It all started in 1993, when I was just five years old. My family and I were on a cruise, and being the precocious little douche bag I was, I insisted on staying up late every night and doing everything the ship had to offer. This included nightly revues and midnight buffets, where I mostly ate slivers of coconut and admired the ice sculptures. On one such night the revue was an impersonator, a not-at-all convincing (now that I think back) Madonna act. This was the Erotica era, when Madonna’s latest offense had to do more than ever with her overt sexuality. It was the age of her Sex book and the “Erotica” music video so risqué that MTV would only play it after midnight. And there I was, just months after starting kindergarten, watching a Madonna-be (Madonna Wannabe) slink through the audience lip-synching “Fever.” And I was transfixed.
So began a lifelong love affair with Her Madgesty. I remember only bits and pieces of that fateful night: fleeting images of a blonde woman in a bowler hat and sequined unitard sitting in men's laps on the Big Red Boat (oh yes, it was a Disney cruise, which makes this whole story all the more ridiculous); instants of the snappy jazziness of Madonna’s “Fever” arrangement pulsing through the sound system. I remember the feeling of confusion and curiosity, and then later of utter love. That night I had no idea who Madonna was, but I would never forget her afterward. My parents probably tried to explain the spectacle of it all while ignoring the glaring sexuality, but I don’t remember that. I do remember returning home and being wholly in love with this new woman in my life, this beacon of femininity and otherness. I quickly requested (and received) each of her albums released up until that point on cassette and inflicted them upon my parents at any given moment, particularly on the stereo of our new Jeep Grand Cherokee. I walked into first grade singing “Papa Don’t Preach,” into baseball practices singing “Material Girl,” around the house belting “Like a Prayer.” I was somewhat inexplicably drawn to this (probably inappropriate) music performed with such reckless abandon by this out-there woman. It was more than just childhood fascination, and all these years later I can only surmise that my connection to Madonna formed back then on a very basic and human level.
You see, I was always different. I knew this. I hated the organized sports teams on which I played, everything from baseball to soccer to flag football to a one-practice stint in roller hockey, but I loved dance classes. I obsessively played with action figures, but my favorites were Batman and Robin because they were the same size as my sister’s Barbies. I would often make Batman and Robin kiss as they played house with Barbie; I always relegated that bitch to the garage while the male couple retired to the bedroom or the dream Jacuzzi. It was just who I was and what I inherently wanted to do; I knew no better, other than that it wasn’t what Batman and Robin were intended to do. I watched the campy 1960s Batman series and saw them fighting crime, but to me they were lovers. Obviously that was different, though I never thought (or was taught) that it was bad. Just different.
Enter Madonna. Enter this enigmatic, fantastic figure of exactly what it means to be different. Her image was unlike any other; there were so few empowered women in music at the time, especially ones so egregiously using sexuality as a confidence-booster and attention-grabber. Madonna was a trailblazer. She defined what it meant to be different in the music industry and in popular culture, and as a gay child I somehow latched onto that. If Madonna could be so outrageously different and strange and still be so successful and beloved, then there was hope for me. Of course I didn’t know what gay was, or that it described what I was feeling; but I knew that I understood Madonna on a level that was way beyond the surface antics. She never felt like everyone else, and she used that to her advantage to prove that different doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. If you think about it, that’s such an amazing message to impart on young people. Was it entirely appropriate that I was in elementary school watching her roll around on the floor in a wedding dress at the MTV Awards? Probably not. Was it appropriate that I would sneak out of bed to catch the 2:00 AM airings of her “Erotica” video? Not really. But I grew up thinking that I was okay as long as people like Madonna were around, and that’s definitely appropriate.
I guess you could say Madonna changed my life. As I got older and began to understand the implications of her music, particularly the Like a Prayer album, which became my favorite, I took away more and more from it. Watching the music video for “Like a Prayer,” I didn’t fully comprehend all of the controversy because to me it was just beautiful. Seeing Madonna grab her crotch and dance around in a suit in the “Express Yourself” video allowed me to mature without such a rigid definition of what is feminine and what is masculine. For a child, these images were not stigmatizing or controversial, they just were.
As I matured, it was as if Madonna was anticipating every step of my life. Somewhere around 1995 I latched onto her single “Secret” from Bedtime Stories. I was growing more and more aware of my sexuality, as children do, and for some reason (which is obvious now) could not stop singing the lines, “Happiness lies in your own hand” and “My baby’s got a secret from me.” Clearly I was grappling with something, and Madonna seemed to let me know that it was normal. If someone was keeping a secret from Madonna, it was okay if I kept one too. This was confirmed by a later single from the same album, “Bedtime Story,” which also contained a lyric I held close to me and sang often to myself: “Words are useless, especially sentences. They don’t stand for anything. How could they explain how I feel?”
I can then credit Madonna with introducing me to my love for musical theatre the following year. Aside from knowing the song “Hey, Big Spender” from Sweet Charity because of a dance routine I’d performed, my knowledge of musicals and what they were was nonexistent. That changed the year I turned nine when Madonna played the lead role in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical Evita. I immediately loved “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” and after seeing the film became enamored with musical theatre. This love continues today, but it was that initial exposure from Madonna which shaped the course my life would take. Theatre became my primary extracurricular activity by the time I was twelve and well into my twenties.
Aside from Evita, my love for Madonna’s older material continued through my childhood years into the latter parts of 1999. Ray of Light had been released the year before, but I didn’t grasp the depth of that record until I entered middle school and began three of the most torturous years of my life. By late 1999 I had fully realized my attraction to other boys, and on the cusp of adolescence I again turned to Madonna. In my haze of confusion and questioning, “Ray of Light” was… well, a ray of light. It was a happy, uptempo, freedom-granting song. On days when I’d feel like crap, which was more often than anyone would like to admit for sixth graders making the transition not only to a new school but to the hormonal years associated with it, “And I feel like I just got home” would bring me some solace and a smile. And on days when I didn’t feel like being in a happy mood, I would put on any number of other songs with sappy overtones: “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” about searching the earth for what is truly meaningful; “Frozen,” about closing yourself off to connection; or “Mer Girl,” the story of a young girl constantly running away. There was an element of soul-searching to Ray of Light that I didn’t appreciate just a year before but came to understand as the millennium changed and my emotions became more complicated.
The mixture of pure joy and crazy complication that was Music fully embodied the remainder of my middle school years. From the fun dance beats and general hope and happiness of “Music,” to the downtrodden and strange “Paradise (Not For Me),” I could find something new to connect with everyday. More often that not I would lie in bed and blast “I Deserve It,” paying particular attention to the first two verses with lyrics like “This guy was meant for me, and I was meant for him.” Everything seemed life-or-death in those years, particularly my growing infatuation with the boys around me, regardless of their sexuality and what that meant for my own. I would quickly quell these thoughts with another track on the album, “Nobody’s Perfect.” I think the connection is obvious from the title.
It all came to a head when Madonna released her next record in 2003, American Life. By now I was well into high school and growing increasingly frustrated with myself. I was consumed by the guilt of lying to everyone around me about who I really was. I was sick of talking about girls as if they meant anything to me, sexually or romantically. I was depressed, pissed off and unable to sleep because of it. I was angry at myself for not being honest, for being too weak and confused to just be me. I was angry at everyone around me for not making it easy for me to just be me. Madonna came just in the nick of time with an album all about being angry and frustrated. With so many emotions swimming through me, I turned to Madge for guidance and enlightenment. I found solace in knowing that the biggest female star on the planet could possibly be feeling the same: “There are too many questions. There is not one solution. There is no resurrection. There is so much confusion.” In the immortal words of Lori Lieberman, she was singing my life with her words. The anger at the modern world in “American Life,” the frustration for one’s self and everyone else at the same time in “I’m So Stupid,” and the total appropriateness of “X-Static Process” for exactly what I was feeling (“I’m not myself standing in a crowd, I’m not myself and I don’t know how”) … all of it made me feel whole and like I was not alone. More than anything, that was what I needed at the time. Solace, comfort, companionship, even if just from a voice on a CD. With the power of Madonna’s words, and what I like to think would be her approval, I came out of the closet in January of 2004. All of the anger, the confusion, the exhaustion… it built to a climax that changed my life, one supported by the work of the woman who first made me feel like I could be different and be loved.
I was ecstatic. For the remainder of my years in high school I was free to be myself, openly gay and accepted for it. So when Madonna’s 2005 disco-influenced album Confessions on a Dance Floor surfaced, I was dancing with her. Just as she was letting go of the anger expressed on her previous album, so was I. Just as she wanted to stop and just dance, so did I. I celebrated my freedom and angry release with her. I let go and had fun, just like Madonna wanted me (and everyone else listening to the record) to. It was my senior year, and all of the hurt and confusion would be over for good in just a few short months when I graduated; I languished in the joyous beats of this album, as if each bass thump brought me one step closer to freedom. In the ultimate celebration of my love for Madonna and to commemorate all that had happened to me, I finally got to see her live on The Confessions Tour in 2006. The tickets were a graduation gift, and nothing could have been more appropriate. I took one of my closest friends with me, and as Madonna descended from the rafters in a disco ball which bloomed to reveal her inside, my friend yelled, “This is like gay Mecca! You made the pilgrimage! You’re here!” At the time I just started weeping, mostly because everything was so fabulous and over-the-top that I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed. But there was so much behind those tears.
There in front of me, in the same room as me, was a woman who will never know the impact she’s had on my life. Madonna will never know that she comforted me in my teenage years, or that she made me smile on days when I could barely lift my head, or that she first taught me what it meant to be different from everyone else and how you could turn that into adoration and success. She’ll never know the strength and joy she’s given me. She’ll never know that she’s the reason I graduated college with a concentration in women’s and gender studies. She’ll never know how she changed and helped shaped me. She’ll never know that she’s part of the reason I’m here. And I am. I’m here, and it’s like a dream to me.