As a general rule, I don’t get up early. I have created a schedule that allows me to sleep in 6 out of 7 days a week, and I often teach the importance of getting as much sleep as possible. And yet on this lazy, rainy Sunday morning I find myself woken up at 7:40am (!!!!) by words forming in my mind that should have been written decades ago, but were not. I suppose that’s because they had to come from me, and, apparently, that is what this morning had in store for me.
Over the last 5 months we have lost too many musical icons to count, influencers who affected the collective consciousness for decades, men who with no apparent hesitation let their freak-flag fly and expressed their artistry for the world to be affected by. David Bowie and Prince, to name two of those icons, didn’t just write songs and get on stages to perform them. They shocked us. They titillated us. They had us buzzing about whatever offering they had most recently thrown into the ring long after the fact, and in many cases, they did it by including blatant sexuality with that offering. Androgyny, outrageously revealing costumes, fluidly sexual dance moves, lyrics that would make the devil pray. These men changed the world for us by pushing our boundaries of what we believed was acceptable and normal, understanding that rules aren’t necessarily meant to be broken, but rather meant to be malleable. The rules have changed because of these Gods, these heroes. And yet with the tsunami of respect, love, appreciation and tributes that have roared across all media platforms since their deaths, there is a conspicuous lack of chatter about how all that same behaviour, all the antics for shock value and artistry packaged as provocativeness, does not get celebrated in the presence of one of our last living pop culture and musical icons. In fact, instead of looking at the examples of how the deaths of Prince and Bowie have affected us, we remain a culture that doesn’t just attack the behaviours of the person I’m alluding to, we attack the person.
I first saw a photo of Madonna in December of 1983 while in Florida. She was wearing a pair of boxer shorts, a t-shirt, a sailor’s cap and three inches of makeup. And she was doing the splits. I didn’t know who she was, I didn’t know what she had done to get into the pages of the magazine, and I didn’t care. I was hooked. And I have been ever since.
In those early days of the 80’s Madonna was brash, unapologetically sexual, dressed up as if a cyclone had inadvertently lashed fabrics to her body in the eye of the storm. And she was quickly dismissed by critics who would sit in the privacy of their writing spaces and throw judgement at a young woman who was bold enough to get up in front of everyone and demand our attention. They called her “Minnie Mouse on helium”, vapid, devoid of any talent. They were wrong.
By the 90’s Madonna was being called “a brilliant businesswoman” (a term that many were reluctant to fess up to until Forbes magazine made her their cover girl flanked by the words “America’s Smartest Business Woman?”) while also being labelled as blasphemous, even being excommunicated by the Catholic Church. She began the conversations about gay rights, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the hypocrisy of the Church on a global scale. Her pairing of religious imagery with overt sexuality was not new, but the way she brought it to us was. She revolutionized concert tours with her Blond Ambition tour in 1990, ushering in a new amalgamation of pop music, theatrical presentation, Broadway-style choreography and seething social commentary that was guaranteed to leave everyone in attendance slack-jawed and re-evaluating their beliefs about life, sex, religion, politics and gender roles.
In the first decade of the 2000’s Madonna was riding the wave of her late 90’s Grammy sweep. The haters seemed to be at bay (with the exception of the reception of her American Life album and video that challenged George W. Bush’s motives for the Iraq war). She was a kinder, gentler Madonna. Did it have to do with her being married and raising kids, finally appearing to acquiesce to the expectations of a global culture that had always wanted her to conform to the commonly agreed upon roles that a woman should play? Was it because her philanthropic efforts to Raise Malawi (http://www.raisingmalawi.org) were making headlines? I think so. We tend to celebrate what makes us feel good and set fire to that which does not. We were comfortable seeing Madonna write children’s books and accompany her husband to film festivals. She was no longer threatening (insert collective *sigh*). She was inducted into Hall of Fames across the world and her world tours were breaking attendance and revenue records.
Enter the second decade of the 2000’s. Madonna was divorced. She had adopted two children from Malawi and had been lambasted in the media that questioned whether or not she was given preferential treatment throughout the process. She had been criticized for her ongoing Kabbalistic studies, scoffed at (even by some Jews I know) for adopting a spiritual practice that helped her move from self-absorption to empathy and compassion. As she entered her 30th year of artistry and superstardom, the haters pulled out a new card from their deck of weapons. Madonna was now old. Photos of her hands started being reported on. If a wrinkle appeared on the face known the world over, she was torn apart. If her face looked wrinkle-free, she was torn apart. Are you getting an idea of what WE have done to her? Her lyrics got angrier. Her MDNA world tour gave her the platform to express her post-marriage hurt and her objection to the rising wave of intolerance that had been sweeping Europe. She raised her voice to oppose the brutality of the anti-gay policies in Russia, the blatant xenophobia of Marin Lepen’s Front National in France and continued, after thirty years, to champion for freedom. Her Rebel Heart tour that ended recently showed her more vocal than ever, seeing her challenge her “fans” to not come to her concerts if they took issue with what she did and said.
Madonna is still with us. She has endured scrutiny previously reserved for witch trials and public executions. She has done what Bowie and Prince have done, and she continues to do it in her late fifties. And yet instead of being hailed as a visionary, she’s a good businesswoman, lucky, shrewd, a bitch, old, tired and laughable. Over three decades later, nothing has changed except that now everyone is a critic writing from the privacy of their writing spaces, and the judgements are now inexcusably scathing, personal attacks.
Why is it that when a woman acts provocatively, she gets burned at the stake, but when a man does it he is hailed as a genius? It’s time we took a long, hard look at ourselves and started redirecting the judgement we throw around so thoughtlessly so that we can become more responsible and accountable for how we affect our world and the people we are blessed to still have with us paving the way for freedom and basic human rights. Who, in today’s culture, is brave enough to stand up against injustice and hold a mirror up to our faces to reveal the hypocrisy we constantly leave in our wake? Who is resilient enough to withstand the arrows of hate and resentment that today’s critics unleash in 140 characters or less? Who will lead us towards a more tolerant, accepting, live-and-let-live society? Think about it. People like Madonna are few and far between, and as we have seen this year, a dying breed.
Trust that when Madonna’s physical presence is gone, we will not be complaining. We will be deifying what we had been demonizing. We have a habit of not knowing what we’ve got until it’s gone, of not recognizing our heroes until they are gone. So now it’s time to recognize and celebrate the commitment to collective, societal growth that Madonna has been driven by for over thirty years. In 1991’s rockumentary Truth or Dare she said, “I know I’m not the best singer and I know I’m not the best dancer, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative and in being political.” She knows exactly what she’s doing. She has all along.
Pay respect while she’s around to receive it. Don’t wait until she’s gone to realize how much she has done for and affected you.
Long live the Queen.