Anytime someone can fit into an “ism” or a “phobe,” we can’t wait to put them there. Decades – centuries – of progress fly out the window and we are forced to see things only through libelous boxes: If the Academy doesn’t give Viola Davis the Oscar, that’s racism! You don’t like Ellen Degeneres? You must be a homophobe. Thought Madonna looked ridiculous grinding like a teenager during her Half Time show performance? That’s ageism! (Sexism has also been thrown around: “Nobody says anything about 68 year old Mick Jagger jumping around the stage in skimpy clothes.” Well, they should) The day after the Super Bowl, the “blogosphere” (what a stupid word) was all a Twitter with cheers and jeers surrounding Madonna’s performance: “Madonna’s still got it!” “The original diva strikes again!” to paraphrase the endless list of trite professions of faith to their infallible god.
No one has affected, inspired, or entertained me more in my 28 years than Madonna. My infatuation began at the hand of my mother, listening, at the ripe old age of seven to the Like a Virgin cassette – those rectangular dinosaurs that celebrated the lost art of “the mix tape” – in the car. I remember one day when my über-Catholic grandmother was to visit the house I asked Mom if we should turn off The Immaculate Collection. But this was Marge’s house, mother-in-law be damned. “She’ll just have to deal.” Of course, Rita made an obligatory slut comment, to which Mom and I shared a knowing smile, as if we had just gotten away with the robbery of her soul It was high school when my full-on obsession – and I do mean obsession – began. Much credit must go to my old friend Trevor, a chain smoking, beer drinking, potty mouth with a zest for film, Björk, and all things against the grain; I worshipped him. (Without coincidence, he was also my first serious crush, quarterback Tyler not withstanding).
Trevor and I built what we called “The Madonna Box.” It was exactly what it sounds like: a box with, well, Madonna up, down, and all around. It was an old shoebox spray painted silver and decopaged in magazine clippings and song lyrics of Madge at her finest. (I believe “…and I feel like I just got home!” was written on the side next to a photo of Lourdes in a jilbab…) On the inside were more photos, print outs from the Sex book, and random Billboard statistics, protected in a zip lock bag, no less, along side singles, the You Can Dance tape, and returned fan letters and birthday cards for her children, apparently sent to the wrong address. The inside lid was a passionate cascade of “Give it up, give it up”s (more on that later). Post high school, this became my keepsake box for notes, scribblings of ideas that never materialized into novels, photos, and eventually pay check stubs. The Box, along with The Poster, moved with me to New York City, both lasting longer than the safety deposit box that supposedly could withstand fire, but whose handle broke after falling from a shelf. Inevitably, The Box and The Poster passed as one of the final remnants of youth.
Ray of Light was released when I was in the 8th grade. I remember hearing the titular track for the first time in the car (again) with Stephen and Dad, none of us believing it could be the same woman who sang “Express Yourself” (Screw the Academy, MLVC; Evita gave us thatvoice! – Oh, MLVC stands for Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone; yes, Madonna is her real name – it was her mother’s – and Veronica is her Confirmation name, chosen because “Veronica wiped the face of Jesus”; back when I actually desired children, I wanted to name my daughter Louise).
Music, True Blue, and Erotica came into my life almost concurrently. With the help of the aforementioned Trevor, my tastes and opinions began to branch out from Madonna (really, next to Paula, Janet, Styx, and Phil Collins, my musical repertoire was quite limited), but after nights with Fiona and Courtney, Lauryn and Aguilera, I always circled back to the Queen. I found a brown and black cowboy shirt at a thrift store in the Loop I bought because it reminded me of the “Don’t Tell Me” video, which quickly became referred to forever and always as the “Don’t Tell Me” shirt. True Blue, first released when I was two and half, was my present for starring in Little Shop of Horrors (Marge and Richard always commemorated my performances with gifts as if their applause and attention weren’t enough). And then there was Erotica.I’m not exactly sure when and how I first heard this album, but it had to have been my junior year in high school because that was when I got The Poster:
I obtained this possession from, yes, Marge – to be inside her mind when she purchased that! – and it hung on the back of every door or at the head of every bed in every apartment I lived for almost the next ten years. It had become a part of my identity, an ironic reminder of my homosexuality after Mom questioned the interest of its purchase following her discovery of my true nature (“I still like Madonna!”; I think she assumed, like Stephen’s Anna Kournikova and Pamela Anderson effigies, that my naked muse was intended for masturbatory fodder).
It also had to have been my sixteenth summer – as Tennessee Williams would say – because Erotica was irrevocably linked to my fantasies of devirginization. I dreamed that one stormy Halloween night, the man of my dreams and I, after a costume party both dressed as Dracula (I was also really into vampires then – way before the craze, thank you very much!) would retire to the stage of the Miner’s Theatre in Collinsville, where Jennie – my fabulous hag – would have set up a grungy mattress and Anne Rice candles before running spot and sound (“Erotica” naturally) from the light booth. (*an amended version of this actually took place about seven years later involving an alcoholic Mexican hairdresser with a long pinky nail, ahem, who garbed me in drag and plied me with liquor before deflowering me in his Harlem apartment to, yes, the Erotica album).
Throughout high school, I became fascinated with the idea of pain as pleasure and even planned my own Sex book style photo shoot, which I backed out of because I was afraid of being naked. Hell, I almost got a goddamned tattoo on my groin – my fucking groin! – of the words “Give it up, give it up”! That’s how deep my love for all things Erotica were! But who cares? Too much information, I am sure. Let’s move on.
I can say with almost certainty that I have never believed in God. But I’ll tell you this, though. I prayed to Madonna. That’s right. I. Prayed. To. Madonna. I can only remember one specific instance that it happened, but save a shout out to “whoever is out there” when I got my first AIDS test, it was the last time I prayed. This is all a long – and self indulgent – way of saying that Madonna is an intrinsic part of my humanity. Which makes her fall all the more personal, frustrating, and humiliating. But let’s stay in the past for a bit longer. For those of you born post-1994 or anyone who has somehow avoided human civilization for the past 30 years, Madonna may need some defending. Her post American Lifeoutput has been, to turn a phrase of her own, “reductive” to say the least. But for everyone else, whether you love or hate her politics or her ever-evolving styles, Madonna has been an omnipresent force in the cultural conversation, setting trends, and challenging the voice of the female. Not to mention turning in some pretty frickin’ sweet tunes and the best music videos of all time along the way. For the uninitiated, Madonna in Six Easy Lessons:
1) Through the Wilderness
After dropping out of college and moving to New York City with $37 in her pocket, Madonna began her music career by singing back up in her boyfriend’s band, The Breakfast Club. When they refused to let her sing lead, she split forming her own band, Emmy. Madonna the Solo Artist started getting traction in the early 80s when a DJ agreed to play one of her songs in his club: “Everybody.” This got her a record deal with Sire/Warner Bros. (the company she stayed with all the way through Celebration), who produced her eponymous first album, netting her classics “Lucky Star,” “Borderline,” and “Holiday.”
Her sophomore album, Like a Virgin, did what great sophomore albums do: sent her into superstardom. It was her first number one album and “Like a Virgin” became her first number one hit, a feat she would repeat six and eleven more times, respectively. Her unique thrift store meets Catholic school girl look spawned the Wanna Be fashion trend (and her own fashion line, Material Girl, founded with her daughter, 30 years later). But it was that performanceat the first ever MTV Video Music Awards that cemented her in pop history forever.
Today, it looks tame and somewhat naïve given what Madonna (and her descendants) would and could accomplish in its wake, but in 1984, a woman just simply did not do profess her sexual desires on national television. Or hump a stage. Like a Virginhas gone onto become one of the biggest selling albums of all time with worldwide sales of 20+ million. It also gave Madonna the unshakable moniker “Material Girl,” which she hates, her inevitable ties to Marilyn Monroe, which she does not, (Madonna has drawn visual parallels to the actress her entire career, most recently in her “Give Me All Your Luvin’” video), and her first tour.
The next few years saw Madonna’s first film (Desperately Seeking Susan), her first marriage (Sean Penn) and her global dominance with more than a little help from third album True Blue, boasting mega-hits (and excellent videos), “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Open Your Heart,” “Live to Tell,” and “La Isla Bonita.”
Madonna was becoming a political figure, taking on abortion and child abuse in her music, setting the stage for her boldest statements.
2) Crucify My Love
If Mother Culture had to choose one thing for preservation to represent Madonna’s significance and talent, it would be Like a Prayer. Ripe with her signature mix of sexuality and religion, controversy, and female empowerment, Like a Prayer sums up her entire career. It was also her most personal album to date, dealing with the death of her mother, her divorce from Sean Penn, and her relationships with her family and God. It also is full of fantastic music that elevated Madonna to be seen not just as a dancing puppet, but a talented songwriter. (Who else, but maybe the Beatles and The Stones, has written more songs that are apart of the permanent cultural landscape?) *I would like to pause for a moment and dispel a rumor: Madonna can legitimately sing. So much emphasis is placed on her theatrics, her politics, her persona, that people forget – or ignore – the fact that she is a singer whose voice has always been good, even Pre-Evita. Listen to her belt out early hits “Borderline” and “Papa Don’t Preach” – or better yet, “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore.” Is she Whitney Houston (rest in peace)? No. But is she as good as her Motown idols? Hell yes. The late 80s, early 90s saw her playing around with her mix – some well (“Secret”), some not so well (“Live to Tell”); and then, yes, Evita came and expanded her range, particularly into the chest, and strengthened her vibrato, paving the way for seamless flips in “Ray of Light” (her best vocals, period), “I’m So Stupid,” and “What It Feels Like for a Girl” (a song that sums up her entire career in three and half minutes). And unlike her disciple Ms. Spears, Madonna sings live at her concerts (or at least used to…)
But not everyone was on board with her antics. Pepsi pulled her commercial after seeing the “Like a Prayer” music video with its burning crosses and interracial love and a performance of her Blond Ambition Tour was cancelled in Italy after protestations from the Pope (Madonna simulated masturbation on stage during “Like a Virgin”). How did Madonna react? By going even further.
“Justify My Love” was the first video ever banned by MTV. It also became Madonna’s 9th#1 single and, naturally, the highest selling video single of all time. But Madonna wasn’t finished pushing the envelope. She had to go and tear the damn thing to pieces.
3) Oops! I Didn’t Know I Couldn’t Talk About Sex
In 1992, Madonna signed a 60 million dollar deal with Warner Bros. to form Maverick, a multi-media company with arms in music, film, television, and literature. Before Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy, Madonna brought legitimacy to pornography with her first publication, Sex, a coffee table book full of titillating photos and tongue in cheek stories. Madonna would argue that it isn’t porn, but merely an artful reflection of a prudish nation, but what is the difference? Where is the line? Sex brought these questions to the forefront of American culture.
With photographs of sadomasochism, beastiality, gerontophilia, bisexuality, homosexuality, masturbation, and stories of pedophilia, Sex caused an international firestorm, banned, shunned, and needed by fans and onlookers alike.
Three months later, Madonna’s new film, Body of Evidence was released, gleaning boos from critics and audiences. Madge plays a woman on trial for murdering a man by fucking him to death. Who else should have played this part in 1992? Madonna “won” the Razzie for Worst Actress. The saddest effect of her campaign to get America to abandon their sexual mores and embrace people’s differences is that Erotica got completely lost in the shuffle. Eroticaboasts some of her greatest songs (holy shit “Rain”) and a sound so its own, mixing house with industrial hip hop, jazz with musical theatre, and lyrics blending kitschy humor (how else can one take “Where Life Begins”?), the scorned lover (“Waiting,” “Bye Bye Baby,” “Thief of Hearts”), political statements (“Words”, “In This Life”, “Why’s It So Hard?”), theatrics (“Bad Girl”), and earnest insularity (the sadly under known driving beat of “Secret Garden”). And it gave us the amazing The Girlie Show!
Madonna followed these controversies with yet another underrated, forgotten album, Bedtime Stories, a toned down counterpart to Erotica, a “pillowtalk” record, if you will. Madonna embraced a funkier, ‘70s soul, segueing into the electronic (the title track was written by Björk). BSincludes “Secret” (a song possibly [?] about being in love with a tranny), “Human Nature” (giving us her best music video and self-aware brand of comedy, shooting a tall and proud middle finger to the naysayers), and “Take a Bow,” her most successful hit, staying atop the charts for seven weeks. Other stand out tracks include the Roberta Flack-like ballad “Love Tried to Welcome Me” and the farewell to love whisper, “Inside of Me.”
But when you’ve gone as far as you can go, where else can you go? Critics and audiences alike were ready to write her off as a has been. Leave it to Madonna to prove them all wrong.
4) What’s New Buenos Aires: Evita, Lourdes, and the Road to Redemption
In 1996, two monumental things happened involving Madonna: one, she had a baby and two, she proved she could act. After years being dubbed a harlot and a horrible person, the world’s sexual scapegoat became a mother. And after years of being dubbed a terrible actress (which let’s be honest is not an entirely untrue assessment), Madonna turned in an amazing performance that yes, was worthy of an Oscar nomination. (Did Diane Keaton, in all of her brilliant glory, really need a nod for Marvin’s Room?). The Argentine people were up in arms over the idea of their icon being played by a woman who made a nudie book and desecrated the Church. Madonna had campaigned heavily for the part since the musical came out in the 80s, eventually writing a letter to director Alan Parker on all the reasons she needed to play Eva. She was rewarded with a Golden Globe for her performance.
In the other corner of her life, Madonna, the most famous and photographed woman in the world, some how retained her daughter’s privacy. It would be two years until the world saw a picture of Lourdes. In the meantime, Madonna put her clothes back on, prepping the world for her greatest incarnation: Guru.
5) I’m So Stupid: Madonna Redux
Like a Virgin introduced her to a global audience, Like a Prayer gave her critical legitimacy, but it was Ray of Light that finally showed the world she was insightful and intelligent (something her fans knew all along). With the birth of her daughter and her fascination with Kabbalah, Madonna began a journey of looking inward and backwards, exploring the choices she made, not with apologizes, but with a wiser outlook for the future. This was illustrated in her interviews, her videos, and especially in her music. “Drowned World” and “Nothing Really Matters” told us that fame was a lie and a substitute for love; “Ray of Light, ” “Sky Fits Heaven,” and “Shanti/Ashtangi” took us on her spiritual awakening; while “Little Star” and the amazing “Mer Girl” continued her Like a Prayer confessionals.
Music followed, as did her wedding to filmmaker boyfriend Guy Ritchie, and the birth of their son, Rocco (named for the Italian film, Rocco and His Brothers). Music is possibly her greatest album (but similar arguments could be made for Virgin, Prayer, Ray of Light, Confessions, or American Life, yes American Life, depending on your tastes). From the arena-thumping beats of the title track to the acoustic Dylanesque closer “Gone,” each track could have been single. And not to be outdone or outdated, Madonna proved she could still be shocking: the video for “What It Feels Like For a Girl” was banned from MTV for its violent – notably, not its sexual – content.
American Life was the natural culmination of twenty years in the biz (and being an outspoken artist not gun-shy on controversy in a George W. Bush universe). Blatantly political (Madonna pulled the title video, due to debut following our invasion of Iraq, for fears it would be seen as “anti-American”) and extremely personal (“Hollywood” and “I’m So Stupid” pick up where “Drowned World” left off; “Mother and Father” plays off “Oh Father,” “Promise to Try,” and “Mer Girl”), American Life didn’t hit a chord with audiences, becoming one of her worst selling albums to date; despite what ex-husband Sean Penn might say, people don’t like their celebrities to make grandstanding statements. Like Erotica before it, AL got lost in the rubble of its politics.
But Madonna trodded on, even infusing her spiritual and political beliefs in the Bond theme song, “Die Another Day,” and her duet with Britney Spears “Me Against the Music.” The video, and their subsequent VMA performance – French kissing and all – could have been seen as a passing of the torch, if you will, to the younger generation.
That is if Madonna was ready to retire. Confessions on a Dance Floor obliterated that concept from the table.
6) Get Up on the Dance Floor: Or You’re Only Young Twice, the Makings of a Camp Cliché
After years of reflective, adult material, Her Madgesty decided it was time to return to the sound that made her a superstar.
Let me be clear. Confessions on a Dance Floor is a great album. This pulsating ode to disco and 80’s pop (not to mention serving as a love letter to her gay fans) brims with Madonna’s genius for catchy hooks and memorable melodies. The opening trifecta of “Hung Up,” “Get Together,” and “Sorry” is arguably her strongest (other contenders would be Madonna’s run of “Lucky Star,” “Borderline,” and “Burning Up”; and Music’s “Music,” “Impressive Instant,” and “Runaway Lover”) She continues to analyze her career in tracks like “How High” and “Like It or Not” and courts the spiritual in “Isaac.” And the music videos and Confessions Tour and the Grammy’s performance show a woman who – while 50 can still work it in a leotard and look great doing it – is not trying to be one of the gang, but the leader of the pack; think like the coolest fucking aunt or fag hag in the world.
The problem with Confessions on a Dance Floor is not what it was or what it was harkening back to, but what it awoke in Madonna.
*I would like to pause again, if I may, to introduce the following idea: Madonna, a woman who has made millions for selling sex, is not, in fact, sexy. At least in the conventional sense.
What makes a woman sexy? Feminists (and gay men) would argue strength, determination, and intelligence; by this model, Madonna would be the sexiest woman alive, or who had ever lived. But every straight man knows that is a bullshit definition. Straight men want big tits, wide hips, a luscious ass, and a closed mouth from their fantasy women: look no further than Marilyn, Pamela, Jenna, and the innumerable girls face down online or grinding on a pole; there is also the fantasy of the Amazonian woman who will dominate you (naturally, with her hour glass figure, something Madonna is trying to morph into with her ridiculous guns); and of course, there is the waifish, boy like man-girl that a small percentage of men find appealing, but Madonna does not completely fit into any of these categories (Reason #37 why her fan base is primarily comprised of women and gay men). But truthfully none of it matters. Madonna is sexy because she told us she was sexy.
Look at pictures of her over the years – I mean really look at them:
Pretty? Yes. Drop dead gorgeous? No. We see her this way because of her attitude and the way she carries herself. Age does not automatically make someone less sexy: look at Sigourney Weaver and Sophia Loren. Or Sean Connery. And Madonna is in the best shape of her life. Hell, the woman does Pilates and yoga on the regular. But in order to maintain the rouse into senior citizendom, Madonna must adapt an age-appropriate swag. Just imagine Susan Sarandon trying to pick you up in a bar by twirling her hair on the end of her finger and chomping a wad of gum. You would laugh in her face and walk away.
Enter Hard Candy.
Definitely the worst album of her career by far and one of the most unintentionally hilarious outputs by a major recording artist, Hard Candy is full of crude songs that should be sung – if they must be sung by anyone at all – by someone who has not been making music for 30 – 30! – years. How did the same woman who wrote “Zephyr in the sky at night, I wonder do my tears of mourning sink beneath the sun” also write, ten years later, mind you, “She might cook you breakfast and love you in the shower; the flavor of the moment, ‘cause she don’t have what’s ours”? Embarrassing. The only passable song from this shameless plea for love in a teenage world – complete with insinuated sex with Justin Timberlake (talk about post-modernism) and a collaboration with über ”coo” Timberland – is “Miles Away.” This track could be Part III in an “I Deserve It”/ Nothing Fails” medley and could fit very nicely on their respective albums. The rest of Hard Candy – like its laugh-out-loudable cover photo (really, the most photographed woman on the planet with more control and calculation over her image than anyone in the business, chose that…)
(…a picture that is part I’m Retarded and part I am Mid Shit) is a disgusting demand for relevancy in a world of Rihanna, Beyonce, and Gaga. Collaborations with Pharell and Kanye are for people who need the name recognition and publicity or “street cred,” as they say, not for people who wrote the book on pop stardom. And if you are going to collaborate with them – because, yes, they are super talented and why not? – GIVE US SOMETHING WORTHY OF YOUR EFFORTS! “Give It 2 Me” and “Beat Goes On” are not it. Clearly, she felt the only way to combat the new crop of divas was to try and be like them instead of the other way around. People give Gaga shit for copying Madonna – as they should – but what about Madonna jumping on the hip hop bandwagon? Mad used to make the rules, not follow them.
And now we come to MDNA. I actually like “Give Me All Your Luvin’” (of course, spelled incorrectly to appeal to the Facebook generation) and so do many others (the song has given Madonna her 38th Top 10 Hit; to compare, The Beatles had 34…) but not for Madonna. Bitch, you got two kids – one is a fucking teenager. Are you playing Lourdes in the video, the high school tramp who cock teases an entire football team? And how many times can you rip yourself off in one song/video? Let’s count: “Lucky Star,” “Material Girl,” “Hollywood.” And we must acknowledge the “homages” (?) to Gwen Stefani and the chant that is straight up Avril Lavigne. Why isn’t Miley Cyrus singing this song? Ah, and of course the appearance of Girls of the Moment M.I.A. and Nikki Minaj. And what’s with the baby thing? It’s like she is screaming for us to remember, “Yeah, I’m a mom, but a sexy mom who throws her kids away when I need to be sexy.” (And twirls her hair between her fingertips…) This is not a criticism on her parenting. I don’t think that once you have kids you need to put on sweat pants and watch Oprah. But it changes. The same things are not attractive and pretending to be in high school when you are in AARP is one of them.
I also don’t think Madonna is a bad parent, as if this is a judgment I am qualified to make. Nor do I think she is actually living her life like a tween (sexy 30 years her junior boyfriend aside).
Watch any interview with her. She is poised, smart, funny, self-aware, and extremely comfortable in her skin. The longer the interview goes on, she drops that damn faux-British accent and returns to the dorky girl from Detroit, the girl that true fans see behind all the glitz, the woman who is a disciplinarian with her children (Dina Lohan she ain’t), who when she says she would rather read than have sex, you believe her. Of course, this hasn’t always been the Madonna persona, outwardly anyway. It’s no mystery that she has built her reputation on expressions of sexuality, but for those of us in the know, we Madonnaphiles, the “Boy Toy” has always been more than cheap thrills. She is nothing if not intentionally ironic.
Which brings me back to the Super Bowl performance. Madonna, as young as you may feel, you are 53. You can do all the Pilates you want, but your body is its age. And that’s OK! Forget the Botox! You are the Mother of Reinvention. And you did reinvent yourself, oh, some ten years ago into someone really interesting. But somewhere in the midst of the divorce, the trips to Africa, and the emergence of an unapologetically plagiaristic, sycophantic cipher, you felt you needed to “keep up” by being one of them. What was that stupid kick push up thing you did with LMFAO (who had no business being on stage with you, nor did the other thousand guest stars; since when do you need celebrity back-up?!) Then comes “Give Me All Your Luvin” repeating the silly adolescence of the music video (complete with M.I.A.’s foolishness; further proof you should have gone it alone). And then the seven-year old Jonathon who fell in love with Madonna so many years ago leaned forward in his seat, hands under chin, smile ablaze, when “Like a Prayer” began. Besides being one of Madonna’s greatest songs, it is her most epic song, perfectly suited for stadium style acoustics and giant choirs. And Madonna and Choir seemed into it, which is more than can be said for Cee Loo. Yes, he has an amazing voice, this we know. But what was with the fucking sunglasses? It’s nighttime, you douche. Why did no one tell him that he was upstaging Madonna by drawing unneeded attention to himself? This could have – should have – been an anonymous member of the choir.
Look, people (gay men) will follow you anywhere (myself included; if Ticketmaster wasn’t an immoral company pre-selling their tickets to scalpers, I would be at the Staples Center this fall, having an amazing time, screaming my head off on the verge of wetting my pants). And you’re Madonna so you really can do whatever the hell you want. But your message has always been to be authentic and to question everything. And I thank you for that. But how are new – and old – fans supposed to take your message to heart while you can’t see the writing on your own wall? Let the kids have Gaga. She will come – and go. Look at Britney. You will never be irrelevant. We still love you. We love the Adult Madonna, Madonna the Mother, Madonna the Intelligent Woman, Madonna the Trend Setter, Madonna the Musician, Madonna the Author, Madonna the Philanthropist, even Madonna the Filmmaker (taking new chances, exploring new ground). And we will love Madonna the Grandmother. But Madonna the Desperate? Not cool.
Remember, as William Holden says to Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd: “There’s nothing wrong with being 50. As long as you aren’t trying to be 25.”