There are several women I can credit with shaping my values and beliefs throughout my life. My mother, who stayed at home to raise me, was obviously the most influential. Just a few years ago, I discovered writer Dorothy Parker and immediately identified with her sharp wit and fragile interior. But in between the first woman I ever loved and the most recent object of my admiration, there was a pop culture icon that fascinated me and whom I desperately wanted to emulate; that woman was Madonna. Madonna was more than just the soundtrack to my adolescence – she was an epiphany. I’m better off for having grown up with her, and these days, when I see young women like Miley Cyrus twerking it up on Mtv, I feel the loss of Madonna more profoundly than ever.
No, Madonna is not dead – don’t start googling in a panic! But let’s be honest – she’s no longer a fixture in pop culture. Now we have, among others, Miley – a former Disney princess doing her damnedest to shed that image, albeit by trading it in for something that looks like it’s straight out of the casting reject pile for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“. I think back to how controversial Madonna was when I was growing up, but considering that she has never gone to rehab or jail, and all the “crotch shots” you’ve ever seen of her were pretty much taken with her consent, she seems downright tame by today’s standards. I’ll go on the record right now in saying that I think every woman – young and old – needs a little bit of this in themselves:
And that’s just for starters.
When Madonna appeared atop a wedding cake to do her lusty “Like a Virgin” performance on Mtv, she was 26 years old. This is important. She wasn’t a teenager and she was not on a teen award show. (See: Miley Cyrus pole dancing at age sixteen on the 2009 Teen Choice Awards.) Madonna was a grown woman using her talent and sexuality, on her own terms, to get people’s attention. And boy, did she.
Madonna was provocative when she wanted your attention, but your attention wasn’t the end game. Once she had your attention – once you were watching and listening – she had something to tell you. She wasn’t afraid of controversy and more often than not, it had little to do with skimpy costumes and scandalous dance moves. Madonna didn’t just want you to buy her records; she wanted you to think – about religion, sexual freedom, equality, freedom to choose, and on and on. All Miley has ever done for me is prompt me to google “twerking”. (That’s right, I didn’t know what it was. We just called it “ass shaking” in my day.)
How many pop singers could have a number one hit singing about unplanned pregnancy? Not surprisingly, “Papa Don’t Preach” stirred up controversy when it came out in 1986. Pope John Paul II even urged fans to boycott her on tour. This is a woman who has never been afraid to make people talk about uncomfortable issues, and is willing to endure the backlash. Madonna never wavered in her defense of the song and what it meant to her. As told to Rolling Stone in 2009: “There were so many opinions. That’s why I thought it was so great… It just fit right in with my own personal zeitgeist of standing up to male authorities, whether it’s the pope or the Catholic Church or my father and his conservative, patriarchal ways.”
Madonna was teaching me to ask questions and to have opinions. I might have cowered in the corner during my fifth grade sex education class – the one where the boys go in one room and the girls go in the other so we can all talk about our changing bodies – but I had no problem popping in my Madonna cassette and singing “Papa Don’t Preach” at the top of my lungs. And because I had a mother who was open-minded and always let me know she was there to talk with me about everything, we were able to start a dialogue about things that were important.
“Express Yourself” was released in 1989 and when I watch Madonna perform it at the 1989 Mtv Video Music Awards, I still get goosebumps. At age fourteen, when I was entering high school and just beginning to explore my own sexuality, I can’t imagine receiving a better message than:
“You deserve the best in life
So, if the time isn’t right then move on
Second best is never enough
You’ll do much better baby on your own”
And because it’s always worth watching again:
She’s really singing! She has her ladies with her. She is in control. She is 31 years old. Madonna singing that song, in that moment…everything about it makes me proud to be a woman.
I don’t know how much of it was due to having a strong mother, the constant influence of pop music from a woman like Madonna who drilled independence and self-worth into my head, or if I was just born stubborn, but I was never the type of girl to give it up to the first guy who came along. I didn’t lose myself in a man. I valued everything I had to offer and that made me a force to be reckoned with, relationship-wise. I’m not saying that was an easy way to be, but I’m grateful I was raised to be that type of young woman.
As I matured, so did Madonna. In the 1990’s, she was in her thirties and still pushing people’s buttons. There was her infamous “Sex” book, which was deliciously scandalous and attention-grabbing. She released her “Erotica” album, among others. There were movies like the documentary “Truth or Dare” which offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse at her Blonde Ambition tour. I think what impressed me the most about Madonna at that point in time was not the overly sexual nature of her pursuits. (I probably wouldn’t fully grasp that until I was in my thirties, myself. Now, I totally get it.) No, what I realized was what a shrewd business woman she was. Madonna didn’t limit herself to music; she pursued all of her interests and didn’t balk when someone told her she wasn’t good at something. She controlled her own destiny and didn’t give up. If she had quit acting after her performance in “Shanghai Surprise” was universally panned, she never would have won a Golden Globe for her performance in “Evita”.
Madonna went on to eventually have three children: two biological and one adopted. She’s been married and divorced. She still makes music and still tours. She stirs up controversy here and there, although now it’s mostly in more conservative countries that aren’t used to women who writhe on the floor in white wedding dresses and sing, “Like a Virgin”. We have teenage pole dancers on Nickelodeon now; Madonna can’t do much to shock us. And although it pains me to acknowledge this, she turned 55 years old this month.
So, what now? Somehow, in the last couple of decades, the message of empowerment and individuality for which Madonna became known has been removed from the current pop equation, and today we are left with entertainers who are just shaking their asses for the sake of shaking their asses. Is that it?
I’m saddened to know that if I ever have a daughter, she won’t have Madonna in her ear. Sure, I can show her old videos and try to explain why this woman was revolutionary, but it won’t be the same. None of it will be happening in real time and I doubt it will have the same impact. You can’t recreate those moments that have long ago passed.
Of course I’d like to think that I will have some influence over my future children, but I’m a realist. I’d like a flashy pop star on my side to help drive the message home. Who is going to remind my daughter not to “settle for second best”? Right now, I’m still holding out hope for Lady Gaga, but we’ll see. Gaga is only 27 years old, about the same age Madonna was when she debuted. I’ll be interested to see where she goes with this. When Gaga’s song “Born This Way” came out and critics were complaining that it sounded awfully derivative of Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” I thought, thank goodness. Finally, somebody has the right idea:
A little odd, but odd is good. It sure beats the hell out of twerking.