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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

Washington Arts Ensemble to host immersive concert

Creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture

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The Washington Arts Ensemble will host an immersive concert experience on Saturday, June 18 at 7 p.m. at Dupont Underground.

This concert will show how distinct genres influence pop culture and articulate the commonality between classical, jazz, and electronic music while creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture.

Some of the works that will be performed include “Switched-On Bach selections” by Wendy Carlos, “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals by Camile Saint-Saens, among other works.

Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased on the Washington Arts Ensemble’s website

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Music & Concerts

John Levengood releases anthem “Say Gay!” to protest discrimination

Slated to perform new song at 2022 Capital Pride Festival in June

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Recording artist John Levengood’s latest song ‘Say Gay!’ is out Friday. (Photo courtesy Levengood)

“Say gay! Say gay! Say gay!
“Say what? Say what?
“One little law won’t shut us up!”

Slated for digital release this Friday, recording artist John Levengood’s latest song “Say Gay!” confronts anti-LGBTQ legislation such as the “Don’t Say Gay” law by encouraging others to “profess their queerness loudly, proudly, and never in the shadows,” Levengood said in a press release shared with the Blade on Tuesday.

On June 12, Levengood is set to perform the song’s live debut at the 2022 Capital Pride Festival in Washington, D.C., to streets teeming with community members, food trucks, and local vendors, according to the press release.

“The rise in oppressive legislation and proposals have many in the LGBTQ+ community alarmed,” the press release says. Levengood “hopes this song can be used as a metaphorical weapon to blast holes in the argument that teaching children about acceptance and diversity is more appropriate at home than school.”

The bill, enacted by the Florida Legislature earlier this year but not yet in force, would limit teachers’ ability to teach LGBTQ topics in some school settings and obligate school officials to disclose students’ sexual orientation and gender identity to their parents upon request.

A D.C. resident himself, Levengood currently works over the weekends as resident host and karaoke emcee at Freddie’s Beach Bar in Arlington, Va., an LGBTQ bar and restaurant.

Levengood is no stranger to the music scene, in 2013 moving through multiple rounds of auditions for the third season of “The X Factor” before coming up short of formally appearing on the show, according to the release.

Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of rural Virginia, the press release added that music has been an outlet for Levengood to express himself from an early age. The new song marks his seventh musical release.

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Music & Concerts

Tori Amos spins magic at Sunday night D.C.-area concert

First show in the area since ’17 finds Gen X icon vocally subdued but musically energized

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As with many veteran rock stars, it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on how hot or cold Tori Amos’s 30-year-old solo career is at the moment. It sometimes seems like she’s moving past the take-her-for-granted-because-she’s-never-away-for-long phase, and there certainly was that sense in the air Sunday night for her D.C.-area stop of her current “Ocean to Ocean Tour,” her first show here since 2017, which, with COVID, feels like a lifetime ago.

But there are also signs that it’s never been chillier for Amos in the overall pop culture landscape. It’s been a decade since she charted a single on any chart and there were no videos or singles from her “Ocean to Ocean” album last fall. It landed just outside the top 100 on the U.S. Billboard 200 album sales chart altogether, a new low that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago when her “regular” (i.e. non-specialty/concept) albums were almost guaranteed a top 10 debut. 

The slide has been swift, too: 2014’s “Unrepentant Geraldines” hit No. 7, the next album (2017’s polarizing “Native Invader”) only made it to 39, then came “Ocean’s” thud at no. 104. There’s a lot you could point to to explain it — streaming, her aging Gen X fan base, the endless undulations of the music industry itself — but in some ways it has started to feel like she’s getting less and less return on her artistic dollar than one would expect. 

Yeah, that always happens with veteran female pop stars once they hit their 50s and beyond, but Amos and her small but mighty fan base, who for decades exhibited a devotion of Grateful Dead-like proportions, outran the trend for so long, to see it finally catching up is a bit bewildering.

But then you go hear her live at a decent-size venue like The Theater at MGM National Harbor (which seats 3,000 and was about 97 percent full), and it feels nearly like old times. Sure, some of the excitement was just that we’re all gagging at being at concerts at all and having mask restrictions and vaccine requirements paused, but there was an electricity that, while mellower than it was at Amos concerts in the ’90s, still felt magical. I’ve never in my life seen so long a line for the merch table.

The concert itself was, for the most part, sublime. It was the first time since 2009 she’s toured with a band and while her solo shows are great too, there was pent-up yearning to hear her unleash full-on with a solid rhythm section (Jon Evans on bass, Ash Soan on drums) again. Beat-heavy songs like “Raspberry Swirl” and “Cornflake Girl” sounded tepid with canned beats the last few times out, so to hear everything truly live (save a few BGVs and effects) last night was heavenly.

It was Gen X queer night out Sunday night at the Theater at MGM National Harbor for Tori Amos’s first concert here since 2017. (Photo by Desmond Murray; courtesy Girlie Action)

The show had special poignancy too, as Amos grew up in the region. She has written and commented heavily on the immense toll her mother’s 2019 death took on her personally and artistically, so that the date happened to be Mother’s Day gave the proceedings added gravitas. “Mother Revolution” and “Jackie’s Strength” spoke, of course, to the holiday, though (and this is quibbling) I would have vastly preferred “Mother” from “Little Earthquakes,” a deep cut we haven’t heard live in eons. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Highlights included the slinky, rhythm-loopy opener “Juarez”; “Ocean to Ocean,” one of three cuts performed from the new record, which shimmered with Philip Glass-like piano arpeggios; the vampy, slinky interplay between the three musicians on “Mother Revolution”; and unexpected fan favorite “Spring Haze.” Amos, overall, is varying up the set list quite a bit less than is her norm, so it was one of the few surprises of the evening. 

The lengths of several of the songs were drawn out considerably. At times — “A Sorta Fairytale,” the aforementioned “Revolution” — that worked well and gave the band time to languidly jam. At other points, it felt a bit self-indulgent and even slightly boring — as on “Sweet Sangria” and “Liquid Diamonds.” 

“Russia,” a bonus cut from the last album, sounded just how it did when Amos performed it here in 2017, but took on added resonance because of current events. Closing line “Is Stalin on your shoulder” was chilling.

Overall, the show — lighting, pacing, everything — largely worked. The sound mix, which fans have said has been muddy at some venues recently on the tour, was pristine. Pacing only lagged a few times in some of the mid-tempo cuts from later albums, but just when you felt some were zoning — the flow of those entering and exiting is a good barometer — Amos whipped things back together with a fan favorite like “Past the Mission” or “Spring Haze.”

It all came to a satisfying, audience-friendly climax with “Cornflake Girl,” then the two encore cuts, “Precious Things” and “Tear in Your Hand,” both from the first album. 

Vocally, the range was there and sounded lovely, but the oomph was considerably held back. Vocal preservation for the many dates ahead? Probably. It’s understandable. Amos, at 58, may lack the stamina she had 20 years ago, but it did feel underwhelming in passages that in years past would have been full on, balls out like the “Bliss” bridge or the “nine-inch nails” passage from “Precious Things.” 

Not one acknowledgment or mention by Amos of the female folk duo openers Companion. I’d have invited them out for a few numbers to sing BGVs. I mean, heck, they’re in the house, why not? And other than the welcome, a brief soliloquy on Mother’s Day was the only Amos comment of the entire night. 

Still Amos never came off as aloof. She seemed genuinely excited to be playing live again and the queer-heavy crowd responded in kind. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)
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