A prize fit for a queen. Madonna was honored with the Woman of the Year Award at the 2016 Billboard Women in Music event at Pier 36 in New York on Friday, December 9. While accepting the award, the music icon opened up about her decades-long, envelope-pushing career with an emotional speech.
"Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant misogyny, sexism, constant bullying and relentless abuse," Madonna, 58, told the audience after Anderson Cooper presented her with the prestigious honor. "When I started, there was no internet, so people had to say it to my face. There were very few people I had to 'clap back at' because life was simpler then."
Reflecting on the early days of her career, the Queen of Pop, who is now considered an LGBT icon, continued, "People were just dying of AIDS everywhere. Manhattan was under the siege of a plague, and it wasn't safe to be gay. It wasn't cool to be associated with the gay community. When I first moved to New York, I was a teenager, it was 1979, and New York was a very scary place. In the first year, I was up at gunpoint, raped on a rooftop with a knife digging into my throat, and I had my apartment broken into and robbed so many times I just stopped bolting the door. In the years that followed, I lost almost every friend I had to AIDS or drugs or gunshots."
Madonna then discussed the sexism she faced in the industry, particularly when she first started writing music. After citing Blondie's Debbie Harry, The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde and Aretha Franklin as early sources of inspiration, Madonna called the late David Bowie her "true muse."
"He embodied male and female spirits, and that suited me just fine," she explained. "He made me think there were no rules, but I was wrong. There are no rules … if you're a boy. If you're a girl, you have to play the game. What is that game? You are allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don't act too smart. Don't have an opinion. Don't have an opinion that is out of line with the status quo, at least. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don't own your sluttiness. And do not, I repeat, do not share you own sexual fantasies with the world. Be what men want you to be. But more importantly, be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men. And finally, do not age because age is a sin. You will be criticized. You will be vilified. And you will definitely not be played on the radio."
The Material Girl also opened up about the time she felt "like the most hated person on the planet" after the release of her controversial 1992 album, Erotica, and the accompanying coffee table book, Sex. "Everything I read about myself was damning. I was called a whore and a witch," she recounted with tears in her eyes. "This was the first time I truly understood that women really did not have the same freedom as men."
Years later, after the birth of her daughter Lourdes, Madonna released her acclaimed album Ray of Light. "I realized that I could not be a victim any longer. That everything happened for a reason," she told the audience. "And my job was to learn from every s–t storm I wandered into."
"People say that I'm controversial, but I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is stick around," she continued, garnering applause. "Michael is gone. Tupac is gone. Prince is gone. Biggie is gone. Amy Winehouse is gone. David Bowie is gone. But I'm still standing. I'm one of the lucky ones, and every day I count my blessings."