A few days ago, while promoting her new album Madame X, Madonna was asked by a journalist if she knew just how much she meant to people. She quite honestly responded that she didn’t. And I’m sure that’s the only possible, sincere answer she could have given. There is no way any truly iconic figure can be aware of just how much they’ve impacted people’s lives. For this impact goes far beyond people’s opinions, criticism or even blind adulation and devotion.
I first heard of Madonna when I was seven or eight. My parents, who were kind of right-wing hippies (I know, it’s confusing to me too), decided to leave the big city and move our family to the wilderness of the Carpathian Mountains. We lived there for about two and a half years, with a very limited access to the wonders of modern civilization. Interestingly enough, it was during those two years, away from the ‘evils’ of the world that my queer identity truly emerged, although I wasn’t really aware of what that meant. The first thing to open my eyes and make my heart beat faster was a book about Marilyn Monroe I found among my mother’s things. The book became my bible, and Marilyn my goddess. I distinctly remember my mother saying, with a warning in her voice, ‘I hope you’re just looking at the photos and not reading the text. It’s definitely not meant for children’. Just what planet my mother lived on to think that saying something like that would do anything other than make any child read EVERY last word, and then read it again, I’m sure I don’t know. Needless to say, I read and re-read the book, filled with Marilyn’s personal quotes and words of wisdom, time and time again.
But back to Madonna. I remember my mother coming back from visiting the city. She had been gone for a couple of weeks, and to us, stuck in the middle of the forest, it seemed as though she had been visiting the moon. I remember her unpacking her suitcase, the smell of her perfume, the whole excitement of it. But the only thing I remember her saying is ‘Madonna is pregnant’. She said it to my father, and I’m not sure why I remember it to this day, but it left such an impression on my young mind; the words themselves, my mother’s tone of voice, my father’s reaction. There is really nothing more to say about it, it was a single sentence, and I don’t think they really talked about it anymore than that. I had no idea who Madonna was, and why it was a big deal that she was pregnant. But just the name ‘Madonna’ was enough to arouse my fascination. It sounded so exotic, so glamorous, it was just a single first name, no surname. I doubt I was aware of the religious connotations of the name. I just thought it sounded amazing.
Later that year we went back to live in Warsaw, and the shock of returning to that urban jungle after living in a mountainous isolation was huge. At around the same time Ray of Light dropped, we got cable TV, and I discovered who Madonna was. Frozen, Ray of Light, The Power of Goodbye – those songs, and the music videos to them, were such a huge part of creating my taste, my sensibilities, my very identity. I couldn’t be too open about my fascination though. I remember my older brother asking me what album I’d like to get for my birthday, and my answer,
‘Madonna’s Ray of Light!’
‘Ugh, why are you always just into women?’
I remember the shame I felt, like so many times before, and many times after. Why was I fascinated by women? Why did I identify with them? Why did I fantasize of being Marilyn Monroe instead of wanting to be Ronaldo? What was wrong with me?
Needless to say I spent my entire childhood with a sense that there was something profoundly wrong with me, surely I was the only person in the world feeling like that, a God’s error. But throughout it all, there was Madonna. Even though I never got my own copy of Ray of Light, not until I bought it for myself many years later, she was there. One time my mother caught me watching the video to Justify my Love and told me, ‘you know you’ll go to hell for that’. I remember catching Truth or Dare on TV late one night. I knew I was committing a grave sin by watching it, but I couldn’t stop. Suddenly there they were! Others like me: queer, colorful, flamboyant, weird, sensitive people. So I wasn’t the only one! The revelation of it was like a revolution in my young soul. And Madonna was like a fairy godmother, a blonde goddess looking out for those guys in her troupe, and by extension, for me too.
Much happened in the years that followed: my father died, my mother and I moved to London, I grew up, came out, fell in love, and slowly began finding out who I was. Confessions on a Dance Floor came out around the same time I did; I particularly remember Get Together and Forbidden Love as the two songs that reflected what I felt at the time: guilt, fear, but also exhilaration and relief. More than just being the soundtrack to my life, Madonna, her music, her courage and her message saved me, many times over.
With Madame X, she is here once again, and doing what she has done for the past four decades – stirring the pot, agitating the haters, the people who are afraid of those of us who are different, who don’t play by the rules, who question, who refuse to compromise who we are. Madame X stands for all those things, which is why the album is getting as much hate as it is high praise. At sixty, a single, battered and bruised Madonna remains undefeated, still giving the middle finger to those who say she’s too old, she’s desperate, she doesn’t sound as good, she doesn’t look as good, she had plastic surgery, her lyrics are self-righteous, her eye-patch is ridiculous. In withstanding all the hate and bitter criticism, Madonna is once again giving hope and strength to all the bullied, lost little children in all of us who grew up with her – if she can still do it, so can we. We rise.
By Anthony Uzarowski
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