Queering Madonna & stardom: As contradictory as Uncle Tom, except in reverse
Madonna was as contradictory as Uncle Tom, except in reverse. She claimed to challenge the institution and dominance of the church while worshiping at the mantle of capitalism and white supremacy in ways that only reinforced the nexus of gender, race and class oppression and mutual exploitation.
”Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free…”
…at night I lock the door so no one else can see. I’m tired of dancing here all by myself. In the fourth grade, Madonna and I had danced together, alone in our rooms. I remember hearing 1985’s Get into the Groove and would almost be ashamed to listen to it in front of others, particularly my around other Black folks, many of whom where disappointed that yet another Elvis had emerged. Yet, her looks and her lyrics bent at more of the classic traits of Black music, her beats pushing towards a resolution to any sadness, more than most other white rip-off artist: “At night I lock the doors so no one else can see/I’m tired of dancing here all by myself/Tonight I want to dance with someone else.” Snapping her fingers and ruling the dance floor of a steamy nightclub -- a fantasy she’d ultimately repeat in several videos- she pleads: “Live out your fantasies here with me,” where no one else can see.
I too had plenty such fantasies. This “nasty secret,” kept neatly behind locked doors, closed windows and fantasies in my mind, was threatening to emerge. Since this need to explore a side of sexuality not often widely accepted, men and women, in their respective roles, easily exploit it. Madonna’s music told me that we had both acted out, trading sex for affection -- for the freedom to give and receive affection. If I ran away, I’d never had the strength to go very far. Madonna, like millions of other young people including me had substituted anonymous sex for daddy’s love.
By the end of Deeper and Deeper, Madonna had given due respect, and thoughtful reflection to the formative words of our parents. Like any of us coming out, we had to reconcile the life lessons of our parents, especially those around love, given the black hole surrounding queer romantic love, despite what we knew to be true, no matter how hard and how many years we had spent resisting. Madonna knew this angst we all felt, like the two southern Baptist minister’s kids in my GLBT youth support group, both of whom were promptly kicked out of their homes upon coming out to their folks. All is fair in love she said, yet there was neither justice nor peace for us. They rejected their children in the name of Jesus. For them, “romance was dead.” Fortunately, the support group gave us to the space to speak openly about our feelings for the first time, to befriend others going through similar journeys, bond with queer elders, and resolve moral conflicts in our environments right there on the dance floor with lyrics like:
"Someone said that romance was dead/And I believed it instead of remembering/What my mama told me/Let my father mold me/Then you tried to hold me/You remind me what they said/This feeling inside/I can't explain/But my love is alive/ And I'm never gonna hide it again."
At the Girlie Show, which premiered on cable TV only months after I left home for college, (which turned out to be for good- another heartland fag yielding the call to Go West!) Madonna donned a big blond Afro and '70s Disco style sequined Hot Pants and a massive, feathery boa to perform the hedonistic, Studio 54-esque remix of Deeper and Deeper. In the background, the Black back-up singer from Madonna’s famed dynamic duo, Niki Harris and Donna DeLory, added some Soul riffs to the song while the black-and-tan sissies joined her on stage. The sissies stripped down to matching sequined Daisy Dukes- shorts so short they could sterilize a brother- and proceeded to rub the grand diva all over. The choreography descended into a staged orgy, which by then was a tired old hat for Madonna, who had even threatened to breach obscenity regulations and local sensibilities after she simulated masturbation before live audience to Like a Virgin in 1990’s Blond Ambition Tour.
Madonna was as contradictory as Uncle Tom, except in reverse. She claimed to challenge the institution and dominance of the church while worshipping at the mantle of capitalism and white supremacy in ways that only reinforced the nexus of gender, race and class oppression and mutual exploitation. If rich people are greedy and poor people are lazy, then we all deserve to be exactly where we are: Un-liberated. If sex-workers walk the streets, and women are in chains, it’s because they want to be, goes the blind belief in meritocracy. You can do what you want to do if you have the money to do it, no matter why you do it, seemed to be all we were starting to get from the really material girl who absorbed culture like a sponge regurgitating a commercial product for her sole benefit. It’s an S&M perversion of power through cultural appropriation; it’s all a blackface minstrel show. And I’ve been to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; it’s in Canada and he was a freeman. The actual Uncle Tom had come out from under any abolitionist novelist’s pen and liberated himself.
“As an aging woman,” cultural critic bell hooks explains in a late docu-film, “Madonna had to have a new gimmick to renew interest in her…to earn more.” See the evidence: A whore in fishnets in Holiday (1983); Spanish in ‘La Isla Bonita’ (1986); a heretic in ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ and ‘Like a Prayer’ (1989); Jewish in general, working class Transy in ‘Secret’ (1994); European in Ray of Light, Japanese in ‘Nothing Really Matters’ (1998); Indian in ‘Shanti/Ashtangi’ and at the MTV video award performance (1998/9); and promptly white-American (again) on the albums ‘Music’ (2000) and ‘American Life’ (2003). Besides, she’s always ‘been’ black. Girlfriend is so chock full of theatrics; she’s always just acting out. Chains, as a young Aretha suggested, inevitably break.
Queerness for Madonna, then, must be seen as one of many designer costumes in her chifferobe (chiffre-à-robe = to quantify dresses). This was the addiction to pussy and cash that one would not see challenged in her work until she Drowned, and supposedly had been reborn. “Listen,” this song starts. The whole album is fierce. So when she did own up to the messages she was sending herself, and us there was no turning back. People change. Change.
We do thank you Madge for still being our icon, despite only letting the black-and-tan sweep up from behind, forming a chorus of degenerates with you- Lily White- at the head, begging for our salvation. The popular diva eventually found some pride: “Happiness lies,” she sings prettily, “in your hands. It took me much too long to understand how it could be. Until you shared your secret with me.” In 1993, Aretha reiterated, as she had one on every album since before Madonna was born, something serious about this secret:
Now I've got love in my heart, it gives me the strength/To make it through the day/Pride and love (pride is) oh respect for yourself/And that's why I'm not looking for/Handouts, charity, welfare, I don't need/Stealin', killin', not my feelin'/No back-stabbin', greedy-grabbin'/Lyin', cheatin' 'cause I've got a/Deeper love, a deeper love/A deeper love inside… I call it Pride!
The beat to Deeper and Deeper is so fierce that we were worn out by the time Madge starts the riffs toward the end. We might have been out of breath when she’s crooning like you’d imagine all her young Motown sisters to have done in any song talking about love -- Momma said you can’t hurry love -- or abandon -- Where did our love go? -- And just when you thought that enough was enough, Madonna came back with the jingle from Vogue, "You‘ve got to just let your body move the music, let your body go with the flow", which by then everyone understood had been lifted from Black gay culture, her Truth or Dare babies had instructed her well. I imagine this hot mamma in a gay club sweating it out on the dance floor, soaking up all the culture. Then, crooning: “Falling in love, falling in love, falling in love/I can't keep from falling in/love with you/You know there's nothing better that I'd like to do.” Try as we may, try as we might, the determination of one’s sexuality is irrepressible.
Despite, and often in spite of rejection at home and school, on streets and inside institutions, gay youth face serious affronts to our dignity, personhood, sanity and physical safety. Reaching out into the universe to see something resembling ourselves has often lead to pop icons, where conservative home environments silence sexual alterity and, like punitive parents, squash difference. For a period in the early nineties, as our nation transitioned from the self-absorbed 80’s, to the forcefully progressive 90’s, in preparation for the new millennium pop cultural lead icons again blended gender as had been done in David Bowie’s pop in the 70’s, or Little Richard’s decades earlier. Yet, this time, women were out front, and the titillation straight men purportedly feel in the sexual intimacy of two women allowed these divas to delve into their identities and activities while maintaining the status quo. Nonetheless, the side-benefits of those times virtually laid and painted the yellow brick road for friends of Dorothy.
“Seems like yesterday/I lay down next to your boots and I prayed/For your anger to end/Oh Father I have sinned.”
Once my father came in the room when I was dancing to Sister Sledge’s We are Family playing on the radio. As soon as I saw him, I immediately froze. Any sissy seeing the scene now would have known exactly what was going on. Yet, encountering such a kid these days, I’m not sure if even I would be bold enough to break the silence. This work is still relegated to the stars. I knew that I was “dancing like a girl,” as people still say, and that somehow Disco was a particular injury to popularized Black masculinity as Hip-Hop entered the scene despite the genre being a direct spin-off of those ‘sanitized for the masses’ polyrhythmic tunes- the stripped down beats and rhythm Motown’s in-house composers Smokey Robinson or the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Like Motown, Disco was socially available to all, yet added with the hedonism of the post-Stonewall '70s in the midst of (middle-class white) Women’s Lib, images of Disco had clearly become queer inclusive, and I promise I am not just saying this because of the polyester.
“If I ran away, Id never have the strength/To go very far/How would they hear the beating of my heart/Will it grow cold/The secret that I hide”
My dad walked in to the room and saw me jumping around in my undies, swinging my hips, singing: “We are family/Get up everybody and sang!” I froze, frightened, not knowing how my father would react, not having any words to defend myself, should be retaliate against me for acting like a girl; I knew that dancing like a girl was wrong. “Don’t stop dancing,” he said, and sat down and watched. 30 years later sitting in my late grandfather’s parlor in Port Harcourt listening to music, while one aunt dances, another serves drinks, my father boasted proudly: “You know why I like music” he says filming my cousin/sister dancing, “it’s because of my family.” If only my dad had stuck around to continue to encourage my pride.
In the Blond Ambition Tour, (the title, her continued usage of bleach, and sissy designer Jean-Paul Gautier’s gold cone brassiere are each independently worthy of lengthy essays), Madonna performed Oh Father repeating what had become her popular motif of defecating upon Catholic images. On popularized image shows her wearing leather or lingerie in a chapel then throwing herself sexually upon a big, dark skin black man, clearly using him to signify the antithesis of the purity of the (white) church, marking how deeply she’d transgressed. Her images were a quandary: She bleached herself silly and sweats herself thin, yet surrounds herself with ‘the others’ -- the faggots (her dancers), dykes (Sandra Bernhard), black- and sand- ni**ers (Vogue; Truth or Dare), and all sorts of exotic others. It’s as if she had yet to resolve her most basic conflicts around self-love and self-hate, the rejection that causes the soul to be murdered. Despite embellishing in religion to heal souls, plenty of folks continue to engage in such banter to get daddy’s attention, even if all he can do is preach. Oh, if our fathers hadn’t abandoned us, so we’d know that we are not sinners, so that we’d know we were worthy of pride, a sure sign of self-R-E-S-P-E-C-T!
The last lines of Deeper and Deeper reveal the very hear of the matter here: The loss of love is never resolved. The protagonist never really matures. And here I reference Anita Baker signing Been So Long, beginning the song with I won’t be neglected/I won’t be denied/the pleasure of your kisses/the pleasure of your smile/you think you take for granted that I’ll always be here/just because I love you/it don’t mean I won’t disappear and ends with serious riffs about how much we’re willing to work it out, extending a hand of friendship, like Chinua Achebe’s main protagonist in Things Fall Apart. But this generosity is given in sincere faith, which builds trust, and despite past ills, that issue of faith shall not be taken for granted. I believe the president calls that “Hope.”
In her early career, Madonna had adopted the beats and rhythms of Black music, but it would be decades later before the Material girl realized her self-worth was priceless. Were we had come out dancing to anthems like these, we eventually grew up; dancing on the club floor wasn’t as all fulfilling. One might even argue that our efforts at community building grew out an initial response to the onset of GRID (Gay Related Immune Disease), as HIV/AIDS was known in those early days initially hit by the panic. Diseases, like stereotypes, have a nasty secret: They begin in crevices, oppressing the minor with benevolent disregard on behalf of the majority. Both diseases and nasty severest know no social boundaries, though, in the case of many diseases, social conditions color initial calamities. Imagine an adult preying on a child and people turning their heads. Imagine this tyranny of the majority. Imagine Jim and Jane Crow as tyrants crowning Jill and Jimmy Crow, Jr. their liberal descendents. Or, instead of terror, muster the courage to imagine undefeated faith. Imagine all the people living as one.
The way of love and abandon, the ensuing fantasy of dominance and subordination, has certainly been the pattern of Cholera, TB, numerous plagues, and of course Malaria. Those who had over centuries developed natural forms of resistance like Thalassemia Minor are loosing the Malaria wars to those who label their defense a defect, and go about devising and designing drugs and schemes that have only breed greater and greater resistance to the benefit of the wealthy and great expense of the poor who only possess their lives with which to pay. Thalassemia’s potential to protect again severe anemia was dismissed by European explores blinded by an agenda bent on ‘expansion’ through domination, coercion and violence as legitimate means to usurp natural resources and claim dominion and sovereignty over pubic space. In their minds, Third World peoples were empty souls who could be dominated, used and abused at will. And this is why it’s S&M, ignoring facts, but reversing the position of one’s own powerlessness, and therefore taking pleasure in domination, creating an ideology to justify this yearning, and the cycle become endless. It is fear of being taken for granted, while never asserting our own power to love ourselves and command respect.
It is also deeply personal, for even in our homes lives, the lovelessness we feel gets projected onto others. It is love and abandon. to full powerful over others. These are how problems go without reconciliation when approached from a position of dominance and competition rather than mutuality and respect. Final solutions emerge from dominance, whereas resolutions emerge from dialogue. We must even have such frank dialogue with ourselves, lest we simply participate in the cycle, recreating our fantasies of abuse: Some girls they like Sweet talk/Others they like to grind/I’ll settle for the back of your hand, somewhere on my behind/Treat me like I’m a bad girl/Even when I’m being good to you/I don’t want you to thank me/You can just spank me. For Dick Tracey, Madonna had really become the blond bombshell. Jeremy had spoken in class, and she decided that she’d take the gun and play the same old game. It is never resolved, it really gets no deeper than that.
In our societies, poverty is itself an illness, a syndrome covering a range of ill-health dispositions from bad air and water, to poor public health education, care, standards and enforcement, including garbage collection, but also protection from carcinogens in industrial seepage or cellular radiation exposure. Add to this the assault on a child’s self-esteem when an adults takes away her/his lunch at the end of the line, replacing it with leftovers or cold-cuts, chiding a five-year-old that his momma’s better pay your bill. When the homes lives of children living in poverty is so degraded that there is no adult able to sign and return a reduced or free-lunch form and stuff it in their child’s school bag, then there is a systematic issue linking poverty, poor nutrition, race, and class that grips our nation’s ability to progress. This is the love and abandon on a grand scale- the thinking that people are poor and therefore ‘deserve’ their impoverished fate, as much as rich white men like George W. Bush duly earned their lot in life.
“White boys can do anything. See, they put one up there on crack,” said my aunty speaking about the 43rd American president to refuse to deal with social inequality; numerous having been slaveholders, KKK members, segregationists or passive liberals. People in America vote as much along clan lines as any nation from Nigeria and the UK to Malaysia and Kenya. At best the nation declared war on us. And in the lowest of moments, it is faith that pulls us through, sees us through till the resolution, which cannot be abandonment. That would be suicide. If you should ever be lonely/Think of the times/Think of the moments we share, goes Mariah’s in one of her many songs exploring kinship love. See also: Anytime You Need a Friend, Hero, Petals, etc. Keep it together, Madonna has said about family, though not quite in ways that provided her a necessary roadmap until years later when she became a mother.