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Why Madonna still leads, others follow

By L.Z. Granderson, CNN Contributor
April 6, 2012 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
 Madonna performs during the NFL Super Bowl XLVI game halftime show in February in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Madonna performs during the NFL Super Bowl XLVI game halftime show in February in Indianapolis, Indiana.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson says Madonna topping Billboard chart with new album; she's so not over
  • He says it's hard to dismiss singer who, by most measures, still leads the pack at 53
  • He says fate of Houston puts success of Madonna, a "bad girl," in perspective
  • LZ: Artists from Lady Gaga to Beyonce are walking on ground Madonna broke

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs Watch him on Tuesdays on CNN Newsroom in the 9 am ET hour.

(CNN) -- I thought she was over. Madonna, that is.

I thought she was too old to be referring to herself as a "girl." I thought pop music passed her by. I thought Lady Gaga had killed her.

And then I look at this week's Billboard chart and I see I thought wrong.

Her 12th CD, "MDNA" debuted No. 1 on the album chart and she has two singles on the dance-chart Top 10. She's 53 and the clubs are banging her new stuff, including "Give Me All Your Luvin," which became her 38th top 10 hit on the pop chart. For those of you keeping score, that's more than Elvis, more than The Beatles. I'm not saying she's better, but clearly she's done -- correction -- doing more.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

This year she won another Golden Globe and her halftime performance at the Super Bowl drew more viewers than the game itself, according to Nielsen. I know the perception is that only gay men care about Madonna, but if that were true, given the 114 million viewers who tuned in to watch her at halftime, maybe "don't ask, don't tell" should have been called "just assume."

The reality is it's hard for pop music to leave behind someone who keeps leading the pack. Madonna had the highest grossing tour ever for a solo artist (2008) and has sold more than 300 million records worldwide. She's an '80s child whose 2005 single "Hung Up" holds the Guinness Book record for topping the charts in 41 countries, while 2012's MDNA was No. 1 on iTunes in 40 countries.

Elton's husband regrets Madonna comments

That's not "over," that's now.

When you look at where Madonna's career is today in the same week we learned Whitney Houston drowned in a foot of water, you're reminded that God truly does work in mysterious ways. The two pop icons released debut albums within two years of each other, Madonna in 1983 and Houston in 1985.

Of course, Houston was the former model with a voice for the ages, while Madonna was the thin-voiced tart rolling around on the floor of the MTV music awards in a wedding dress proclaiming that she felt like a virgin. If anyone might have been expected to meet a desperate, tragic end, back then the safe money would have been on Madonna. And yet Houston's gone, Michael Jackson's gone, Prince is semi-retired and everyone else, with the exception of U2, is making their money off nostalgia.

Meanwhile, Madonna has methodically become, arguably, the greatest recording artist of all time. Who would've thunk it?

As for the music, her latest CD is not breaking any new ground, but it does remind everyone who owns the ground Gaga, Rihanna, Beyonce and others are walking on. In fact, each time they receive a royalty check, they should be sending Madonna a cut.

While MDNA is about three songs too long for my taste, I will tell you the first five songs make it very difficult not to want to dance, and that the track "Gang Bang" is pure genius. As you could probably figure out from the title, it's not radio friendly, but likely not because of what you may think. And that, in a nutshell, is why Madonna is who she is.

You can tell you're watching a Woody Allen film with the first five minutes of dialogue. You can identify the beautiful prose of Toni Morrison within a couple of pages. But my 15-year-old came home one day and asked who I was listening to. I told him Madonna and my son, who loves techno and hip hop, thought I was joking.

"Seriously... like your Madonna?" he asked.

"Yep," I said.

"Well, she's still old but that song's not."

The song was "Gang Bang" and I'm glad he left the room before she started singing. As I said, it's not radio friendly. But then again, it wouldn't be Madonna if a song like that was.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

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