Patrick J Hamilton

Like a Prayer, Like a Virgin, Like an Activist: In Defense of MDNA

Filed By Patrick J Hamilton | March 23, 2012 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality
Tags: gay rights, HIV/AIDS, Like a Prayer, Like a Virgin, Madonna, MDNA, music, Patrick J. Hamilton

There's something else you can add to that list of things you can't bring up in polite conversation without fear of flare up. I learned that lesson in the sometimes schoolyard environs of Facebook. And like in the High School hallways it reminds me of, it almost led to-- gasp!-- a defriending. The argument? About music, a star, loyalty, age, originality, gay rights, and talent- the argument was about Madonna.Madonna-Supperbowl.jpg

As most Monday-morning-quarterbacked the victory and loss, my News Feed was fired up with clips of not Manning, but Madonna strutting her stuff and more than merely holding her own on a world stage that just happened to be in the middle of the Super Bowl. There were jokes, even, about having the game being her opening act.

The night before, I had only turned on the game (as apparently many did, in record-setting number) to watch the halftime show. I sat there, on seat's edge and almost forgetting to breathe, like a nervous, protective parent at a child's piano recital. "Please don't fail. Please don't embarrass yourself. Please don't embarrass me."

Like a proud parent, I looked past the odd bobble, slight stiffness or wobble, and by show's end, I thought she kicked it. Great choices - current, reflective, interesting, engaging, and surprisingly respectful of the time and place. She didn't pretend to be a twenty-something, but she also looked better than pretty much anyone I know her age. All good. Actually, better than good.

That seemed to be the consensus of the vast majority of what I read from the majority of my gay friends. It was generally a hearty chorus of "You go, girl!" and "Still got its!" We of a certain age seemed to take great comfort that the show was, love it or leave it, most certainly NOT a trainwreck. Whew.

But as mentioned, amid the raves, there was criticism - sometimes scathing. I found myself suddenly, strongly, and perhaps oddly incensed that this pop icon and one-named gay patron saint could garner anything but highest praise. "She's tired" was the one comment that set me most to bristle, since that seemed to be a comment about age... and relevance.

My own reaction in full defense of a woman who doesn't need it was a bit of a surprise. Sure, I've always considered myself a devout Madonna-ite. But why did I fly to her defense like she was my very-bestie?

It had less to do with the role she played that Super Bowl night, and more with the role she's played in my own life. Music is always linked to memory, and memory to moment, but in this, my own American life, no one's music is linked more inextricably to moments, indelibly etched and attached to rites of passage, points high and low, than the music, career, performances, and videos of Madonna.

I always think of music as the soundtrack to the movie of your life, and in this man's movie, Madonna knew the score. She seemed to be with me at every step, and much of her music still has the power to time-transport me back to points in my life far better than Timeline ever will. She's the only artist whose every album I own, EPs and singles included, from cassette to CD to MP3.Madonna-True-Blue.jpg

I saw myself, good and bad, in her, and her music. As I began to become sexually active, I saw my own sometimes irresponsible behavior (and its potential Looking-for-Mr.-Goodbar repercussions) in the video for "Bad Girl." I karaoked the dance remix of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" at a mixed gay/straight Pride party in a moment of freeing liberation and great laughs. I used lyrics from "Holiday" on a Christmas card (inside: "You just can't have Christmas without a little Madonna.")

In my life of romance, once upon a time, I couldn't necessarily seek comfort when the subject of my remorse or regret was another man. So instead, Madonna often consoled me when my own circle was not so open and out. While in college, her version of "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" was briefly the outgoing message on my answering machine. Post break ups, I took comfort in the defiant lyrics of "You'll See."

The I'm Breathless album got me safely back from a week of post-layoff debauchery in a guesthouse in Key West - her music keeping me awake during a feverish drive on US1 and over the Seven Mile Bridge. It was also, back then, when we all thought a fever or a bruise meant AIDS and KS. Alone and afraid, heading back to Miami, unemployment, and an HIV test, Madonna kept me company in the dark. That album also reminds me of drag queens doing "I'm Going Bananas" on the pool deck of the Marlin Beach Hotel, and happier times when tans and tea dances hid worries of a crisis just starting to darken our doors.

Confessions On a Dancefloor was my background track for a return to single life - reentering Manhattan's dating scene in my 44th year (100-something in gay years) after a 7-year relationship. If this woman could resurface, reinvent, find new allies and collaborators without losing old ones, and do it in legwarmers and a unitard, certainly this gay man could head back out to Bear bars and beer blasts to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. That album was also the music of tread mills and ellipticals that helped me lose a good 25 pounds before daring to step out again among twinks and muscle bears. I still hear "Sorry" and "Jump" pumping and thumping past the coatcheck of the Eagle, like my own empowering personal entrance music.

A snippet from "Hung Up" was also the ringtone of a man I fell hard for in Atlanta, and the heartskipping (good and bad) connections to hearing "ring, ring, ring, goes the telephone" when his own phone would ring ran strong and deep - so deep in fact that it was many, many months before I could even listen to that track again.Madonna-Who's-That.jpg

And talk about confession: I performed as Madonna in a borrowed dress and wedding veil, my bed carried down to the college auditorium by housemates, to "Like a Virgin" in my Junior year at RISD. It was the first gender-bending performance at the art school's "Air Band" (the gays call it lip synch) contest. I won the contest, and - bonus! - it saved me the time and trouble of telling anyone who already didn't know I was gay. It also lead to a friend shouting to me, whenever we crossed paths on Benefit Street, "Yo, Madonna!" and I was happy to own it. It was, after all, a vast improvement over hearing "Get the faggots!" I had heard in freshman year from the Providence townies who chased me and a friend until I ended up hiding on the ground behind a greasy dumpster, separated from my friend and scared beyond measure.

Madonna was also, very often, my first. My very first live stadium concert. My very first slow dance with a man ("Crazy for You," and I've only slow-danced to one other song, with one other man, since). Drunk on his charms and giddy from chocolate martinis, the first time I told the BF I loved him was after he shared with me his collection of Madonna concert videos, one of our first "date nights" in. I blame those sweet martinis almost as much for the surprise three-little-word outburst, but Madonna was most certainly in the room, giving me joy and courage with a little game of Truth or Dare.

Then, there was "Live to Tell." Years ago, back in Miami, I spent an afternoon with Johnny, a friend of a man I was dating, and I was beginning to suspect it was perhaps Johnny that deserved (and wanted) my love, not our mutual friend. All the while we talked, the kinds of talk that seems important in the moment, and proves to remain that way through the rest of your life, "Live to Tell" was on continual loop, literally the only song we played during the hours and hours we shared stories, and while he consoled me (reluctantly, maybe?). It was the last time I saw Johnny alive. Within a month, he blew his own head off, alone in a car on the edge of the Everglades with a hunting rifle that this generous, delicate and beautiful soul had purchased in a South Florida K-Mart. When I returned from the funeral home, exhausted and alone, I turned on the radio, and the song that came on, synched to the very first chord, was "Live to Tell," like Johnny was playing DJ for me in that staggering moment, to let me know our connection was not lost with his suicide. It made me believe in many things I had never considered a reality before.Madonna-Confessions.jpg

But back to Madonna. Is she without reproach? Was Madonna's self-choreographed life without misstep? No. No life is. But where others did lines of coke, she recited lines from the Kabbalah. She has raised a family with the pure pride of any mother. There was never any tragic Whitney-esque derailment, no Michael Jackson hush money, no Lindsay-level melt-downs, ankle bracelet or stolen necklace. Her first (and now oh-so-tame) naked scandal dated back to art school pictures, and later, when Madonna "forgot" her underwear, it was no accidental paparazzi moment of sloppiness; It was in a self-orchestrated coffee table book shot, intentionally, by the best in the business, where it was clear whose fantasies were on the table. My Mom slipped me the book, not under the tree, but in another room at Christmas when it was on my list to Santa, so my father wouldn't see. Or, probably, so he wouldn't know.

Madonna's biggest sins? Some mild affectation and a few bad relationship decisions (thank god the world doesn't document all our love lives, no?), but always in ways that showed that money or fame couldn't buy her a true love that seemed destined to elude her. That always made her so beautifully human to me, somehow. And it made me respect her journey through relationships far more than any given Hilton or Kardashian.

I think one of the reasons she fell a little flat with the straight male contingent on Super Bowl Sunday (unscientific polls of my gay friends said their straight friends were decidedly underwhelmed) was because like she always has, she doled out her own sexuality on her own terms. AND she played her sexuality that night decidedly low key. The most skin bared, and the only wardrobe malfunction I hoped for, was by the legion of hunky Romans carrying her in. Madonna was never a man's fabrication - and maybe why the football crowd didn't, um, rise to the occasion. Even that Sex book was oddly devoid of aything truly lewd, her getting the last laugh about titillation and the absurd shame we seem to place on sex and the body, male or female, collectively.

Things seem, decidedly, to happen on her own terms. She calls the shots and orchestrates the moment. Even the whole lead-up to the Super Bowl seemed controlled by and all about her. I'd do it if I could, wouldn't you? As she incredulously asks a back-up singer in Truth or Dare, "Oh, come on, Nicky, you don't want to be famous??!"Madonna-mesh.jpg

Perhaps the most inspiring and still-relevant to me, especially since I am a "creative" myself, is that she is always and still finding ways to reinvent - not just herself but her art and creative process. From the canals of Venice to a giant bed flanked by cone-bra'd eunuchs and set to a Middle Eastern undertone, Madonna keeps it all "Like a Virgin" when she returns to past successes in order to satisfy a stadium of fans who know every word by heart. I think about reinvention, be it personal or living room layout, always with Madonna as litmus test and measure of success. WWMD?

Even at her level of success, there were still some things which eluded her - commercial movie success, mainly. But she still soldiered on, found a way to make the movies work for her - a Hollywood-respectful but totally Madonna performance of her nominated "Sooner or Later," a star turn in Evita (after she created her own audition tapes with the lush and gorgeous videos for "Take a Bow" and "You'll See"), and now with a decent success behind the camera for W.E. I take comfort in, and inspiration from that, too. If you can't open the first door you're led to, go find another way in.

On that Monday morning after the Super Bowl, the one thing that amazed me was how many seemed to have forgotten the role Madonna played in getting gay issues in the headlines and AIDS into the dialogue. Some were too young to remember any of that, and gave Lady Gaga the only credit for using music for the Gayer Good. Others just seem to have forgotten.

In the early days, pretty much everything Madonna did had a gay subtext. "Vogue" was pulled from the underground "House" runway shows where fierce and ferocious drag queens glammed up and strutted their stuff to escape a gritty world that ridiculed and gay-bashed them. "Justify My Love" showed same-sex sex at a time when no Modern Family or Will & Grace had begun to brooch the subject. Madonna, during her Speed the Plow days, brought talk of Lesbian bars and girl crushes to the David Letterman Show.

And above all, Madonna never sat silent, or still, when AIDS started to cast its first brutal net over New York and San Francisco when these cities first began to lose their most creative communities with alarming number. Madonna was there herself participating in many an AIDS Dance-a-thons - MTV in tow and cameras rolling - when our president at the time would not even utter the word. While no doubt losing friends and confidantes and artists and fans herself, Madonna sang about the crisis and its toll with a song she performed in concert often, "In This Life." Long before "Born This Way" or the national debate over marriage equality, or It Gets Better, Madonna sang,

"Why should he be treated differently
Shouldn't matter who you choose to love"

Those lyrics, and her breakthroughs might seem so innocent now, even in the partial span of a life - it's hard to remember what all the fuss was about sometimes. But there was "fuss." And it brought gay issues, aesthetics, culture, and defense to the turntables, dinner tables, and critical moments of young lives, pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter.Madonna-Herb.jpg

As far as Madonna's now infamous single word bomb-drop of "reductive" when cornered into comment about Gaga, I think there are far worse things she could have said, and been justified in doing so. Granted, Madonna could have risen even higher to the occasion and said nothing, or played the elegant and graceful predecessor, willing to pass the torch and tiara. But wouldn't that have implied the start of a slow disappearing act? The word I'd use would be "inspired by" if I were in a good Gaga mood, "derivative" if not. Case in point: every time the buses went by here in Manhattan promoting Gaga's incoming Monster Ball tour, I did a double-take... isn't that the cone/corset/ponytail/headset shot from Blonde Ambition?? No, just Gaga. You know, the innovator.

Madonna mastered video as an art form (with the help of women directors like the brilliant turn of Mary Lambert in "Open Your Heart") and her live concerts raised the bar on the role of video, narrative, and theatricality. And don't forget: when Gaga gets priestly and Niki Minaj brings altar boys and bishops into the mix, they are both walking on sacred ground paved by Madonna with "Like a Prayer." Stained glass, life-size glitter-ball crucifixes, saints come to life, and come-to-Jesus moments that got her (nearly) arrested, excommunicated and banished from Italy - yes, ladies, been there. Done that.

For the record, none of this means I'm a Gaga hater. In my big love for music, there is room for more than one lady in my life. I am forever indebted to the Lady G for how far she has propelled the gay rights conversation when she found that an army of little Monsters had her ear. And she used it to improve things. No doubt. No argument.

I think Madonna at 53 is still fierce and fabulous. Still joyfully Glee'd. Still talked about. Still fills a stadium. Still spins a catchy tune. Still has triceps and quads that inspire me at the gym.

Does she need protecting? Of course not. Is she worth defending? I think so. Maybe in her aging I see my own, and maybe that's what makes me want to defend, to debate, to even, possibly, deFriend on her behalf, like a school kid.

So in all this fandom and defense, give an old broad a break. And give one to Madonna, too. Even if she doesn't need one.

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