From my mid-20s to about my early 30s, I was close friends with this guy I met at a party for a mutual acquaintance. We had a conversation, and we mentioned some clubs in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood that we frequented. We boiled our list to three clubs we thought were the best: Berlin, Sidetrack, Roscoe’s, and Charlie’s (but only after the music changed from country-western to dance)
Though I genuinely liked the guy, our relationship was primarily confined to clubbing. Nearly every Friday night started at 9pm at Berlin on Belmont Avenue, the pitch blank heaven hidden in a building near the El stop. From there we would drift to Sidetrack (where I’d greet my friend in the DJ booth where he would curate the evening’s program of music videos, dash across the street to Roscoe’s, before ending our evening/early morning at Charlie’s, getting there late enough to miss the country music and the line dancing.
Those nights were memorable, and though I’m a different person now in middle age, I remember the euphoric joy of losing myself in the music. More than any other, dance music seeks to join the physical and the emotional. Sure, the thumping beats and pulsing percussion draw us to the floor, our bodies finding a sympathetic sync with the music. On the dancefloor, surrounded by other writhing bodies, the air at once hot and cool, the lights deep jewel tones, ears clogged with the bass-heavy music, the world suddenly becomes small and immediate. The club becomes everything. The deep, yeasty smell of liquor mingles uneasily with the cocktail of different colognes of varying quality. Trying to talk to your friends is pointless because the music is so loud, it’s gigantic, covering everyone like a thick, heavy blanket. The delirious joy feels primal as if gay men are a tribe, and this is our folk art.
It’s not all physical. There’s emotion and nostalgia, too. When a classic song makes its way through the heavy fog of club music, heavily remixed with new beats and sounds grafted on, hear the collective, affectionate “awww” that responds. It happens for every 1980s Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, or Madonna song. This holy trinity of dance music was responsible for much of the music I wriggled to on my Friday nights. These ladies knew, more than most, how primal and vital dance music. There were other canonized dance divas who deserved prayer cards: Mariah Carey, Jody Watley, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Lady Gaga, Donna Summer.
But the high priestess to whom we worshipped in these temples is Madonna. She burst onto the music scene in 1982 with her self-titled debut album, which acted as a template to post-disco dance music. Madonna conquered the 1980s and 1990s by finding just the right collaborators with whom to work and precisely the right subculture to exploit and harness.
By the mid-1990s, Madonna was at a strange place in her career, seeing her fame overwhelming her music. Sexism and the culture wars also reduced her to a pop music Magdalene. Taking steps to stanch this backlash, Madonna tapped William Orbit for her classic 1998 album, Ray of Light, released to critical and commercial acclaim. One of the most notable things about that record was that it was hailed for bringing techno and electronica to mainstream pop. Madonna always had a history of working with DJs and remixers in her career, but the album represented a shift in focus and attention to DJ club culture.
Her affection for techno-pop never left. After Ray of Light, most of her subsequent studio LPs were collaborations with dance producers like Mirwais Ahmadzaï, Stuart Price, and, Bloodshy & Avant, with Orbit returning to contribute tracks, cementing their professional relationship.
Madonna’s embrace of electronica is another chapter in her storied career. Still, it makes sense, given her place in New York club culture when she made her way to Gotham, escaping the normalcy of the Midwest. Much of the freshness of Madonna’s techno-pop work pinpoints the juxtaposition of the biggest-selling female pop star working with cutting-edge dance producers. One of Madonna’s career hallmarks is how she continually searches for new sounds to enrich her music and maintain her relevance as her career spans decades. By 2012, she was a legend and an industry veteran when she released her 12th album MDNA.
My first exposure to MDNA was hearing the first single released in early February when Madonna performed at the Super Bowl XLVI halftime show. Shortly after the single’s bow, Madonna ran through a medley of her greatest hits in front of over 100 million television viewers. “Give Me All Your Luvin'” was produced by French DJ Martin Solveig. A pulsing dance song that paid homage to her pop past, it featured verses by rappers M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj. The song’s marching band drums and schoolyard chants made the track a surprisingly apt fit for the Super Bowl.
The remixes made their way to the Friday nights with my club friend and me. We were of the age that we knew of Madonna’s music from the late 1980; my friends and I did a lamentable version of “Vogue” at a fourth-grade talent show). So we were there for most of her musical evolutions. Some of the younger clubbers weren’t fortunate enough to witness songs like “Vogue” or “Take a Bow” when they were released. Even at a very young age, we connected to her roots in club culture and were drawn by her reverence of the dance floor.
That reverence is found all over MDNA. If reverence sounds like too heavy a word to describe Madonna’s dance music, bear with me as I dip into 1980s queer culture and its intersection with dance culture – both of which saw Madonna as a significant figure. Once a struggling singer-dancer in the early 1980s, Madonna was artistically raised on late 1970s, early 1980s queer culture. The music she danced to and eventually created came from the disco movement of the 1970s, which saw an unprecedented ascendance of queer influence on mainstream music.
Dance music is dominated by Black, Latino, and queer creatives – an artistic rebuke to white male rock music. Many of these early artists were ostracized by mainstream culture, facing homophobia, racism, poverty, and dance clubs were oases. As the AIDS crisis decimated these communities, dance music and dance clubs became vital to survival, offering solace and community to those affected by the virus. Move past the sloganeering chorus of “Vogue”, pay careful attention to the verses, and you’ll hear an emotional and humane elegy to the healing power of dancing.
And so, with MDNA, Madonna harnesses the power of dance to send her listeners to musical bliss. As with her other albums, she applied her personal life to the music. Motherhood informed much of Ray of Light, and MDNA not only includes her usual ruminations on love and sex but also uses her music to deal with the fallout of her divorce from film director Guy Ritchie. With the music on MDNA, Madonna used dance music as catharsis.
Madonna opens the album with “Girl Gone Wild”, and LP’s sound is duly established. Madonna introduced a mainstream take on EDM and French and Euro disco music with the dark and heavy production. Her agenda when making this kind of music is to bring warmth and humanity and pop accessibility to EDM. She brought pop joy to music that was designed for physicality.
Much of Madonna’s music post-2000 was self-referential. At the white-hot peak of her career in the late 1980s, early 1990s, Madonna referenced pop culture around her when creating her art (particularly her visuals) pulling allusions to things she found in film, literature, television, as well as subcultures such as queer culture, Latino-pop, and Black American culture.
But by the 2000s, Madonna herself was an essential part of pop culture, so there’s a logic to her using herself as a reference in her later work. When “Girl Gone Wild” opens the album, she alludes to her Catholicism, something that informed her work far more in her career from 1984’s Like a Virgin to 1994’s Bedtime Stories. By 2012, Madonna’s use of Catholicism was gradually replaced by an Eastern spiritual philosophy that she adopted around the time of Ray of Light. Also, her exploration of Catholic themes feels far less subversive in 2012. When she first took on the Church and the Pope, these institutions were in a far more secure position; critiquing the Catholic Church in the 1980s was taboo. Pope John Paul II was a beloved figure and regarded as a moral leader. In 2012, the Church is besieged by lawsuits and allegations of sexual abuse, and its leaders’ complicity in these crimes has irrevocably damaged the Church’s moral standing.
“Girl Gone Wild” starts with a prayer, echoing 1989’s “Like a Prayer”, and the song’s themes and title reference the regretful dirge “Bad Girl” from her 1992 album, Erotica. The lyrics are a festival of dancing in the club. There’s little depth to the song. Instead, it’s simply a celebratory tribute to Ibiza-destined dance beats. Over the thick, glossy production (courtesy of the Benassi Bros.), Madonna name-checks Tanqueray and 808 drum machines and even makes a fun nod towards her former pop rival Cyndi Lauper by trilling “Girls just want to have some fun!” The song has four credited songwriters (Madonna, the Benassi Bros., and Jenson Vaughan), and the production and the craft belie the simple lyrics. Madonna and her crew know that the main reason people react to club music is for the beats and the sounds, and she cannily complies.
Madonna still believes in the therapeutic effect of the dance club. For Madonna, music and dance mean salvation and freedom. When she ordered her followers to vogue, she wasn’t just referencing the dance and art form; she was also celebrating the club as a sanctuary where people can be themselves. Like many of my fellow queers, I found an escape when deep in the night among other guys like me. For an evening, homophobia didn’t exist. The club was our space. “Turn Up the Radio” promises that,
When the world starts to get you down/
And nothing seems to go your way/
And the noise of the maddening crowd/
Makes you feel like you’re going to go insane/
There’s a glow of a distant light/
Calling you to come inside?
When inducting Madonna into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Justin Timberlake referenced their duet “4 Minutes to Save the World”, by claiming Madonna does that with her songs: she saves the world four minutes at a time. It feels like a heavy claim, an exaggeration if you will. But it’s true. By scoring many nights of dancing, she provided the soundtrack for loads of folks – like myself – who saw dance music as our language of empowerment.
Elsewhere on the album, Madonna used her music to work out her romantic issues and exorcise some of her demons. There are too many love tunes and to-the-floor anthems to call MDNA a “divorce” album like Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, but there are songs that feel singed from her split from Ritchie. On the explosive “I Don’t Give A”, Madonna boasts of her glittery fabulous (if exhaustive and busy) life in which she brags about her resilience, starting off the lyrics with “Wake up ex-wife / This is your life / Children on your own” before assuring her listeners that “I’m gonna be OK / I don’t care what the people say / I’m gonna be alright.” Madonna brushes aside any vulnerability when confronting her grief over the split. Instead, she leans into an oversized swagger, falling back onto her titanium diva persona. With Nicki Minaj strutting on the track, exuding the same kind of confidence, the song has feminist energy, despite the hostility.
Speaking of hostility, “Gang Bang” is a Tarantino-style Moroder-inspired club track with Madonna using disturbingly violent imagery to work out some feelings of aggression. Guns are discharged over the winding, sinewy beat, and fuzzy synths. Her listless, monotonous readings of the lyrics turn into her shrieking “die, bitch!” There’s an irony to the song, the over-the-top lyrics having Madonna throwing off such ugly one-liners like “Now my lover is dead and I have no regrets” or “I’m going to hell, and I’ve got a lot of friends there.” Tonally, MDNA is all over the place. On “Gang Bang”, she imagines killing her wayward lover, but she takes blame for her failure on the ruminative “I Fucked Up”. It’s a genuinely moving song that features some of her most expressive singing. It’s an intriguing contrast hearing the sad resignation when she sighs, “I thought we had it all / You brought out the best in me / But somehow I destroyed the perfect dream” after hearing her gleefully play out a shooting fantasy.
But listening to Madonna is to listen to her different moods and thoughts. MDNA is inconsistent with soft, sad ballads competing for attention with the neon-spiked dance songs. It’s a return of sorts, an embrace of her club roots, and an embrace of the high-octane EDM popular in the 2010s with the novel concept of the DJ as a celebrity. Madonna again adapted her malleable sound with current pop trends.
But MDNA also works as a transition record, of sorts. Though she was able to pull and extend her commercial fortunes far longer than her 1980s peers, MDNA would be the last album that would earn a gold certification. It would also feature her last US top 10 single. In the ensuing decade, it’s been fascinating to watch an artist like Madonna, so tied to an earlier generation, navigate a new music industry. Questions of her relevance remain as she grows older. Though her male peers have mainly been able to escape this constant reminder of aging, in the same way, Madonna has been dogged and tenacious in her quest to remain relevant.
In many ways, Madonna facing the 2010s puts her in a similar position with a lot of her middle-aged fans. The wannabes who wore tights in their hair or the gay boys who stroke a pose to her 1980s hits find themselves aging in a culture with little use for women or gay men of a certain age. As new queer icons like Lady Gaga, Adele, Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato emerge, we find ourselves reminding younger gays of the pioneering work of Madonna.