Written by: Greg M. Schumaker, Special to CC2K
I keep expecting an intervention; my family draped over my living room furniture, their hands cautiously wrapped around a stack of CDs, my black iPod, the shower stereo. I open the kitchen door everyday, tie collared around my neck, dressed for a day at the bank, expecting a sticky note to be angrily stabbed against my rusting apartment number: Please stop blaring Madonna at 8 in the morning!!!!!!
I keep expecting my boyfriend to walk into the kitchen–eyes puffy from sleep, searching for a coffee mug–and say, “Must you reenact the opening of The Confessions Tour every morning?”
It is my favorite tour, and on certain days, my favorite Madonna number: her Madgesty, clad in a dominatrix meets equestrian number, glitters down to earth in a million dollar disco ball to the bass line of Donna Summers’s “I Feel Love.” Armed with a whip–which I, unfortunately, don’t have in the shower–she conquers her dancers and belts out “Future Lovers,” a hypnotic, electronic-trance dance masterpiece. I know every word–spoken and sung–and every crack of the whip.
After this seven-minute odyssey is when I have an epiphany: I am fucking gay.
Don’t let my chest hair and monotone dress code fool you. I have 11.90 gigabytes of Madonna lurking in my brain–or, more accurately, on my hard drive.
All of my Madonna would have crashed my family’s Packard Bell in 1995.
I have more Madonna than porn on my Macbook.
This says something about my priorities.
Four years ago–19 and slogging through my first terrible relationship with Brian, an elfin man-boy–I found my way to Chicago with him to see The Confessions Tour. He only made me pay a hundred bucks for my ticket; the original owner dropped out because she couldn’t get a shift covered at Starbucks.
I’d been considering dumping him, but I didn’t know how to bring it up. How do you end that first relationship–that little gestating idea of a romance that you consider Real?
He was 26 and still lived with his mother. And while I enjoyed her two long-haired cats and fridge full of soda, I didn’t like pretending to be his “new friend.” Despite his years on me, he had nothing to teach me about living out and proud–he wasn’t–nor romance, relationships, or sex. Instead, I learned how to pre-drink before clubbing. Vodka, I quickly learned, only amplifies the attractiveness of everyone in the bar you’re not dating.
So my attraction to him faded abruptly, if not for his inability to cut the chord, then because his hands were tiny and he looked–in certain light–like he’d been born an old man. Also, his professional life consisted of working behind the counter at a Hollywood Video and shopping for overpriced jeans.
But the echoes of my time with Brian still reverberate today, for he gave me something incurable. Not herpes, not even HPV–he gave me Madonna.
He would often talk about Madonna, what he’d read on Madonnalicious.com that morning, what The Daily 10 on E! had said that afternoon, which was fine with me because I loved Madonna in a way us Americans love McDonald’s and the Supreme Court. Sure, sometimes they’re poisonous and viciously right-wing (respectively), but they’re always going to be around. I had the Immaculate Collection and GHV2. I’d even been impressed by her latest dance opus–yet another “comeback”–Confessions on a Dancefloor.
But my love ended there. I was a college student, working on my English degree–okay? I was a serious scholar intending to wow the world with whatever my brilliant mind was going to churn out in my very young, wildly new college career. I needed to be listening to music from intellectually stimulating sources–Rufus Wainwright, The Beatles, Beethoven.
Then he offered me the ticket. The hundred dollar rectangular piece of cardstock that would get me into a globalized rite of passage: seeing Madonna live. Yes, our attraction had been waning, and yes my friends mocked his scratchy, girlish voice, but damn it I would hunker down and get through these next few weeks, lying naked on my back if I had to. Because when you’re offered a cheap ticket to a Madonna show, you’re obliged to accept–in my community, anyway. You call in sick if you have to: You have an audience with the queen to attend.
I’d been to Chicago before, but it was only passing through, staring at the Dan Ryan from the backseat of my dad’s minivan. It was mystical, toy-ish–a vague netherworld incomprehensible to my young West Michigan mind. It was akin to casually driving by the Emerald City; its gravitational pull was exhilarating, but my father just kept his foot on the gas and, soon enough, it was gone.
But Madonna drew Brian and me to a room at the Intercontinental on Michigan Avenue, where I could look down at the roofs of other buildings, into their windows, wondering what one had to do to live here, to work here. He pulled me along the Magnificent Mile, in and out of stores I’d never shopped, through clouds of extravagant fragrances that had me seeing dollar signs. I bought my first bag of H&M ware, stuffed my first slice of deep dish into my face, smelled my first whiff of the occasional shitty sewer miasma. Stumbling past the John Hancock building, I looked up and snapped a photo with my phone.
“The Sears Tower,” I said to no one, in awe of its height–had I ever been so close to something so tall? No one corrected me on what building it really was.
As the sun set and the concert got closer, we shuffled through the crowd to get back to the hotel. Looking side to side, hundreds of feet in front of me, I was surrounded by people–skinny to fat, pink to black, happy to pissed, quiet to loud. We were all going somewhere, I thought. This is a place where people go somewhere.
My actual memory of The Confessions Tour has been corrupted by countless DVD viewings, by blaring its soundboard in the shower. But I remember the view, the lights, the flawed moment where Madonna’s microphone didn’t work for the opening lines of “Live To Tell”– as she was raised up on a mirrored disco crucifix–and how when it flickered on, and her voice came through, singing of living with a hidden disease, as a countdown of the number of orphans in Africa grew to millions on a screen above her, I knew, as much as the goose bumps all over me knew, that this was a moment in some sub-cultural pop history that would become one of her defining images.
Later, as she sang “I Love New York” to a crowd of thousands of Chicagoans, and she shouted, “Just go to Texas, and you can suck George Bush’s dick!” I was drawn into hollering and clapping with those around me. The final video interlude of the show displayed a video montage of history’s most villainous faces–including Bush’s made to look like he was stuttering to the beat of the music–juxtaposed with Madonna calmly saying, in her husky speaking voice, “I’ve listened to your lies, and all your stories, and I–and I can’t take it anymore.” This was a Madonna our schizophrenic country could’ve used two summers prior, when the speeches of Bush’s reelection campaign seemed days away from proposing LGBT people be rounded up into camps. Back then she’d been frazzled by the unanticipated critical rejection of her anti-war video for “American Life,” and, cowed by a public ruled by the beats of Dick Cheney’s pacemaker, she drowned her set list in oldies, dubbing it a greatest hits tour. But that was over now, and we were all unified in our dancing, our screaming, and our commitment to a mantra Madonna had recorded well over a decade before: “Express yourself!”
At first, it was about that power: Getting loud and obnoxious, saying fuck the tyrants and prudes. “Life is a mystery,” she sings in “Like a Prayer,” so you might as well dance. To a young gay man, “Express Yourself” is just as intoxicating as it is to a young woman. And I already mentioned the whips.
Then, something happened. I’d stumble out of mid-level undergrad English courses, my brain pounding, my chest curling, my single-man hormones oscillating–there are days when English students have discussions that leave you feeling like you’ve turned the world inside out through its asshole.
So I’d turn on my little beige Kia and detonate Confessions on a Dance Floor, Ray of Light, or Music. Blasting the heat and skidding through the pounding Michigan snow, I would sing and pound the wheel. It became an escape; an aural drug. And why not? A decent voice not refined nor classical, but persistent; a woman both sad and jubilant–listen more closely to “Vogue” and it is equally a call to arms as it is a decree to dance: “Look around, everywhere you turn there’s heartache/ It’s everywhere that you go/ Look around!/ You try, everything you can to escape/ the pain of life that you know.” Consider the first soprano notes Madonna sang to America, the world: “Everybody!/ Come on!/ Dance and sing!/ Everybody!/ Get up and do your thing!”
Yet, some are critical. For instance, the ever-Blue Joni Mitchell told a paper in early 2010 that, “Americans have decided to be stupid and shallow since 1980. Madonna is like Nero; she marks the turning point.” Not Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority and, therefore, founding father of the toxic politics that preyed upon the ignorant, eventually handing George W. Bush the oval office. Not Ronald Reagan, his voodoo economics be damned. A spunky young woman who encouraged us to get up and dance and sing–in order to forget and say “Fuck off” to the moralists trying to control our lives–is to blame for our silly vapidity, not the American tenets of conspicuous consumption and extremist Christian fundamentalism.
And there’s Madonna’s skewed, cultural progeny. Auto-tuned and over-drugged Britney Spears; Christina Aguilera with her powerful voice, but directionless musical mentality; Katy Perry and Lady Gaga without much thought at all; Miley Cyrus with ample thought, only that it’s coming from sugary Disney executives who can trick an easy public into buying a conceived reality by having their marionette sing “I can’t be tamed!”
So, you see, the fear of intervention still lingers, the guilt over constant consumption of what’s been somewhat misappropriated as a guilty pleasure. I imagine my mother tearing up, clutching a copy of Hard Candy, where Madonna sits, crotch wide open, half a century old and wearing a boxing championship belt. “What does this trash do for you!?” she’ll cry.
Well, like a good addict, I’ve admitted I have a Problem. But it isn’t so much a problem for me as for other people, tolerant friends and family excluded. And to soothe the whines of passersby, I hand the mic to Madonna, who sank a lyric into wax in 1994 on “Human Nature” that will forever be my response. A response not only to those who thoughtlessly hate her, but also who hate her fans, droves of liberal women and men, both gay and straight. A lyric that–to a kid dealing with his love for other boys at a time when, and in a place where, nothing could’ve been more demonized by our fearless leaders–couldn’t express itself any better: “I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me.”
Two years later I would find myself shouting that lyric on the floor of Ford Field, Madonna wielding a guitar and white top hat, slicing through the leftover tension of an exhausting election year. Wading through another stinker of a monogamous few months, this 2008 boyfriend bought me floor seats to The Sticky and Sweet Tour. In Detroit. Madonna Louise Ciccone’s home turf–she grew up in nearby Bay City.
By now I’d become a cemented super fan. I listened to her every day, from the mainstream hits to obscure b-sides, ballads to simple ’80s beats. On rough days, perhaps after a night of heavy drinking, I’d find solace in American Life, Madonna’s least commercial, underrated elegy for a world we’d lost–the excesses of the 1990s, democracy–but still managed to survive in because of basest love: our love for one another, for friends, family.
Despite our tempestuous split a week before the show, Dustin didn’t take my ticket away. And he should’ve: they were hundreds of dollars, I dumped him, and the floor of a Madonna show is like a gay cruise–a confined space full of single, usually wealthy, horny men. But, unable to deprive me of a night with one of my gay idols, he and I drove east to Detroit.
“There’s no place like home,” Madonna said before melting into a stirring rendition of “You Must Love Me,” strumming her acoustic guitar, reinventing the song from Evita as a sultry, gypsy ballad. She held the final note for longer than anybody expected–when she sits still, she can surprise even her oldest fans with how well she can sing. That’s a good hard-working Michigan girl, I thought, just like me. Soon after, following a religious-themed, pounding dance remix of “Like a Prayer,” which featured quotes from all religions about peace between humans, most prominently Jesus’s idea that we all come from and return to “the light,” she kept the crowd clapping in unison for several minutes, taking a breather before the next song. First she thanked us for our love, and, rhetorically asked, “How happy are we to have a new president!?”
Detroit, addled by years of financial decay, cheered loudly all around me. Whereas I’d first seen Madonna in the prosperous, thriving, liberal Chicago, I was now in Michigan’s once-ascendant major city. And it hit me: This, this concert before me, the dancing, jubilant stadium around me, was the polar opposite of the Glenn Beck-style/conservative pundit live seminars and evangelical revival shows that quickly wedged our society apart and frequently sold out crowds in Grand Rapids’s stadium back home. This was not a damning, angry worship service lamenting the loss of the world to sin and the fires of hell, the loss of our Founding Fathers’ country to that of the radical Islamic socialist foreigner Barack Hussein Obama, not to mention the EPA, ACLU, NAACP, and ABCs.
No. This was a celebration of life. Madonna bumped her hits up against samples of contemporaries that sometimes bested even her–Indeep’s “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life,” Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Jump On It,” Felix’s “Feels Like Home,” the Eurythmics’s “Here Comes the Rain Again”–to create a colorful, pounding two hour show that left everybody in the audience drenched in sweat and smiling. This was a time to dance, to sing–like she put it best in that now classic intro to “Into the Groove”: “For inspiration.”
The rousing concert and shared hotel room, in cahoots with the November cold and the drinks we shared at the only bar (our hotel’s) we could find open at midnight in downtown Detroit, brought Dustin and me back together for a few more weeks. And even when it was over, we still had a memory–one I share with Brian as well–of dancing under Madonna’s lights.
My obsession with Madge was sprouted and emboldened by these two live shows–tickets for which I had to do little but get naked and convince myself I was in love. Just like how she kept producer Stephen Bray around in the ’80s long enough to craft “Into the Groove.”
In her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech, she concluded by saying, “It always does, and it always will, come back to the music.” And this is true for my Madonna addiction–despite the image, the attitude, the dancing. It was the electronic beat that loosened me up in my car after class, gave me a persistent mantra to sing on days when it felt like Grand Rapids was it in my life. Today, her music overcrowds all the other rock and dance tracks on my little iPod that I use while running on the treadmill and riding the train to work. The music just helps me move–like she sings in 2001’s “Music”: “It’s like riding on the wind/ And it never goes away/ Touches everything I’m in/ Got to have it everyday.” It’s possible she’s singing retrospectively, musing about her own body of work from the viewpoint of a fan like me.
My addiction is enabled by those fans like me, who like to gather, drink, dance, and sing–no shortage of which are living in my new hometown, Chicago, and who gather the first Sunday of every month in a little gay bar called Berlin.
There, under various disco balls and strobe lights, on the dance floor and from on top of platforms, the men and women who love Madonna gather. The cover is a charitable donation, the drink specials are erroneous, and the music is as loud as it is has been since The Virgin Tour.
On my first visit, I joked that my heaven would be like this: cheap drinks, hot men, funny girls, and Madonna screaming through the speakers and writhing around on the plasma screens–only it would have a cleaner bathroom. And why not? Here, everyone is happy, whether singing in tune or tone-deaf. Everyone is dancing, whether wildly good or horribly bad. It’s hard to tell the difference in a crowd so dark, so tightly packed, so energetic.
On the inevitable playback of “Holiday,” a very young, naïve girl from Michigan sings “You can turn this world around/ And bring back all of those happy days!/ Put your troubles down/ It’s time to celebrate!/ Let love shine/ And we will find/ A way to come together/ And make things better!” And for a brief few hours in a little bar in Chicago, we do just that. And I can’t help but carry this simple message out with me, into a world we’re slowly building and rebuilding, where every where we turn there’s heartache–but also the possibility for an end to it, as well.