I’ve Finally Found Pop Music and Now I Live In ‘Madonnaland’
I’ve been listening to a lot of Madonna lately. When I tell friends and coworkers this, they act surprised because they know my Titus Andronicus tee-shirt and my affinity for discovering the faces of Bob Dylan after reading a thousand page biography of him. For someone who publicly sings along to Lou Reed and Joni Mitchell, Madonna seems like a left-field choice. But I have something to say: there is something inside of me that is trying to get out. And it’s a love for pop music.
I’ll tell you that I’ve never been a big fan of pop music, especially not publicly. When I was in junior high the big musical acts my peers loved were Britney Spears and N*Sync, the Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera. I did own a few Spice Girls CDs, but they were all sold in garage sales a year or two after their popularity in my bedroom fizzled out. I spent all of my time listening to classic rock radio and the oldies station, studying the artists, their hits, and misses. I knew every word to the songs in heavy rotation on those stations and it was OK because they’re oldies, I told myself, not pop music.
Listening to pop music, and what I had defined as “pop music” always made me feel like a joke, like no one would take me seriously. Perhaps it’s the glitzy, sing-a-long feeling pop gave me? Maybe it’s the tired fact that everyone already liked them, so why should I? Pop music ‘isn’t for me’ I told myself. It’s for a ‘different kind of music fan,’ a fan I certainly couldn’t let myself be. I like ‘serious music,’ I told myself—the kind that makes you think, that pushes back onto society showing truths and realities people do not want to confront. And pop music, I knew, couldn’t do this. I don’t know where it came from but before I even got to college I had grown the scaly, thick skin of a music critic—speaking in ultimatums. Unable to shake this judgment that hard wired my brain, every piece of music became a point of debate: could I like it? Why? Who else liked it? Is it OK for me to like this music?
I went to college to be on the radio and spent the entirety of my college experience doing just that—talking about music, acting as music director, coordinating the talent, what was and wasn’t OK to say on-air. I spent that time debating music, listening to music, and deciding for other people what they would listen to. Then I was hired to be a Music Programming Coordinator at Sirius XM Satellite Radio. I worked there for three years and while the corporate structure and demanding work led me to a dark place of depression, it opened me up as a listener and a fan of music. I was assigned to work on channels I would never myself listen to—spa music, new age jazz, new age rock, and country music new and old. While I was working there I started to see every genre and artist as something to be discovered. These weren’t the artists that I want to hear in my headphones but it was my job to make it sound superb.
Working in national programming taught me that every band is someone’s favorite. I met people from across the spectrum of listeners and fans, working as programmers, who all had their favorite artists plastered to their cube space. But what their work focused on wasn’t what they listened to: they would play Ted Leo while arranging Skrillex, or had Pavement on in the background while coordinating the 40s jazz channel. My cube-mate listened to Eminem’s radio channel all day (Sway In The Morning and The All Out Show were his favorites) while he lined up voice tracks surrounding Fleetwood Mac and CCR. And for myself, I spent the majority of my time organizing the music library for Hair Nation and Octane, where I learned the ins and outs of discographies from KISS to Van Halen, from Black Label Society to Pantera. I produced The Grand Ole Opry every other weekend and became familiar with Little Jimmy Dickens, with Ray Olsen, and other giants from country of decades past.
Once I started learning about all genres, I never stopped. I’d say about fifty percent of all of my free time is spent learning about music. Before I worked as a coordinator, I was busy learning the back-catalog of music I loved and played on college radio. But once I found myself producing Taylor Swift’s Town Hall interview special, I was learning that if she didn’t write songs she’d want to be an interior decorator. I volunteered to work the phones on Backspin when MCA of the Beastie Boys passed away and listened as veteran deejays and artists called in to talk about the importance of “Sure Shot” and the stance it took on feminism. The more time I spent behind the scenes working in music programming, learning about music from all walks of life, the thick skin I had grown as a self-proclaimed critic started to shed.
I realized people would listen to and love whatever music they please and that I couldn’t do anything to stop it. So I made a conscious decision to strap in and start learning about the world around me.
It goes without saying that about ninety percent of my free time is spent listening to music. But I never feel satisfied just listening. I will watch any heavy metal documentary you put in front of me, I will find a new biography to read and then another oral history of a genre I haven’t explored yet. I’ve spent all of my time in bookstores, used and new, scouring the shelves for out-of-print music criticism and journalism focusing on a small corner of music. I took a closer look at The Rolling Stones and then New Order popped up on a friend’s playlist. I’ll find a new piece of writing on Thriller and then go off and get distracted by MTV specials featuring Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. I started getting sucked into the fashion, the politics, the drugs, the misogyny, and world music lived in, like a kind of nostalgia sponge.
Enter Madonnaland: And Other Detours Into Fame And Fandom. When I found a tiny, university press (Texas!) book about Madonna, written by a woman (Alina Simone!), I knew I had to go there.
As a listener, I never went looking for Madonna. She found me the same way she found you: she’s Madonna. For me it was “Lucky Star” on the ‘Snatch’ soundtrack. It was seeing the “Material Girl” video on VH1’s (bring it back!) ‘I Love The 80s.’ I used to tape music videos off of VH1 and MTV onto a VHS and re-watch them. “Ray of Light” was one of those videos.
As a reader, I felt like a completely new Madonna fan. And since Madonna is basically the queen of pop, she’s been around since before I was put on this earth, I realized I had a lot to learn from her and her music.
‘Madonnaland’ discusses how her hometown of Bay City, Michigan doesn’t parade the fact that she’s from Bay City, Michigan (it has to do with a long, misunderstood comment Madonna made about how smelly it is there). Madonna tells people she’s from Detroit (which is 115 miles from Bay City). It discusses how the death of her mother (also named Madonna, who died of breast cancer when Madonna (“junior”) was five years old) became a narrative in Madonna’s life and career. It was an explanation, it was something she never recovered from, it was a symbol of love and loss—and lack thereof—that Madonna could define herself by. [The rest of ‘Madonnaland’ (the last two chapters of six total) unfortunately barely talks about Madonna. It goes on to discuss other music aspects of Bay City from the weird number-one-hit-wonder of Question Mark & The Mysterians and the great-unknown punk band Flying Wedge. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the backstories and being introduced to Flying Wedge, but I needed more Madonna from ‘Madonnaland’. Read my full review of it here on my Goodreads.]
So, as it goes, I’ve been listening to a lot of Madonna lately. And thanks to the world we live in, one of free information and net neutrality (while we still have it!) I’ve been taking it upon myself to explore the catalog of Madonna, on and off her records, and what people have to say about her.
Madonna is the best-selling female artist of all time. You won’t live a normal life without having heard her music in one capacity or another. “Dress You Up” “Material Girl” “Like A Virgin,” “Like A Prayer,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Lucky Star,” “Holiday,” “Who’s That Girl,” “Borderline” –all of these songs are just some of her singles from the 1980s. When Madonna released “Hung Up” in 2005, it was her 36th top ten single on the Billboard Hot 100, making her the only artist to tie Elvis (Elvis!!) with that record.
But even before that, what ‘Madonnaland’ taught me is that Madonna is a dancer. Period. She’s a dancer and always has been. Looking back at her videos from decades she has been introducing dance, and culture through dance, from all over the world. Take a minute and watch this video from VH1’s Driven about Madonna’s record as a ballet dancer at University of Michigan. (Embedding has been disabled by request, so you must link to it. Ugh.)
When she met Christopher Flynn and he saw her potential as a dancer, he encouraged her to pass on the partial University of Michigan scholarship to go to New York City and become a dancer. He was also the first gay man Madonna met and opened the door into the gay world and gay rights activism for Madonna.
Madonna has long spoken out for equality for all. She supported gay marriage long before DOMA was passed, she spoke out against bullying before Gaga, and used her fame to raise awareness to AIDS, as far back as 1989 when the president was busy calling AIDS “the gay disease” and doing everything he could to stop funding for AIDS research and treatments. In this video from the AIDS Dance-A-Thon in Los Angeles in 1989, Madonna is discussing equal rights for all (right next to Christopher Flynn who was living with AIDS at the time) using dance and music as a medium for love.
Madonna’s music videos have always been a spectacle, from the imagery of sexuality and womanhood to representing cultures from around the world. She has used her music as a vehicle for dance, showing that all people of the world are connected through music and dance. Love is her message: love yourself, love to dance, love is love.
In 1983 when “Borderline” was a staple music video on MTV, it portrayed Madonna’s boyfriend as Hispanic. The video uses power as symbolism, discussing class and race, what’s “right,” and feminism as power. It put Madonna on the map.
She has been true to herself long before Lady Gaga was “Born This Way,” she was expressing her sexuality long before Britney Spears wore a tan body suit and danced at the 2000 MTV VMAs. Madonna has been sticking her tongue out for more than three decades. Miley Cyrus has nothing on her (and I think Miley knows it). Madonna cut the cloth for the blonde/blond pop singer. She’s been making the art she wants to make, stomping on misogyny even as it is still thrown at her today.
Madonna’s feminism hasn’t stopped and neither has the backlash against it. She spoke next to Gloria Steinem and Cecile Richards (among many others) at the Million Women’s March in January the day after Inauguration Day. Madonna was herself and dropped a few f-bombs, and yelled for action, welcoming everyone “to the revolution of love, to the rebellion, to our refusal as women to accept this new age of tyranny.” “Not just women are in danger,” she spoke, “but all marginalized people, where being uniquely different right now might truly be considered a crime. It took this horrific moment of darkness to wake us the fuck up.”
“The right to fight to be free, to be who we are, to be equal. Let’s march together in this darkness and with each step know that we are not afraid.”
This is just a portion of Madonna’s speech which you can watch all of here. So why did Cyndi Lauper, a former contemporary of Madonna’s, “denounce” what Madonna had to say? Lauper said that Madonna’s speech “didn’t serve our purpose.”
I guess it’s just another moment in time when one woman feels it’s OK to comment on another woman’s behavior.
Madonna has been up against this forever. Unfortunately, another one in recent memory is from 30 Rock where Liz Lemon (sorry, Tina) compares Madonna’s arms to Gollum’s, from LOTR. Tina Fey, feminist and all-around fucking awesome woman, uses Madonna as a joke about female standards of beauty. And it sucks. People have been saying that she’s “gross” because of her age. Would you say Mick Jagger needs to step down and stop being Mick? Jagger is 73 years old and his girlfriend just gave birth to his eighth child. She is 29. And he still tours the world with the Stones and no one calls him gross. Meanwhile people were outraged when Madonna, 58, kissed Drake, 30, at Coachella in 2015.
Double standards are a fucking bitch.
A woman curses and yells and it is still something frowned upon, something shamed. Madonna tells people who don’t believe in the Women’s March “Fuck You” and I couldn’t agree with her more. Women shaming other women are not what we need. We don’t need to decide what is oppressive for others, we do not need to decide what is OK and not OK for women to say or do. It has never been OK to do this and it sure as hell isn’t OK now.
When I listen to Madonna’s music I hear love and unity. She has been giving this speech for four decades. Fighting misogynistic bullshit, even when it comes from women, with four on the floor, using her fame to speak out against the evils of the world, unfortunately, past and present. In 2016 Billboard gave Madonna the Lifetime Achievement Award. Her full speech is remarkable.
So, when I listen to Madonna’s music (lately it’s been “Borderline” and “Hung Up” on repeat) I feel good. I feel inspired to dance. I want to be myself, I want to encourage other people to find her music and find themselves. And when I listen to Madonna’s music, I hear pop music and I feel at peace. I feel at peace with being a woman, I feel at peace hearing a woman to tell me to love myself, and I feel right with the world that Madonna has been in the back of culture’s mind all along saying the same thing: love is love, equality for all, don’t let people walk all over you, be who you want, love who you want. She is a goddamned national treasure and an international treasure.
Look at the feature interview she did as the cover story for January 2017 Harper’s Bazaar. Interviewed by Roxane Gay, who has been a fan of Madonna since her teen years when Like A Prayer was popular. Throughout the feature, Madonna catalogs the complaints she gets for dating younger men, for ex-husbands whining that she is making another record and doing another tour.
A part of the story Alina Simone tells in ‘Madonnaland’ is wading through all of the overwhelming literature about Madonna already in the world. Throughout writing this essay I have started over, outlined, edited sentence-by-sentence, and paused to watch videos of Madonna online to figure out what I am saying. And I think it’s this: realizing a true love for Madonna and her music has transformed me away from the critic I’ve labeled myself as in the not-too-distant past. And it turns out I have loved pop music all along. Pop music is contagious and liberating. It can make you forget the horrible hate in the world for a few short minutes and remind you that you are free to be who you are and act and love exactly how you want to. Madonna is living proof that no matter what you chose to do people will judge you, and to that she tells people to fuck off, to stop complaining, that she will stop making music and art when she’s dead.
This gives me power. And it gives an old version of myself an education and a new understanding: pop music has never just been for teenage girls, it has no reason to be sexualized, to be gendered, to be ageist, to be disregarded because it is for a population that is marginalized or negated simply because you don’t like it. Lady Gaga might’ve been center stage at the Super Bowl this year, but it was pop music who won. It was Madonna who paved the way for Gaga (who also got her start singing in dive bars in lower Manhattan) to become a ‘Fame Monster.’
Pop music is music for everyone. It’s why it’s “popular.” Shaming yourself for liking it, or anyone for liking it, will only bring you down. I say this with experience. Whether or not you’re willing to listen to yourself or to listen to pop music is up to you. It is when I realized this I stopped being a critic and became a fan and a fan of Madonna.
Thank you for everything, Madge.