Photo by Richard Corman
You may have already heard this story on a VH1 Behind The Music back in the day: In the early 1980s, I had a cover band that played on a bill with the relatively unknown Madonna at a downtown New York club, and the experience wasn’t exactly thrilling for me. Even “pre-Madonna” (as it were), she seemed to be a driven, self-absorbed perfectionist without a whole lot of niceties up her sleeve, and I was too taken aback by all that to realize those qualities would serve her well on the road to world domination. We didn’t actually meet that night — I merely stood back and watched in shock and awe — but I’ve circled her ever since, as the girl I pegged to be a needy wannabe emerged as the most influential and entertaining woman in the culture for decades. She went on to be Madonna, while I went on to cover Madonna.
And as Madonna celebrated the underdog and reveled in the counterculture, I started to see a more humanistic side lurking in her glitzy career moves. The term “gay ally” gets tossed around too much, as if we’re supposed to turn somersaults of joy just because someone famous thinks we’re actually acceptable human beings who deserve equal rights. But from the early days, Madonna has gone way beyond all that rote stuff and has actually walked the walk. With her love of LGBT culture and insistence on button pushing acts of societal shakeup (as well as her backing of AIDS causes), she’s more like an honorary gay man. She’s one of us. In fact, in a 1994 OutWeek cover story, I declared that Madonna was more influential than any politician out there when it came to equality because her yay-gay gestures were truly changing our landscape in significant ways.
With a new album, Rebel Heart the lady is once again engaging in what she does best: making people talk. In the mid 1980s, she emerged as the queen of the three-minute video, a newish art form that told stories, sold styles, and seduced you into buying the music. The woman was not only emphatic about singing and dancing, but she knew about packaging, marketing, and keeping things fresh, as she veered from zany dance to plaintive ballads, always dressing in ways that surprised and enlightened.
In 1990, her smash song “Vogue” was a tribute to the voguing ball culture, which was populated with disenfranchised gays of color who found liberation in flamboyant movement and make believe. I felt the song was a celebration, shining a spotlight on the creativity bubbling in the underground while craftily grabbing some of its luster for mainstream appeal. Two years later, her eye-popping Sex book used a gay photographer, gay models, gay erotic themes, and the Gaiety burlesque palace, for chrissake. And around the same time, she was gal-pal-ing around with lesbian comic Sandra Bernhard and engaging in jokes and innuendo that had the whole world suddenly aware of the lesbian bar Cubbyhole, among other very niche entities. When Madonna was spotted making out with South Beach club personage Ingrid Casares, who’d been Bernhard’s girlfriend, it was clear that the one-named superstar wasn’t just kidding. And anyone who’s been to a Madonna concert knows how effective Madonna’s gays-should-be-center-stage message has been; she’s turned many an arena into a gigantic gay bar, and I’m always there to soak in the ambience and cruise for a husband.
Yes, there are some down sides. At one point, she mysteriously became British, lol. She also seemed slow on the uptake of certain superstar trends, and also became, all too predictably, a cougar with young stud boyfriends who shockingly didn’t quite work out as life partners. What’s more, there was the hideous moment in 2001 when she swore that Eminem’s homophobia was OK because “he’s stirring things up.” Most uncomfortably of all, she wants to be a movie star, having made a splash as a narcissistic kook in 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, which admittedly might not have been much of a stretch. Going on to torture the world with films like Shanghai Surprise and Who’s That Girl?, Madonna came off like Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, screeching her way through the talkies until desperate measures had to be taken. But I’ll admit that she did win a Golden Globe for 1996’s Evita (in which there wasn’t a lot of talking) and she was way more amusing than the critics said as a patronizing harridan in 2002’s Swept Away. Maybe the girl I thought was going nowhere will keep at it, prove people wrong once again, and win an Oscar some day. (Then again, maybe I’ll win the Pulitzer on the same day, lol.)
As she keeps going and seizing attention, Madonna’s most lasting contribution of all might be that she’s redefined what older women are allowed to get away with in this society, which generally acts embarrassed about aging females who still want to be in the game. Unfazed, she’s continued to make dance music and act sexy, not having gotten the memo that the status quo doesn’t approve of that. I’ve occasionally criticized her for all this, before realizing that I’m running around dressed like a club kid half the time! Madonna is changing the rules and admirably helping make 50 the new 30. Her message these days is that mature women can be alluring and powerful, but that they also have to manipulate things to be accepted as such. She knows the reality — that music by a 56-year-old gal doesn’t necessarily get played — which is why she brings on the hot guest stars, using artists like Nicki Minaj to sprinkle in some extra relevance. I think Madonna should relax, drop these attempts to stay cutting edge, and instead do something like a concept album of old standards, but then again, her decisions have almost always been spot on, so I’ll defer to her know-how one more time. Even after falling onstage during the Brit awards recently, she got up again and witnessed a sales bump!
If she wants a really young guest star, her daughter Lourdes is a strong singer, as evidenced by a video from her school musical that leaked last year. Madonna’s capitalized on Lourdes’s youth appeal before, so can a Barbra-and-Jason-style duet be far behind?
Whatever she does, Madonna will keep raising eyebrows and making everyone blush but herself. Her talented gay brother Christopher Ciccone wrote a 2008 book describing her as a condescending brat, but I long ago caught wise to the fact that that’s exactly what’s propelled her (along with other factors, like ability and savviness). And just as she’s elevated the gay community, she did the same with Christopher, whose work she showcased for years.
Meanwhile, the rise of Lady Gaga has given Madonna some fire under her ass, a motivation to work harder to reclaim her pop diva throne. Far from a tired knockoff, Gaga is a constantly evolving Madonna-style icon, but in a very now mode. While Madonna’s activism was done largely by suggestion (which was the way to make waves at that time), Gaga is able to be way more vocal, loudly campaigning for rights and turning her concerts into pep rallies for young gays coming out. But believe it or not, it’s possible to appreciate both stars’ achievements. They’ve provided a continuum that’s entertained and influenced as many gays in the modern age as Judy and Liza did before them. Interestingly, Gaga has already made the transition that many suggested for Madonna—calmly singing standards—while Madge keeps huffing and high-kicking her way through elaborate production numbers, but both are fun to watch as they pursue their respective muses.
As for me and Madonna? Well, I’ve been inches away from her a few other times through the years (like at a dinner party, where she was urging Pedro Almodóvar to put her in a movie), but I studiously didn’t approach her to finally make our meeting a reality. It’s more fun to stand off to the side, taking copious notes.
Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in 'The Audience' | Photo by Joan Marcus
THE QUEENS ARE TAKING OVER
Really British, Helen Mirren is playing Queen Elizabeth on Broadway in Peter Morgan’s The Audience. (Morgan wrote The Queen, for which Mirren won an Oscar for playing the same role). Mirren goes through a stunning succession of quick hair and costume changes as Elizabeth has weekly meetings with various Prime Ministers through the decades in a chandeliered room at Buckingham Palace (plus one tete-a-tete at her Scottish country home). The idea is for the PM of the moment to bring Lizzie up to snuff on political goings on, though here, the meetings also become excuses for kibitzing, revelations, outbursts, remembrances, and jokes.
It’s sort of like a string of Frost/Nixons (Morgan also wrote that one, by the way) and a bit of a Cliff’s Notes version of history, awkwardly fleshed out with flashbacks and scenes where Mirren is talking to her younger self about her ideas on monarchy and government. But Mirren, as expected, gives a helluva show. As a woman who’s bound to tradition, but likes to add human touches, she exhibits her toughness early on when telling Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews) that she’s doing him a favor by letting him plan her coronation because this will delay his inevitable ousting. She’s also firm but humane as she pleads with two different PMs (Tony Blair included) against going to war, also battling Margaret Thatcher (an emphatic Judith Ivey) about striking workers and South African sanctions.
Mirren plays Elizabeth as a woman filled with responsibility, decency, and humor, albeit operating under severe limitations and only occasional delusions. She’s sublime, and by Act Two, the play has deepened and proven to be a more royal experience that’s suitable viewing for all kinds of queens.