A friend of mine and I always joke that if you get more than two gay men of a certain age — over about forty-two, forty-three — in a room, the conversation has turned to Madonna within half an hour, sometimes within ten minutes, every time. What she has meant to us, what she meant to us growing up on a kind of fundamental, primal, existential level, is impossible to exaggerate.Matt Cain, British writer
I should have known I was gay in 1986. I’d sit in my room for hours, playing Madonna’s “True Blue” album over and over. (This was before CDs and streaming. After the last song on Side A, “Live to Tell,” I’d have to physically remove, flip over, and reinsert the cassette. You kids get off my lawn!)
I knew not to discuss Madonna with friends and family. For reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time, I sensed that admitting my admiration would say something about me that I didn’t want others to know.
I’m thinking back to those days because I’ve just devoured “Madonna: A Rebel Life,” the new biography by Mary Gabriel. It’s hardly Pulitzer material (I’m struggling to come up with a Material Girl pun here), but I found it fascinating because, by exploring the effect Madonna had on culture and society, it helped illuminate the effect Madonna had on me.
I’ll start by sharing my thoughts on the book, then dig deeper into Madonna the Gay Icon.
To get you in the mood for this blog post, here’s a playlist I’ve created with the songs from every Madonna album, the new music from the complication albums, and the tracks released one-off.
Just Some Tome to Celebrate
As befits a meticulously researched, 800-page book about a cultural icon, “Madonna: A Rebel Life” has garnered a lot of attention from book critics. The best brief description of the book is the subhead of Alexandra Jacobs’ review in The New York Times (paywall): “Mary Gabriel’s biography is as thorough as its subject is disciplined. But in relentlessly defending the superstar, where’s the party?”
In my non-professional opinion, the book’s biggest strength is also its primary weakness: Gabriel sympathizes with her subject. It’s a difficult balancing act: Is she humanizing or idolizing Madonna? Is she Madonna’s advocate or apologist?
Here’s how this plays out:
When Madonna thrives, it’s because of her drive, creativity, and openness to collaboration. She isn’t afraid of risk. She seeks out what’s new instead of repeating what’s been done.
When Madonna fails, it’s because the cards are stacked against her. It’s because of resistance in the music and film industries. It’s because she’s ahead of her time. It’s because of political and social resistance.
This doesn’t make the book any less powerful or insightful. What Gabriel does best is contextualize Madonna’s story. It’s not just about her; it’s also about the culture that created Madonna (and, in return, the culture that Madonna helped shape). Remove Madonna from the book and you end up with a fascinating, well-researched piece about the evolution of music and art in New York in the 1980s, the rise of the Religious Right in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the push for LGBTQ rights, and even the politics of Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump.
“I Am a Gay Man”
Madonna has been a gay icon and advocate for LGBTQ equality since, well, forever. This book, more than anything else I’ve read, explains why and how Madonna the artist can’t be separated from Madonna the ally, or Madonna the activist.
Madonna said her first visit to a gay club was the first time she felt empowered to be authentic:
I felt like such an outsider, a misfit, a weirdo. And suddenly when I went to the gay club, I didn’t feel that way anymore. I just felt at home. I had a whole new sense of myself… Until that point, I kept seeing myself through macho heterosexual eyes… When Christopher introduced me to this life, I suddenly thought, “That’s not the only way that I have to be.”Madonna, quoted in “Madonna: A Rebel Life” by Mary Gabriel
This meant, I think, that Madonna appreciated and understood LGBTQ people on a personal level. She didn’t wink at them like previous artists did. She spoke to them directly, openly, and inclusively.
When an interviewer asked her, “If you were a gay man, would you be a top or a bottom?” she replied, “I am a gay man.”
What makes this even more important and meaningful is that Madonna didn’t shy away from LGBTQ issues when speaking to the general public — especially about the AIDS health crisis. In fact, each copy of “Like a Prayer” included a pamphlet about AIDS and safe sex. Remember, this is a time when people didn’t discuss AIDS, or described it as divine retribution against LGBTQ people. Now, from Manhattan, New York, to Manhattan, Kansas, anyone buying her album would get the facts they need.
I’m Not Your Bitch. Don’t Hang Your Shit on Me.
The most important thing about Madonna to me is that, through her words and actions, she empowered LGBTQ people to be bold and proud when everyone else wanted them to be silent and ashamed. Her attitude: If other people want to shame me for what I say, what I do, or what I represent, fuck ’em!
You’re trying to put me down because of this? I’m not going to let public opinion dictate my own feelings about myself. I’m not going to apologize for anything I’ve done.Madonna, quoted in “Madonna: A Rebel Life” by Mary
Madonna showered us with love and visibility long before anyone in mainstream popular culture did. As far as examples go, “Vogue” is a gimme. So is her inclusion of LGBTQ people in “Truth or Dare” and the “Justify My Love” video in the early ’90s. Knowing Madonna was an unabashed ally gave her other songs deeper meaning and more resonance. “Express Yourself” isn’t just about demanding more from a partner — it’s about self-respect and -love in a society that expects you to put up with less than you deserve.
While “Human Nature” is based on Madonna’s experiences after “Erotica” and the “Sex” book, the lyrics are a rallying cry to everyone who doesn’t fit the tiny box that white, straight, cisgender, Christian men want to force everyone into.1
Wouldn’t let me say the words I longed to say
You didn’t want to see life through my eyes
Express yourself don’t repress yourself
You tried to shove me back inside your narrow room
And silence me with bitterness and lies
Express yourself don’t repress yourself
Did I say something wrong?
Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex
I must’ve been crazy
Did I stay too long?
Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t speak my mind
What was I thinking?
And I’m not sorry
I’m not sorry
It’s human nature
And I’m not sorry“Human Nature,” Madonna
I’m not sorry
I’m not your bitch don’t hang your shit on me
In 1990, after the success of “Vogue” and “Dick Tracy,” and before the blowback from Sex and “Erotica,” Madonna embarked on her Blond Ambition tour. She captured everything — good and bad, on stage and off — in “Truth or Dare.” Anyone who saw the documentary will remember the tension between Madonna and her boyfriend at the time, Warren Beatty:
Warren Beatty would say that Madonna didn’t want to live off camera. Christopher said he was wrong: Madonna didn’t want to live offstage. She agreed. “I love reaching out to people and I love the expressions in people’s eyes and just the ecstasy and the thrill.”“Madonna: A Rebel Life” by Mary Gabriel
Why do I bring this up? Because I need a segue to introduce some of the videos I took when the Complimentary Spouse and I saw Madonna in Washington D.C. in 2015!
This is the end of my long post, but I hope we’re nowhere near the end of Madonna’s long career. Britt and I will see her on stage next year. I might be a middle-aged curmudgeon, but when it comes to Madonna, I’ll always let my body groove to the music … let my body go with the flow …
Don’t just stand there.
Let’s get to it.
Strike a pose.
There’s nothing to it.
1 Check out the box imagery in the “Human Nature” video: