I’m listening to country music in an Irish pub and a bass player with sad caterpillar eyebrows is hitting notes with a tired resignation, the music is good, but full of emo and sadness and FEELINGS and this is one of those moments when I realize why I love pop music. I love it for its joy- for it’s keeping it together - for it’s like a virgins and for its relentless desire - even during the ballads - of making you want to move your ass.
20 years before I sat in this bar - I was a punk rock goth in a small farm town - and music was my life preserver. And while Kate Bush and The Dead Milkmen may have shown me another way to think - another kind of music to connect with - nothing was the life preserver that Madonna was.
Back in Michigan in the mid-80’s I was a young aspiring dancer, singer, and all around performer. I’d gone from make shift and improve recitals in my grandparents living room to dance classes and community theater. I had the lights of Broadway in my eyes because I knew it could happen. It had happened to her. Madonna. The myth, the legend. She had gone to dance classes in a Detroit suburb just like me. She had even enrolled at the college I planned to go to. And then after getting in to the prestigious University of Michigan, the end all be all of colleges for the artsy set in the mitten state, she packed it up with $27 dollars in her pocket and landed herself in Times Square. Positive she was going to make it. And she did. By the time I was hearing the legend and deciding that my own future was going to follow the exact same trajectory no matter what she was already one of the world’s biggest pop stars and still climbing. She was it.
However there was one wrinkle in my plan. See I wasn’t a pop music kind of gal. At least not in my circle of people. I was a goth punk rocker. I was voted most likely in my high school class to be a communist and start a commune of artists in Brazil. So when my clove smoking mohawked small town rebels heard about my big Broadway plans there were supportive, until they realized I wasn’t planning on hitting CBGB’s to glom onto the newest punk band but instead was hoping to hit gay discos and make my own mark on pop culture ala Madonna the confusion was palpable.
However I have to think that somewhere in all of my love of pop music and Madonna specifically my gaydar had turned on. I knew there was something under the surface of her, of her music. Some references I wasn’t getting but was responding to, some sort of subversive element that I couldn’t put a finger on. Much like in later years I would threaten barfights defending the validity of Courtney Love, Britney Spears, and Lil’ Kim, my defense and love of Madonna was about something bigger than her. Bigger than the music, which regardless of politics, really is pretty amazing. But Madonna gave slutty girls a voice that wasn’t apologetic. Hell she was confrontational in her sexuality, and reveling in it. It almost seemed like her sexuality wasn’t even for the enjoyment of the masses, though that was a good side effect, especially for the marketing department, but it was for her. She was a dancer who knew what her body could do, and she enjoyed that strength without apology. She was a feminist role model for me before I knew what the word even was and I would be damned if I would tolerate someone trying to silence her, or me for my appreciation of her and her music.
There two Madonna songs that mark huge milestones in my life, milestones I wasn’t even aware of at the time. Those super-charged moments where something just shifts. The first would be Borderline. From the artsy black and white photo shoot to the choreographed dance number in the video, I saw Madonna’s dancerly body, her unconventional prettiness, her messy blonde with roots hair, her strikingly dark lipstick, and I saw a way into pop culture. A person who made sense to me. A far cry from the pastels and big suits of the 80’s, despite her disco pop sound, her look cried out New York and the Village and artsy, and I saw a way in. Looking back I think it was that moment that my mother should have feared. Not the next year when the sounds of Black Flagg and the Dead Milkmen emanated from my room and she wondered what was happening. But to me it was a logical progression. Madonna, who was unapologetic for being female and powerful and full of desire, to Cyndi Lauper who was unapologetic for being female and strange and loving fun, to punk rock which was just unapologetic for everything and pissed off for good measure. What 15 year old doesn’t want to be pissed off?
The next big moment came from Justify My Love. I was just starting college, and my budding gayness was still pretty hidden from me. Talking with friends from back then it wasn’t hidden to anyone else, but I was, at least for then, clueless that my enjoyment of looking at naked lady pictures and attraction to super butchy women was anything other than straight and normal. Looking back I can only blame small farm towns and a lack of language. But Justify My Love – it was the beginning of giving me the language. The video was one of the hottest things I’d ever seen, and the sex book allowed for a entire catalog of queer reference points hidden inside of a sex book which was masquerading as an art project. She made an art of being out in plain sight. While gay papers on the coasts may have complained of appropriation, the papers that made it to Michigan only ranted about the smut. And of smut I had no shame. The sex book introduced me to how beautiful gay men could be. It’s queerness was overt and in your face, hidden behind the sexuality of a ‘straight’ pop star. It was one of the founding points of my gay aesthetic. Molded moreso later on by Fosse and Liza. A circle which came around nicely when Madonna did her cabaret / fosse tribute number to her gayest song Keep It Together – essentially the Madonna version of ‘We Are Family’ as the finale of her Blonde Ambition tour.
The next big Madonna moment hit me after I had traded poetry for accordions and had a fairly regular gig playing onstage at a local burlesque show. Usually I played with my band but occasionally I would be the soundtrack for dancers. I was (and still am) in love with the loud and colorful vaudevillian nature of burlesque variety shows, and the sense of humor that pervades them, along with the lampooning of pop culture. So when a couple of friends told me they wanted to do a pirate number to Material Girl – I was unsure of how the music would translate, but I was in. It was alone at my practice space before our first rehearsal, as I was learning the 80’s pop hit and trying to arrange it into a pirate shanty that I realized pop music is just fun. There was a gleeful delight in the song that wasn’t getting lost in translation. Within the next six months I would hear Americana versions of Britney Spear’s Toxic and Justin Timberlake’s Sexy Back by Richard Thompson and Rock Plaza Central respectively – but at this time I hadn’t heard the translations yet. And as I turned this consumerist ode to love into a pirate shanty, to be sung by two queer feminist lady pirates, I fell in love with the subversion of cultural tropes. Lady pirates were taking their lives into their own hands and taking control of their fates – shunning the patriarchal set up of their time, much like Madonna was singing about taking control of her own fate, and getting paid for her time and not suffering fools gladly. I felt empowered and emboldened to make the song my own. Adding minor chords and a bouncy waltz. I felt the power of being able to reconcile all of my music and cultural crushes into one place and for one moment – onstage as we three pirates plundered pop culture for our own amusement.