Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My Relationship With Madonna

Here's the thing: I am a Madonna stan. My relationship with her as a musician has been long and complicated. I remember loving her as a kid, replaying my casette single of "Take A Bow" and stealing my sisters' Madonna albums to listen to. Obviously, as a little boy, Madonna was not the look. Especially where I lived, it was either hard rock or rappers for guys my age. That was all it was okay to listen to. Not that I wasn't already being called a faggot by the 6th grade repeatedly...but I had wormed my way into the popular guys' group anyway by being just different enough to be interesting and being relatively okay at sports, and I certainly wasn't going to give up that victory by singing Like A Prayer in the halls. Especially not in a Catholic school.

But I still remember making sure I was in my room every night as a 13 year old in case Frozen came on the radio. It was my favorite song for years. What was shitty was that unlike Britney, Christina and JLo...I couldn't even act like I watched Madonna's videos because she was "hot." Even then, Madonna was getting a bit old. Even then she was having one unlikely comeback after another, and was being deemed irrelevant for the younger, hipper pop princesses. Even then, every triumph was asserted as a last hurrah.

Still, I kept with her. It didn't matter that I had to like her clandestinely. Being shocked and excited watching her "Bedtime Stories" era. Having Evita captivate me as the first musical I truly loved. I would do my homework while listening to "Ray Of Light" on repeat. I would play video games to "Music." I tried and tried but lost a little bit of touch with her during her radical "American Life" days but fell in love all over again when "Confessions On A Dance Floor" was released. Of course, by then I had come out as gay and it was not only okay to like Madonna...it seemed expected!

And she certainly made it pretty easy, didn't she? Surviving scandal after scandal, only to come out of the end even stronger. Outliving and outdoing all of her competitors of the past. From Cyndi Lauper to Debbie Gibson, Michael Jackson to Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey to Christina Aguilera, Paula Abdul to Britney Spears. She has remained either more relevant or more successful than every pop star in her way. It doesn't really matter that Michael was more successful at one point or that Whitney was more talented or that Britney had more initial success...because in the end Madonna is the only one who has truly endured.

Reaching records that legends like Elvis, ABBA, Barbra Streisand, and The Beatles have set, and continuing to pass them, Madonna's sales and records broken are almost unparalleled. She has had arguably the biggest pop culture presence of any female in modern history. And all of this while being wildly controversial and risky in ways that have ended others' careers. It's hard not to root for a survivor.

So, what has happened? Even as I slowly started to accept that as an aging dance artist with a history of subversive behavior and shock tactics that the mainstream may lose touch with her a bit, I just thought it was expected that as long as she continued to churn out strong dance music that nostalgic females, gay men and dance enthusiasts of the younger generations would continue to respect and enjoy Madonna. Every new generation of pop stars certainly do. Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj...just a short list of those who have worked with Madonna and raved about what an experience it was. Beyonce, Lady GaGa and other pop queens have all openly talked about how Madonna's career and music helped shape the artist they are.

So, as we go forward into Madonna's 12th studio album, "MDNA"...I feel disheartened by the amount of disdain and apathy when it comes to our Queen of Pop. When there was widespread backlash and critical pans for "Hard Candy"...I could at least understand it. The urban-pop-minx image of that album never felt truly authentic. Her reliance on past-their-moment producers Timbaland and Pharell for the sound and her work with Justin Timberlake and Kanye West for the cool factor didn't just feel inappropriate...it felt dated. While I maintain that there are more than a few stellar moments on that album, I could at least sympathize with the haters.

But here is Madonna not only returning to the dance floor the way she always has, but bringing of-the-moment and classic collaborators together. Brilliantly referencing old work of hers, while pushing farther into new sounds than she has in years. Creating a diverse but cohesive work of dance music...something that she does best. At the core of all of her reinventions and stunts, it has always been dance music. Dance music that sounds like the current trends but with that special Madonna touch. Sometimes it set new trends...other times it simply set her apart. Some of her best work hasn't been groundbreaking..but it has been consistent.

What's wild is what the detractors have thrown at her. Let's examine some of the more popular ones, hmm? Some say she is too old to be dancing and making the kind of music she does, simply because their is no convention for a female pop star to make it this far. As if at the age of 40 one must release the desire to have fun and dance be heard. Why should she submit to age limits when she hasn't responded to any of the others such as sexual limitations, religious reverence, or political discourse? Others claim that she is copying GaGa and Britney to stay relevant, missing the fact that all major artists draw from other artists' sounds and inspiration, especially in the modern age when new music trends are available at inception via all of the many internet media tools. There are few major artists in the world that aren't using dance music to a degree...why should Madonna be the exception, especially when dance is always the world she has inhabited? And I won't even begin to address the tired and often petty commentary on her personal life or attitude, especially when her contemporaries are so rarely questioned for worse behavior.

However...in the end Madonna is simply a pop singer. Sure, she has swelled to more than that in culture, but she is just an entertainer. If you don't like her music, then fine. Let's agree to disagree. But so many criticisms seem to lose sight of what makes Madonna the artist that she is. What has let her endure and appeal to so many generations and in so many guises. Which is that Madonna, more than any other pop star, is the most relatable.

Madonna is and has always been a contradiction. She is the Queen of Pop, and yet she is one of the most openly humane pop stars we have. She is deeply religious but a Church-condemned harlot. She has a hardened public personality but advocates for love and world peace in her performances. She is widely beloved, but also widely despised. Some say she is everything a woman shouldn't be...others say she is one of the most important feminist icons in history. And for me she has been a mostly silent but indispensable gay icon.

Madonna has endlessly winked in and out of mainstream opinion, struggling to find her place in the world while simultaneously battling herself. She loves and dances and succeeds and fails just like everyone...if on a grander scale. The gay community has always gravitated towards misunderstood underdogs, especially those with a knack for surviving. Much like the gays, Madonna has been continuously kicked down and told to change and conform...and each time she has refused and gone on to fight for what she is and the things she believes in. Where so many gay icons have failed to continue to win against the public or their own demons...how can we not continue to champion Madonna for her own determination to succeed and be heard?

At any given moment of Madonna's career, she can be found on the dancefloor with such fervor it seems like a life or death matter. The next she might lamenting her failures in love and life. Because she doesn't have a nailed down persona...she is ultimately not just the most interesting of pop stars, but also the most relatable. A chameleon not just in look and sound, but also in who she is at the core. Sure, other pop stars could be clinging to their rosary and preaching mysticism the next...but how many can have true conviction behind their actions? How many others can so completely reflect the struggles and changes we all go through in our lives?

Madonna is not a stage alter ego. She is not a performance piece. She is not a fad. She is not an industry puppet. There isn't one aspect of her music that would end her the way Whitney Houston's unfortunate vocal deterioration or Britney's diminished dancing abilities have. Madonna is little more than an American girl with a little bit of talent, a knack for working hard, and a lot of opinions. But I dare any of you to find someone with more creativity, strength, or sincerity. The sooner the public remembers what makes the Material Girl special, the sooner they can dismiss their objections and join her on the dancefloor with the rest of us.

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