Music fandom usually erupts out of love. But sometimes we have connections to artists that emerge not as a romance, but as a struggle to understand an incredible musical force in our lives. For me, that force is Madonna.
It’s complicated. Take “Vogue,” for instance.
“Vogue” is a classic. Madonna asserts, over those icy strings and shimmering drums, that she has the key to being fabulous, and it’s her unshakeable poise that sells her advice as eternally groundbreaking. If you were not cool and interesting before, the act of listening to “Vogue” makes you so. No wonder there are so many viral videos of young kids voguing to “Vogue”: they knew Madonna could directly inject them with style beyond their years.
It’s also no wonder that the kids dancing to the video seem gay, and that the song has been a particularly inspiring anthem for gay people like me. “Vogue” was heavily influenced by the voguing dance style that came out of ‘80s queer ball culture and that was featured in the documentary Paris is Burning. There are subtle codes of queerness embedded in “Vogue’s” DNA, particularly in its emphasis on glamour and extravagance.
But that’s also where there’s a problem. Most of the people who invented vogueing were poor black and Latino queers. Is “Vogue” just inspired by gay culture, or is it appropriated? Even the creator of Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston, was sued by some of her subjects due to disputes over compensation. When Malcolm McLaren wrote a song influenced by the same ball culture (and predating “Vogue”), he featured Willie Ninja, one of the original voguers.
Madonna did not include any original voguers in her video. Madonna fans would say that this is beside the point. With the song “Vogue,” Madonna has sneakily inserted a part of gay culture in the mainstream. Malcolm McLaren’s song didn’t accomplish that. Madonna is a bridge between cultures, they’d suggest, and that’s all she needs to accomplish. When there is so little gay culture visible in the wider culture, it is difficult to argue against this point of view. Without “Vogue,” most people wouldn’t know anything about voguing.
Madonna has been inspired by queers since the beginning of her career. She had some of her first performances at the Paradise Garage, a major club for New York’s gay community in the ‘70s and ‘80s. During this time, Keith Haring, the gay artist most known for his geometric, graffiti-inspired paintings, was one of her close friends. In one early breakout performance in 1984, Madonna wore a Haring-designed outfit when she sang at his Paradise Garage birthday party:
And in her videos and concerts she has presented alternative sexualities long before Katy Perry thought it was “so wrong” to try it. The video for “Justify My Love” was banned for showing what today would amount to a comically tame amount of same-sex kissing and role-playing. Although the term “gay icon” has become a meaningless term, if there is a person for whom it still fits, Madonna is it.
Queers have responded. Drop a Madonna song at a gay club, and watch the hands rise up. For many of us, there is a joy in this sense of ownership: Madonna is ours in a way that other artists aren’t. Madonna remembers us, and we remember her – and that’s perhaps the strongest identifier of what a gay icon is. Realizing that everyone at a club feels pretty much the same way you do about an artist can be a powerful thing. Even now, when parts of the wider culture still argue that homosexuals are confused or unnatural, there is something reassuring and satisfying about the predictability – the naturalness – of hands rising in the air when a Madonna song plays. Communally dancing to a sympathetic diva can be close to bliss.
But even with all of this, I’m not sure I love her. As a gay man, I sometimes feel like I’ve been drafted into liking Madonna by the circumstances of my sexuality. Madonna is not a particularly warm artist. Madonna has never made me cry, as Kylie’s “All the Lovers” unexpectedly did to me one day recently.
It’s cheap comparing female artists, but I think, in this case, it makes sense. Kylie exudes everything in “All the Lovers” that Madonna withholds: forgiveness, warmth, love. And this is a definite personal preference, but I love when strength grows out of a place of sadness or weakness. Kylie is building a case for hope among the hopeless; Madonna tells me to be confident. Madonna is powerful and strong – a role model for all women (and many men). But she’s so in control she doesn’t even really need us. As much as I admire this, I find it alienating. She doesn’t ask for our love, she demands it.
Yet, despite all of my private concerns about her art, I’m not an idiot. I know what the rest of the world is like. I feel compelled to take Madonna’s side if someone criticizes her. After all, most critiques of Madonna are lazily ageist or rockist, or even, still, sexist. The clichéd compliment of Madonna – she’s an “excellent business woman” – is one of the most awful back-handed compliments to lodge at a musician. And for many queers, hatred of pop is often a coded manifestation of the way the larger art world views the artistic work of homosexuals. Although many people agree that queers seem to be over-proportionally represented in the arts, their arts are often represented as being over-sophisticated or superficial. (The “real” art is still safely made by heterosexuals.) Pop music and the dance floor “where you can get away” give a lot of meaning to the lives of many (not all) queers, but since these euphorias are not integral to everyone, the meanings they hold can be dismissed as unreal or false. Madonna is on my side because she cares about a lot of the things I do.
This is why I can’t think about Madonna in any objective way. Sure, I don’t love her, but she’s been there, for me at key moments in my life. I watched the video premiere of “Material Girl” with my sister, I’ve partied countless times to “Hung Up,” I’ve finished off many nights of karaoke with “Like a Prayer.” I had my closeted teenage mind blown a teensy bit by watching the sexual possibilities (and hunky back-up dancers) of the video for “Human Nature.”
And I’ve spent several nights, on into morning, discussing the discography of Madonna with other gay men. Who likes “Cherish?” Who doesn’t like “Love Profusion”? “Hollywood”? What, in fact, do we do with American Life? If nothing else, Madonna has given me something to argue with many other gay men about. She has given me a shorthand for talking about art and artistic choices, and for what art should mean to us.
I said that I couldn’t think about Madonna objectively. She is too immersed in my perception of pop, and the gay community’s perception of itself for me to be able to do that. But “objectivity” is a strange thing to cling to when talking about why music matters. No, I don’t love Madonna. But she’s been so much more important than that.