I MADE IT THROUGH THE WILDERNESS

ny17 (21)As stereotypically gay music experiences go, you can’t go much gayer than attending the opening night of a Madonna tour. I say this fondly, and as a forty-something gay man who has seen lots of ostensibly very gay things, including but not limited to Kylie Minogue’s Fever tour, a semi-private Celine Dion concert in New York City, and multiple Erasure tours. Within the pantheon of music culture that gay men hold dear, Madonna has been serving as a defacto ambassador for nearly 30 years since. Admittedly, talking about gay diva worship in pop culture is to trade in both old stereotypes and terrible clichés, but standing outside Montreal’s Bell Centre Arena on the opening night of Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour, it’s hard not to ponder the connection, standing amid sea of excited gay men—most of them sporting Madonna shirts from previous tours, with a few of them dressed as Madge herself. A DJ outside the venue was spinning Madonna remixes and a pack of horned dancers provided “Living for Love” photo ops in front of a Rebel Heart backdrop. There were of course women, and perhaps a younger audience than expected, but Madonna’s audience of gay men is holding steady.

Since interviewing Madonna for Pitchfork earlier this year, I have often been thrust into the strange position of being a Madonna apologist in the course of conversations about her. Why does she insist on competing with teenage pop stars? (Why not?) Why does she work with the trendiest young producers? (She always has.) Why is she still showing her ass in public? (Again, why the fuck not?) It’s a curious role for someone who doesn’t even own all of her later records. As a goth teen in the late ’80s, my bedroom altar was dedicated to Siouxsie Sioux, who articulated my particular strain of teenage ennui.

Still, I loved Madonna for what she represented. That she spoke about AIDS and advocated for gay people at a time when few else did was inspiring to me. When she showed up on “David Letterman” with Sandra Bernhard, the way she seemed born of a mythical downtown NYC I’d only ever read about was life-giving. Yet, after the interview ran, I was kind of amazed at how much grief I encountered on her behalf, most of which can be summed up with some version of How Dare She STILL Be Doing This. She’s always been a polarizing figure in pop culture, but as she gets older she becomes polarizing in new ways; her steadfastness and tenacity as a controversial pop icon are taken as an affront.

After all the noise surrounding the leak and subsequent release of Rebel Heart, the cape-yanking tumble at the Brits, her often questionable Instagram activity, her insistence on remaining both sexual and youthful at the age of 57 (despite the fact that media outlets talk about her as if she was 97), being in a room full of liquored up Madonna fans at the opening night of her tour is to experience her influence made manifest. Also, her longtime fans don’t give a fuck about any of that stuff. In the hearts and minds of those whose lives she has religiously soundtracked for the past 30 years, Madonna is pretty much beyond reproach.
It helps that the Rebel Heart tour, as it turns out, is the most retrospective thing Madonna has done in a decade, mostly dispensing with the thematic narratives of previous shows in favor of something altogether lighter. The show is still an outrageously choreographed spectacle—in which dancers clad as nuns poledance, and Madonna herself first appears in a gilded cage that is lowered from the ceiling—but unlike previous tours, in which she danced, sang, and yoga-posed always like a woman with something to prove.
Comparatively, the Rebel Heart tour actually seems like, well, fun. She smiles. She jokes about her own image. She belts out “La Vie En Rose” while playing a ukulele. She does faithful renditions of “True Blue” and “La Isla Bonita” that resulted in nearly deafening arena-sized sing-alongs. The show itself, while still offering plenty of cuts from the new record, also showed Madonna giving a very sweet nod to her own history, something she’s seemed wary of in the past, as if looking backwards too much somehow nullifies the potential of her future.

Madonna isn’t always easy to love, even if you happen to really love her. But why should she be? She may not always give people what they want, but she reliably gives people what she wants, which is just as admirable. Her legacy at this point is untouchable—though her position in popular culture circa right now is a weirdly untenable one. Were she to abandon making new music and simply play the hits, she’d get called out for finally having become a nostalgia act. When she makes new music now—having already recorded a gazillion iconic singles—she gets shit for it, regardless of said music’s quality. Part of what infuriates people about Madonna is that, despite all of this, she remains unbowed. And this, of course, is why gay men love her.

Gay fandom is a complicated phenomenon and one, quite honestly, that I don’t always understand. But what Madonna means, particular for gay folks of a certain age, is something that is not to be taken lightly. These days it’s de rigueur for pop stars to support, embrace, and court a gay fanbase, but back in the ’80s that was hardly the case. At a time when an entire generation was being lost to AIDS, Madonna was one of our biggest advocates. (She’s actually the first person I remember ever seeing utter the word “condom” on television, via her MTV safe sex PSAs) At a time when representations of gay people in mainstream media were few and far between, seeing Truth or Dare—a film that matter-of-factly depicts gay friendships in a way my teenage self had never before seen—was an unexpected lifeline. For a lot of gay kids who felt adrift in our secluded, pre-Internet teenage bedrooms, seeing Madonna cavorting with her gay dancers and actually celebrating their queerness felt like evidence that there was indeed a different kind of life out there for us—a club that might actually want us as a member.
I couldn’t stop thinking about all of these things while watching Madonna do a writhing version of “Like a Virgin” some 20 feet in front of me, a bizarro “I made it through the wilderness” moment that apparently a lot of the people in the room were also having. Aging along with your heroes is often weird. Some people—David Bowie, Patti Smith, for example—make it seem easy, cool even, while others (George Michael, I’m looking at you) make it really uncomfortable. For me, Madonna exists somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Given that her whole career has been defined by pushing back against the status quo, it makes sense that she would continue to do so now. If she bristles at the mention of retirement (as she did when I talked to her), it’s totally understandable. People have been asking her about “aging gracefully” since she entered her thirties. Her career begs the question, at what point is anyone expected to give up doing what they love? And at what point is it considered necessary to give up on your idols and surrender to the tyranny of coolness?

As I get older, I increasingly hope the answer to those questions is never. Singing “Who’s That Girl” along with several thousand other gay men at the Montreal show proved to be surprisingly emotional for me, a rare instance of feeling part of some shared, mainstream gay experience.
Watching Madonna medley her way back through the past three decades, I kept thinking about the guy in the lobby I’d seen earlier wearing a Keith Haring t-shirt and how Madonna herself had gotten choked up talking about Keith, as well as the countless other people who supported her career early on and were lost to AIDS. At some point during the show—maybe around the time she pulled out Erotica’s “Deeper and Deeper”—I scarcely noticed when my own cynicism about the whole thing evaporated while I danced. As a person who works in a culture that gleefully encourages snark and bitchiness and in which expressing admiration in a non-ironic way is often seen as a sign of weakness, it’s nice to be reminded how refreshing it is to simply love something because it makes you feel alive.

As Madonna neared the end of the show, it was nice to see that she too seemed genuinely moved by the feeling in the room. She gave up her tightly rehearsed performer posturing for a few minutes and simply became human, smiling and pausing to address the crowd. “Thank you so much for sticking with me all these years,” she said. As me and my boyfriend started to drunkenly applaud, we were drowned out by the queen behind me who seemed to sum up everyone’s feelings by screaming out, “That’s right, bitch! Somehow we’re all still here. Aren’t we lucky?”

Source : PitchFork

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