In a new essay collection, women explore why they're drawn to the Queen of Pop.
Back in the early '90s, when New York advertising agencies really did resemble Mad Men with their four-martini lunches, an ashtray on every desk, and bosses enjoying regular dips in the secretarial pool (oh, the stories I could tell), I hired a Madonna impersonator to entertain some high-level clients at the company Christmas party. I was fresh out of college, an administrative assistant to the head of accounts services, and unfamiliar with the ways of the big city. So when "Madonna" showed up in a little yellow trench coat and matching fedora, I figured we'd all be treated to a little Breathless Mahoney, the character she played in the recently released Dick Tracy. When she took off the coat and plopped, stark naked, into the lap of major cosmetic company's VP of Marketing (save for a set of tasseled pasties which she twirled in his face), we were treated to a different kind of show entirely. Needless to say, my boss, one of the few female executives at the agency, did not fork over a holiday bonus.
This isn't to say that my Madonna story is particularly worthy of inclusion in Madonna & Me, a collection of essays where women ponder their feelings about the pop icon. It's just to say that I have one. We all do. Especially women of a certain age, especially those of us reared on the early days of MTV. Why else would a nice Jewish girl like me toss on multiple crucifixes like Mardi Gras beads? To discover Madonna in the scary and thrilling and confusing cusp years, as most of these writers did, automatically cements her influence on a generation of girls and the women they aspired to become. Madonna was our fearless icon, a receptacle into which we could toss our insecurities, fraught relationships, unexplained urges. Because she expressed herself (pardon the pun) she made it okay for us to express ourselves, too—raising our fists to parents, to boys, to each other, with armfuls of rubber bracelets.
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Madonna is within and among us—just consider the name of her latest studio album, MDNA, which is out next week and coincides nicely with the release of this anthology. Editor Laura Barcella has wisely tapped into this estro-festive collectivity, and it's pretty fun and amazing to see how both she and Madonna have succeeded in uniting a bunch of very different women—from the brainy and always wonderful Emily Nussbaum, who writes about Madonna's return to New York and the feelings of disappointment this move signifies, to the heartbreaking story of Bee Lavender, who, just into her teenaged years, copes with multiple forms of body-mutilating cancer by taking cover in Madonna and the message she presents in Desperately Seeking Susan: "Don't try to conform. Wear the costume, be a freak, because if someone is looking at your dress they are not looking at whatever you have hidden underneath." More upbeat essays include Maria Gagliano's conviction that the Holy Mother would appear in her bedroom and smite her watching ("crippled with fear," she writes) the video for "Like A Prayer" in her family's living room.
Organized thematically, each of the book's seven sections is titled after a relevant Madonna song. For example, "This Used To Be My Playground" covers coming-of-age stories, "Burning Up" is all about sex, and "Keep It Together" deals with family (mostly Catholic parents who forbade their daughters, like Gagliano's did, from watching Madonna gyrate around and blaspheme the church). Reading back-to-back essays, I, too, began to think of Madonna as defined by her songs. There's "Borderline Madonna," who seems to inspire most of the writers here for her cropped netting tops, do-rag headband, and bratty chutzpah. "Like A Virgin Madonna" gets cited most for embracing her sexuality as she stage-humps while performing at the MTV Video Awards Show. Latter-year "Ray of Light" Madonna mellows out, goes acoustic, and discovers (however temporarily) a power higher than herself. The only song not represented here is the still-unwritten "Dorian Gray," where Madonna's last nesting doll egg opens up to reveal the tiniest, most shriveled incarnation. Perhaps then we'd get closer to Madonna's truest and bravest form.
What emerges in reading these essays in toto is that Madonna is merely a persona, unknowable, impenetrable, and determined, as Nussbaum writes, "to shoot out new selves every six months." Conversely, what also emerges is that collectively, these relationships with Madonna aren't as unique as the storyteller would like to think. "I believed I understood her the way no one else did," writes Sarah Sweeney in her essay. There is a whole book to prove her wrong.