I have always admired Madonna, even when I wasn't fond of her music. I admired her ambition, sense of risk and willingness to go big or go home. I liked her tough girl art-chick persona in her early movies, Desperately Seeking Susan and Who's that Girl. I rooted for her even though I didn't buy her albums. They were occasionally fun to dance to, and since I was desperately trying to be an actor I knew all the words and could sing along because that's what you do. You learn ALL the things when you are an actor so that you can use them. Ironically, unironically, bitterly, joyously. You need to be able to feel all the things the way someone might feel them, even if you don't particularly. The first Madonna song I liked was "Like a Prayer" and I probably liked that song because it's true.
When the person I love calls my name it still feels a bit like a revelation - and like prayer sometimes it's intense, or sometimes it's a shock that you still notice or care, and sometimes its a reminder of transcendence. Sometimes it's home.
It's a funny thing about that lyric though. Like all callow youth and the default of all pop songs and everything Madonna it was interpreted by some of my peer group to be about sex, specifically about blowjobs, because of the chorus:
When you call my name it's like a little prayer
I'm down on my knees, I wanna take you there
In the midnight hour I can feel your power
Just like a prayer you know I'll take you there
[ Lyrics from: http://www.lyricsfreak.com/m/madonna/like+a+prayer_20086915.html ]
But that interpretation was made by a bunch of oversexed hormonal theatrical twenty somethings who were busy either creating their own spirituality or vociferously rejecting oppressive theologies. I do not say that last bit with snark. It was the era of AIDS. We were surrounded by a group called the "me generation" in the press and the rising of the Moral Majority in our politics and school system. Everyone was either letting us wander along or preaching at/to us. We were diesnfranchised in the most literal sense being taught that "you can't fight city hall". The biggest joke at my school ( once again most likely because it was true) was that we wrote a longform article on the apathy of our student body and no one read it because they didn't care. Literally, no one even picked up our school paper.
Here's the part of the song you have to ignore in order to concentrate on the sex as subtext in Like A Prayer
Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone
I hear you call my name
And it feels like home
To accept that this song is only about relationships to other humans an not about something more; life, meaning, place, is to ignore that there's no relationship given, that there's no vision or contact with the subject of the song. It ignores that there might be a voice as metaphor that calls her name and the feeling is actually based in a religious feeling.
She wrote a song about her name being called. She made a video explicitly showing the conflicts of being called out by a suffering god and and and angry population and it was looked at not as a song truly about her personal expression/experience of the merging of the conflict/joy of that feeling and interacting with a suffering god in a world ignoring the god and abusing the symbols it was looked at as a publicity stunt to piss off religious people and a song about blowjobs. But that bit:
When you call my name
He said to him "Abraham"
It's like a little prayer
and he answered "Here I am."
If I had put this allusion through it's paces at the diner after rehearsal while everyone was making blowjob jokes, I wouldn't have been mocked but I would have been kind of looked at as a killjoy. And honestly at that time the idea that Madonna was genuinely interested in religion or spiritual fulfillment would have been taken as a joke. If I had brought it up in a group of pagan women I would have been taken to task for a number of things, but one of them would have been why I thought that Madonna would want to express her experience and yearning and interaction of the divine with male symbols and patriarchy.
I am reminded of these situations by thinking about the discussions around women in leisure cultures now.
Most of my female pagan friends at the time admired her for owning her sexuality on her terms instead of exclusivley make defined ones. It's hard to remember now when all of her bits have been co-opted and digested and third wave feminism exists but what she was doing was self-defined. In retrospect she might be the only mainstream popular act to do that because after her came the two terms to minimize discussion of sexuality or women in cultural consumption "Attention Whore" for those who incorporated their sexuality their persona and "White Knight" for any male who might defend pretty much any woman with a public persona. You can't discuss anything that uses sex and bodies in performance or marketing without having the labels thrown around for chilling effect.
It's still hard for women to admit their sexuality or discuss fluctuations in it without it falling into some pre-packaged trope. Madonna managed to be self defined until very, very recently. When she hit fifty the "cougar" became a sexual stereotype for women who were somewhere between milfs and crones. She and Dr. Ruth Westheimer were my early models for empowered women talking about sex on their terms to other women and whatever men cared to listen, but not for men. Really for them. For us, for little, evenutally growing up, me.
The other Madonna song I liked was "live to tell" .
Madonna is complicated, she's a social signifier, I was waiting, really to find out what would happen next. The two albums of hers I bought because I liked them and they actually spoke to me were Ray of Light and Music.
Most of those songs still speak to me. She's writing about subjects that mean something. By the time they came out while people were very confused and starting to spread crazy rumors about what Kabaalah was ( hint it's not it's own religion and SURPRISE Catholisicim has it's own Kabbalah ) no one by that time would be surprised that her work contained religion and sex intermingled, and even if they thought it was her shtick, most people actually assumed that she probably meant it, even if they now judged her for being crazy.
Of all of the Madonna songs that fill up the cultural soundtrack of my life the one that I hear in the back of my head when I'm very, very still is the one that has these lines:
"When you're trying hard to be your best, could you be a little less"
Does anyone even know that song? Is it one of the ones that get forgotten because it's uncomfortable?
I don't actually play the song through at all. Over the last several years it's made me cry. Mostly because it's true. It's actually the only song or article or anything addressing the topic that feels like what I feel. She wrote it when she was approaching 40.
When you open up your mouth to speak
Could you be a little weak?
But she's not 40 anymore, she's 50 and when she was at the superbowl some other, very brave self defined woman who I admire for all the same reasons I admire Madonna wrote how disappointing it was that she was not embracing her age and seemed to be trying to reach backwards or fight aging in her superbowl performances.
And I wrote back to that woman through the lightness of tweeting that
it's hard 4 someone like me 2 figure out how 2 age in a way that's true 2 self. It must be x1000 for Madonna
And that performer agreed enough to retweet - amplifying my struggle and empathy to ALL of her followers who are quite dedicated. And I found myself worrying a tiny bit if there was a cost to defending something as nebulous as that fact that maybe it's just Madonna's turn to look around for who she is and how to be and find out nothing that fits. She can be sexual, and maternal, and flawed, and perfect and performing because ALL of our age and gender presentations are a performance.
And everyone is watching but the roles are narrowed. How do we explore the space? When do we admit that the construct of a public persona is just as authentic as the personal persona?
The difference is in the size of the audience, but here in the age of the internet all of our performance is the size of internationally sold out stadiums. We are all at the risk of suddenly being judged by the same number of people that will judge Madonna, just for a shorter period of time.
But that's a big thing to risk. We might trip up.
Other things are bubbling up right now about being a female and being in the now. This is it for this one though
"Do you know what it feels like for a girl"
Do we even admit what if feels like when we are still considered "girls" when we're looking to define ourselves post childrearing. Madonna was 40. Girl is much more complicated for me than bitch. I want to both claim and supersede it so that I can be seen as a whole person in the communities I operate in. But if I don't claim "girl" all of my tribe become slightly less visible ( even if I occasionally disagree with large percentages of that tribe).
You know what my male friends don't do? They don't refer to themselves as "boys".
I"m not sure I have an answer, I'm sure that this isn't my last exploration of this theme.
I am sure I want to dance.