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Madonna performs at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 2015. At this point in her career, her provocations are sometimes offensive and often grating in a teenager kind of way.Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The campaign for Madonna's 13th studio album got off to a rough start. When demos from Rebel Heart leaked in December, she posted a rant on Instagram calling this "artistic rape!!" and "a form of terrorism." Later, she posted a series of altered photographs, showing the faces of cultural icons tied up in black wire, as hers is on the album cover: John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. This was obviously offensive, but the overwhelming reaction was probably embarrassment.

"Madonna has always been shocking," Peter Robinson wrote for The Guardian at the time. "But once upon a time it was the people she shocked who looked stupid." It's tempting to say that Madonna hasn't aged well, that she's gotten too old to provoke. But age doesn't equal irrelevance – you can be irrelevant at any age – and it's not necessarily a detriment to creative accomplishment. Plenty of artists make important work well past Madonna's 56, through their 60s (Marianne Faithfull, Bobby Womack) to their 80s (Leonard Cohen). So how should a pop star age? How should anyone?

A popular line on Madonna is that she jumped the shark around 1998's Ray of Light. She's had plenty of success since, commercial and critical – she's the consummate performer with good hits in her yet, still performing at the Super Bowl, still topping the charts. But there's some vital sign missing, like her body is here but her soul is on Planet Madonna. (This was confirmed by the rap verse on 2003's American Life: "I got a lawyer and a manager an agent and a chef, three nannies an assistant and a driver and a jet, a trainer and a butler and a bodyguard or five, a gardener and a stylist – do you think I'm satisfied?")

All respect to Madonna, for being Madonna and for having been Madonna. But at this point, she's at her best when she keeps it fun and innocuous – her provocations are sometimes offensive and often just grating, such as when a teenager does it. Rebel Heart has its gratuitous swearing, its on-the-nose references: "And we could do drugs and we could smoke weed and we could drink whisky," she sings on Devil Pray, sounding as pandering as she did at the Ultra Music Festival in 2012, when she asked if anyone in the audience had "seen Molly."

At moments like these it feels like Madonna, the legacy, is a trust fund for Madonna, the whatever. At others, it feels as if she's lost her balance between underdog and demigod, which, fair enough: Wrongly and rightly, people have been hating on her for 30 years. In Human Nature, she was a badass – it's easy now to forget about the repression and sexual monoculture she pitted herself against. In Unapologetic Bitch, from Rebel Heart, she sounds more like a crazy, rich, white lady: "I'm poppin' bottles that you can't even afford, I'm throwin' parties and you won't get in the door… Tell me how it feels to be ignored."

Stevie Nicks and Dolly Parton remain lovable icons nearly a half-century after they started their careers. Last year, Robert Plant released Lullaby and … the Ceaseless Roar, which sounds both old and new, and like Robert Plant the artist, not the shrieking erection. Then there are the alternative icons: Bjork's work is still growing with her and Vulnicura, released this January, is brilliant and deeply personal and as much itself as any of her albums. Kim Gordon's recent memoir, Girl in a Band, is more of a place-marker than a twist-tie on her legacy. She shows no signs of cynicism or entitlement and engages with a culture to which she's integral.

There's an important exchange to be made between old and new reference points, and, on a practical level, legacy and relevance. This is even more important once your era has passed and someone else's era is in full swing: Paul McCartney scored his first top-10 hit in 29 years when he collaborated with Kanye West and Rihanna on FourFiveSeconds.

Madonna's collaborations feel less inspired than tactical, a way of throwing money at the matter of her pertinence. Her perception of the power dynamic involved is hard to take sometimes. One of the cringiest moments of her recent career is the video for 2012's Give Me All Your Luvin', in which Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., the younger icons who co-wrote the track, cheer her on with pompoms, as a football team dives in to save her from a hail of bullets. It seems tasteless and preening, and just off.

Maybe Madonna's evolution is complicated by the fact that her star power has always been self-referential: Her magnetism was partly the spectacle of her magnetism. "Her main talents were pluck, willpower and moving her body around," Kim Gordon writes, explaining why Madonna was cool in the eighties. Her fearlessness and her deluded self-belief were thrilling back when she seemed human.

Staying interesting, as a living idol, takes a mix of elegance and vulnerability: owning up to your stature while showing a willingness to let it go. When you've been "Robert Plant," the most exciting thing you could do is be Robert Plant. It has nothing to do with how old you are, either; aging is a social skill. What matters is passing the torch gracefully and being curious.

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