradition; Sarah Brightman in “A Christmas Symphony” (Dec. 6 and 7); “A Celtic Christmas with Séan Heely Celtic Band” (Dec. 11); Washington Bach Consort’s “Bach’s Epic Christmas Oratorio” (Dec. 11); the beloved “The Washington Chorus: A Candlelight Christmas” (Dec. 16 and 17); and last but not least “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 20), Tchaikovsky’s classic reimagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). strathmore.org

And finally, something strictly for the kids: Imagination Stage presents “Corduroy” (Dec. 11-Jan. 24). Based on the beloved children’s books by Don Freeman, it’s the heartwarming story of a girl and her perfectly imperfect Teddy Bear. Best for ages 3-9. imaginationstage.org

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Music & Concerts

BETTY returns to DC

Queer band to perform at City Winery Dec. 5

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BETTY (Photo by Gene Reed, 2021)

Pop-rock band BETTY is returning to their District homeland for a holiday show at City Winery on Dec. 5.  

Fronted by Alyson Palmer and sisters Elizabeth and Amy Ziff, the band who are “rule breakers” and “equality rockers” have been touring, writing, and advocating for social change through their music since 1986. The band has been featured in shows like “The L Word” and “Encyclopedia,” and created their own off-Broadway show “BETTY RULES.”

The D.C. show will kick off a tour that will bring the band to New York City, Cincinnati, and New Hope, Pa. Elizabeth, who identifies as lesbian, said it’s been “incredible” to be in rehearsals for shows again after the pandemic put a hold on live music.  

“We’ve been together for so long. We are a family and we hang out and we’re friends and we play music together,” she said. “It’s our life.”

Amy, who is queer, said she’s excited to perform in the District where the band originally formed. 

“It’s so emotional because it’s where we grew up,” she said. “Not just musically, but it’s where we came out.”

Proof of vaccination is required at all shows. To purchase tickets, visit citywinery.com.

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