Happy birthday, Madonna. But here’s what you gifted one young gay boy.
Originally published in August 2016.
Happy birthday Madonna. The Queen has now lived to be older than the man they called a King and a Prince whose death I’m still raw about. It’s late and I wanted to write. Madonna means more to me than any other musician, or “celebrity”. I know I’m not alone among innumerable folks who can pinpoint waypoints of significance in the development of our identities as (LGBT) people. Every so often, I can (and do) listen to hours of Madonna music, tour audio, demos. Every so often, I can (and do) watch hours of Madonna tour footage, television performances, interviews. I’m a huge fan. Here’s how I started down that path.
I was 7 or 8 when the video for Beautiful Stranger came out, a video in which she mostly just dances around alone on stage (the least said about the Austin Powers connection, the better). I knelt alone in front of a small television in a holiday villa in Florida, enraptured. When she coyly rolls her top up near the end, exposing a bare back, a little flame flickered into existence in my head. I had no idea who this woman was, but suddenly, acutely, I knew sexuality. Not fully, of course, but it was like a blank space beside the word in my brain dictionary finally had a picture to go beside it.
It was maybe a year later I was once again alone in front a television, in a kind of prayer stance, my feet numb beneath my weight and my clammy hands wrapped around the remote control. I was watching the first broadcast of her 2001 Drowned World tour. A violent, frenetic show that mostly eschewed the hits (that I was largely unaware of in any case) in favour of cyberpunk, anime and rave-influenced album cuts. She wasn’t beautiful, as I knew the definition of the word. Her hair was slicked back roughly, her eyebrows bleached off. She snarled. She was the most intimidating creature I’d ever seen. Masculine and feminine and punk and I didn’t know what to think. She sucked her finger, pulling it out to flip us the bird.
I was ready to change channel at any second lest a parent walk in (little did I know how big a Madonna fan my dad was — he’d probably have heartily encouraged my viewing). On came an “interlude” featuring clips from anime cut together into an epileptic nightmare. Girls running, screaming, beaten, sexually exploited by demonic, terrifying male figures, while a remix of the song What It Feels Like For A Girl throbs away. The song opens with a sampled phrase from the film The Cement Garden that is burned into my brain and I will forever use to battle gender stereotyping as and when I come across it;
“Girls can wear jeans
And cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots
’Cause it’s OK to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
’Cause you think that being a girl is degrading
But secretly you’d love to know what it’s like
What it feels like for a girl”
That Christmas I got the second volume of her greatest hits, which I’d slipped onto my wish list (featuring the song I just quoted, and Beautiful Stranger, finally mine!). The liner notes featured an essay of some kind (I cut it all up to keep the pictures years ago so can’t recall by who), which I devoured. It was an entirely tongue in cheek affair, assigning joke meanings to the songs. It claimed her single Deeper And Deeper was about two male coal miners who fell in love. I’ll never forget reading that, and thinking…something. I didn’t know what. I still don’t recall. But it’s there, in my brain, like a scar you don’t remember receiving but grew quite attached to all the same. Years later I learned it was a bit of a joke. But to 10 year old me, it once again lit a small (but nonetheless illuminating) candle in the recesses of my brain somewhere.
The first album to come out when I was a young fan was American Life, considered a fan-favourite but a (relative) commercial flop. A spiky, political record with themes of alienation, isolation, loss and doubt over one’s self-worth, alternating between intense aggression and soft, naked vulnerability, Years later I would realise how key this album was to me, informing the sorts of music I would later fall in love with (It’s why if, nowadays, you left my iTunes on shuffle, you’d hear Rammstein alongside Tori Amos). It was a difficult record that I practically inhaled, listening endlessly on my Sony walkman whilst on a rainy trip somewhere in the Scottish highlands. My mother and father were about to separate, or maybe they already had, I don’t remember. I sat in the car, unable to see anything through the rain-battered window. Madonna tells me on Nothing Fails, “I’m not religious, but I feel so moved, makes me want to pray — pray you’ll always be here.” I wouldn’t be religious much longer into my teens, but I still hold with me a kind of spirituality, a faith in people and a faith in connection. A faith in love.
One day I found a VHS of Alek Keshishian’s documentary In Bed With Madonna (Or Truth or Dare depending on where it was released), to this day still the most successful documentary of all time, in a charity shop I think. Ostensibly a “concert movie” of the 1990 Blond Ambition tour, a show credited with changing how pop shows would be seen and performed from then out (or for a layman, the one with the cone bra), it is in fact an electrically charged chronicle of life on the road with an impossibly charismatic, beautiful, clever, lovable, infuriating, lonely star — and the make-shift family of dancers and crew she mothered. Her name was the only one on the posters, but the dancers were to be the true stars of this film. Two of her dancers, Salim Gauwloos and Gabriel Trupin, shared possibly the first real-life gay kiss in mainstream cinema, a kiss and act of visibility and truth that would send silent shockwaves through the world. A kiss that some of the dancers asked to have cut from the film, going so far as to sue Madonna - something that soured their relationship. And yet it remained. And I’m glad. Madonna is a fairly well-known hard-nosed H.B.I.C, but she knows what’s important, to her credit. These young men were, to so many young LGBT people, a first exposure to others like them, out, proud and being respected. And loved.
Gabriel died in 1995.
Madonna’s connection to gay culture and the AIDS epidemic is too much to write about frivolously - it’s a subject for a book. Or 7. You can investigate in full should you wish. But through her decision to allow a filmmaker full access during her now iconic concert tour, I, and countless others, saw — if not *themselves* reflected — then a future version of themselves, a possibility. I didn’t identify as gay when I watched that VHS. I didn’t think about sexuality much at all back then. But once more, somewhere in my head, unbeknownst to conscious me, was lit another wee candle of insight.
By this point I was a fan. I sought all her albums that my dad hadn’t passed down from his own collection. Live To Tell, a searing and angst-laded ballad from her third album True Blue, was the first time the public heard and saw Madonna without the bangles and “BOY TOY” crop tops. A song that sounds like the last words of someone on their deathbed, it’s undeniably beautiful and one of her finest moment on record.
It terrified me. Because all I heard in the narrator was myself, dealing with my emerging acknowledgement of my homosexuality and, at the time, stifling, kept-awake-at-night fear of my own mortality. “A man can tell a thousand lies, I’ve learned my lesson well. Hope I live to tell the secret I have learned. Until then, it will burn inside of me.”
And it felt like it burned. Those little candles being lit before felt like all they’d done was start a fire. One I didn’t know how to put out until a few years later. Ha! I was about to write — “Until I learned to love myself” — something I heard, truly heard, in her song Secret. Funny how this is playing out isn’t it?
It took me time to piece all these parts of me together into someone I could fully love — only then could I truly go into the world as a gay man who could love and be loved in return.
The album that would almost derail her career. Accompanying the infamous SEX photography book. An album title so misleading and so ripe for detractors to use against her. Tart. Freak. Just for shock value. Labels that would follow her eternally. Ones she couldn’t give less of a shit about.
The SEX book opens with a page that states:
“Everything you are about to see and read is a fantasy, a dream, pretend”. Cue cunnilingus, toe-sucking, a lot of breasts and…Vanilla Ice.
However, it also came wrapped in foil, intended to evoke a condom wrapper.
The Erotica album could be described as the reality to SEX’s fantasy. Opening with the (almost) spoken-word title track, an ode to rather polite S&M and power play, was deceptive. The album was grimy, sure, recorded in ways that left grit on the tapes and in her voice, dark house beats with smokey jazz flourishes flirting with each other, but neither one quite getting off. The album is in fact a frank examination of how badly love can hurt, as opposed to the S&M wonderland teased. She’s asking us not to be scared of the fact she’s naked in that coffee table book. Not to be scared that humans take pleasure where they can get it. Forget any fear around fucking — fear how much love can fuck you over. This is my favourite Madonna album. Waiting, in particular, is a gem. Not a single, it’s a sultry sprechgesang lament about a lover who she can’t keep waiting for, in the literal sense but also to meet her emotionally as an equal, and she advises the listener to heed her words. And I did.
Inescapably, such an album addresses HIV/AIDS in the form of In This Life, a song about, and to, her friends that died as a result of the AIDS epidemic. Fans dispute who it refers to. It doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s about her ballet teacher as a teenager, the first gay man she met, and the first man to tell her she was beautiful. Or Keith Haring and Martin Burgoyne, artists and her best friends. Gone. And there will have been more.
Covered in sweat, sinewy, strong, but tired, she addresses a Sydney crowd during The Girlie Show Tour before singing the song; “Though you didn’t know my friends, I’m sure all of you here tonight knows someone, or will know someone, suffering from AIDS, the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. For all you out there…don’t give up.”
There is so much more to say but tonight isn’t the night.
Express Yourself taught me to respect myself in a relationship.
Human Nature taught me never to feel shamed by others, to never be afraid to push the buttons that need to be pushed.
Oh Father taught me to never forget that everyone has a story.
The Power of Good-Bye taught me that a relationship must be fought for, understood, but never held on to for the wrong reasons, lest you break apart in the breaking up.
I’ll Remember taught me to cherish memories of things gone, recognise pain, but not be defined by it.
Ghosttown reminds me of my friend Jack, bounding into the Hydro in Glasgow for the Rebel Heart Tour, singing in his inimitable, hilarious, style.
Sky Fits Heaven reminds me of someone recently passed I never had the chance to really know.
Die Another Day reminds me of the laughs I shared with my sister, messing around imitating the drama of the video.
One More Chance reminds me of my dad, an obscure favourite of his. He plays it on guitar and I wonder if he connects with the lyrics the way I connect his life to them myself.
Into The Groove taught me that ultimately, it always has to, and always will, come back to the music, back to fun, back to living life while you can.
“Music can be such a revelation.”
Excuse me while I lock the doors so no one else can see me dance.
It’s late and I could write and talk about Madonna forever. I’ve not even touched on ageism or sexism *cracks knuckles*. That can wait for a different story. She is, undisputed, the most fascinating female pop artist still living. We’ve lost icons who were her collaborators, contemporaries and inspirations. Michael Jackson, the King, the man who asked her to write with him, only for her to scare him into reneging on the offer due to her lyrical content. Prince, with whom she worked on the seminal Like A Prayer record, and maintained a firm friendship until his sudden death. She adored Bowie, for whom she famously snuck out of her bedroom to go watch play, wearing a sparkly cape she made herself. I can’t trust 2016 not to strike down icons and I felt like jotting down parts of my journey with the musician who inspired me the most, before time, death or, dare I say it, RETIREMENT takes her.
No, that last one is ridiculous. She’ll be pole dancing around a crucifix and insisting through song that her genitals taste like a Turkish delight for another few decades still. And I want nothing less than that.