No Taylor Swift without Madonna

WASHINGTON — Stunning singers and songwriters, they’re top pop divas of their generations. Don’t get me wrong.

But the times call for an urgent question to be asked and answered: Who is the greater artist, Taylor Swift or Madonna? Swift is 33, half of Madonna’s age, 65, but with a long track record since high school.

They are in the news and on tour at the same time — Swift’s “Eras” and Madonna’s “Celebration” tours. So let us take a moment to consider them, side by side. Competition is stiff as Swift and Madonna make their ways to stadiums around the world.

(You must admit, this is more diverting than wars raging in Israel and Ukraine and among House Republicans.)

As performers, they’re about tied, with vivid energy and expressions that only expand the longer they are onstage, even in hard rain. Each exudes exuberance, enjoying their own shows more than anyone.

Guys formed rock bands from the Beatles, Rolling Stones to Pearl Jam and One Direction, Tom Petty to Bruce Springsteen.

Our women are solo artists with steely souls.

I’d break the tie by saying Madonna sowed fresh ground for female singers in her 20s and 30s, with daring fashion, lyrics and videos that broke molds.

Her “Like a Prayer” video, in which she embraces a Black man representing Jesus, with a gospel choir and burning crosses, is breathtaking. Crossing such boundaries took courage then.

Madonna’s costumes and dancing are more varied, original and to the point of her songs. Her movement displays her training as a dancer long before she picked up a guitar.

“Into the Groove,” boy, remember that? Her Super Bowl Roman goddess performance was an athletic tour de force, sassing football as a gladiator game.

Swift serenades adoring “Swifties,” wearing beautiful dresses, boots and sparkling suits that hug her. Never without that bright red lipstick. One album is titled “Red.”

Seeing my niece sing poolside to every line of Swift’s “Love Story,” in country mode with a happy ending, first demonstrated the power of her reach.

“I sneak out to the garden to see you… Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone.”

Swift’s lyrics are clever and confessional, piercing and poetic. She writes every word.

Then again, so does Madonna, who collaborates with composers on melodies and styles. Over her oeuvre arc, her undimmed sound took several different directions, but they are always hers, under lock and key. An explorer, she’s kept a vow not to stay the same.

Swift crossed the bridge from country to pop music almost a decade ago. A bittersweet ode to a lost love (and scarf) was heard often in the pandemic.

“All I felt was shame / and you held my lifeless frame… I was there / I remember it all too well.” The songstress accuses an ex of tearing up a “masterpiece” in “All Too Well.”

On pure musicianship, Swift’s skills win hands down. Her guitar extends from her arms seamlessly. Composing musical notes from her piano in Nashville, she delivers an emotional punch every time.

Madonna picked up a guitar later in life.

Taylor’s repertoire tells stories of broken romances with old boyfriends who cut a swath: like actor Jake Gyllenhaal and singer Harry Styles. Her current beau is NFL player Travis Kelce, as we all know.

Madonna’s canvas is broader, more spiritual, a shard of a rebellious Catholic girlhood. She etches a dark vision of a post-world war wasteland in “Ghosttown.”

She performed this haunting tune once with Swift playing the guitar, a tableau of iconic talent and presence, a torch passed not quite yet. Fighting age now, Madonna appears past her prime.

Swift’s touch, addressing concert fans as bracelet-wearing friends, comes off as disarmingly personal.

Swift, born in 1989, made that year the title of her crossover album with the signature anthem, “Shake It Off.” 1989 marked Madonna’s release of the pivotal, soul-searching “Like a Prayer.”

Their voices? You tell me. Neither’s songs are covered or sung by others.

What they have in common off-stage is fearless faith in their work and speaking out solo to confront men who run the music industry. Good for them.

My stand on this issue: bold Madonna cleared cultural space ready for tall Swift.

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The author may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit Creators.com.


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