What It Feels Like for a Girl…Who Loves Madonna


Who’s that girl, causing a commotion?

An icon of American life, a gambler, she has never taken an easy ride through modern culture.  Everybody began turning heads in 1982, but they gasped at the impressive instant during the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards when she lolled around in erotic freedom on stage, belting out “Like a Virgin.”  Before long, she had even the most dubious of doubters burning up with white heat over the intensity of their physical attraction to her.  She did not know, and still doesn’t know, how not to push her fans’ and foes’ true blue discomfort and fascination with women who emit an “I don’t give a —” attitude.

Her music, erasing the borderline between pop and dance rhythms, gave permission to budding superstar girls in her audience to refuse to say sorry to Mother and Father for the power of their human nature: their sexuality, confidence, and desire to speak honest words.  Say goodbye to innocence.  Yes, in some interviews over the past decade, she has admitted “I’m a sinner” and suggested, perhaps, “I’m so stupid” regarding her sex and love profusion in her early years, when she was high flying, adored.  But she is nothing if not inconstant with her image and this method has guaranteed her survival.  Nobody’s perfect.

From lace gloves and youthful arrogance, to pixie cut and tales of unplanned pregnancy; from burning crosses and bedtime stories, to secret gardens and Buenos Aires; from Hollywood and candy shop booty to girls gone wild all over again, this lady has shown us that she will live to tell a tale of incredible talent and sustainability.  It hasn’t been an easy ride for her.  But she has managed to make movies, write books, raise disciplined and respectful children, and, like it or not, inspire people all over this drowned world to turn up the radio and get into the groove.

Oh, what a circus, you may protest.  Sure.  Enough of this hanky panky; I mean, she’s 54 years old.  Fine.  But come the last 4 minutes of your life, when you are falling free into a ray of light and wishing you could die another day, will you lament over your loss of one more chance to take a bow and realize with melancholy regret, “Nobody knows me”?

Madonna won’t.

On September 4th, my friend Kirstin and I will be rocking out in the stands of the Banknorth Garden to Madge’s bitchy brilliance as witnesses to her MDNA tour.  Over the past twelve years, I have leapt at any chance to share the air of an arena with this master of media attention, whose timeline of fame has run parallel to my timeline of growing up—loving and losing, struggling with tenuous friendships and shaky self-esteem, wanting desperately to rewind everything and travel back to my twenties, when I had no idea that the crow’s feet would tread on my face so mercilessly, so soon.  Madonna’s songs, more than any other artist’s, have served as my life soundtrack.  Perhaps not exactly in the form of her lyrics matching what has happened to me from 1983 – 2012, but more like an accompaniment, always fresh and memorable, often provocative and charged with heartache and curiosity, that has provided me with a consistent backdrop of camaraderie.  Madonna’s presence never leaves me.  Her voice continually tells her ever-changing story while I am untangling and processing my own.

When I was in fourth grade, my friend Lena and I would fight about who was Madonna’s biggest fan.  We settled and reignited this argument again and again.  Lena would bring in a tape deck to school equipped with Madonna’s Like a Virgin cassette (read: biggest fan) and she and I would lead a dance mob in the driveway of Roosevelt School during recess, our bodies jumping in pure mirth high off the asphalt, hips twisting and arms stretched toward the sky.  The very next afternoon, I would be pressing the “rewind” and “play” buttons on that tape deck at least a dozen times, trying to prove to Lena that the line in “Material Girl” was, in fact, “They can beg and they can plead,” and not, as she was insisting, “They can beg and they can lead” (read: biggest fan).  Our reserved confrontations would escalate to brawls, with our shouting insults at each other—“You chew with your mouth open!” “Oh, yeah?  Well, you have a big butt!”—and finally close with a handshake and another plan to showcase our adoration for Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone.

In the spring of 1985, my family was spending a weekend at our family’s Cape house in Dennisport.  I recall my father’s words, a percolating grin lifting his tone, as I chatted with my mother in her bedroom after our afternoon at the beach.

“We have a surprise for you,” he said.

My eyes targeted my mother’s stomach.  “You’re having a baby?” I gushed.

My parents laughed.  “No,” my dad said.  “We’re taking you to the Madonna concert.”

I knew that no other girl in my grade, or maybe even the school, would be blessed enough to have parents as cool and as open-minded as mine were.  (Definitely not Lena.  Read: biggest fan.  Oh, yeah.)  Wearing a denim mini skirt and neon pink half-gloves on a muggy night in June, I stood tall on a metal folding chair in the seventh row on the floor at the Worcester Centrum and waited breathlessly.  My hands shook and my stomach churned.  I am sure that the stadium teemed with girls squealing and guys in drag, but I saw nothing and heard nothing until Madonna appeared in a gauzy horizon of fog at the top of a set of stairs, posing to the first whacks of the synthesizer drum in “Dress You Up.”

Later, walking across the parking lot, I would never have thought that I—nine years old, chubby and awkward, ignorant to the ways in which Madonna was blasting apart the scruples of public propriety—had just participated in an historical event.  My mother was complaining about the way the rappers in the opening act kept grabbing their privates (yes, The Beastie Boys), and I clutched my black camera with the 35-millimeter film of my idol still safe inside, wishing fervently that the night would not cease.  My head swirled in fantasy that I would come across my beloved here by a stroke of fortune.  She would be taking the long way to her bus, encircled by brawny bodyguards, and would stop to envelop me in a sweet, humid hug to thank me for being her biggest fan before whipping out a black marker and scrawling her signature across the back of my shirt.  The absence of this fabricated encounter left me curled up in the back seat of the family car, my knees digging into my chest to press away daggers of painful yearning.

When I was in sixth grade, the DJ at Roller World would play “Crazy for You” during Couple Skate.  The first descending thumps of bass in that ballad beat in sync with my terrified heart.  Was I destined to loiter at the wall and pick at my fingernails while all of the popular girls swept around the rink, hand in hand with the blond Max Dabrovitch or the smoky-eyed Chris McMerritt?  Or would the darkness shade my could-be-pretty-if-she-lost-a-little-weight figure just enough to earn a sympathy lap?  One class field trip, my dreams came true, and I showered the next morning with my right hand sticking out from behind the curtain so as not to wash away the DNA of one of the cutest boys ever, which he had bestowed upon me via a tacky layer of sweat to the sultry crooning of one of my favorite singers, and songs, of all time.  (The DNA was evidence of my not entirely doomed social status.  It deserved a little reverence.)

When I was a junior in high school, one of my friends somehow got her hands on a copy of Madonna’s groundbreaking and nation-alienating book, Sex.  A group of us, boys and girls, collected on one of the couches tucked behind the main staircase in the Commonwealth Avenue lobby.  We each took a turn with the book, sinking into the middle cushion and out of sight while everyone else formed a barricade against lurking teachers.  I recall the cool sensation of the covers against my knees.  I remember the vibrations of alarm in my belly each time I turned a page.  These images emblemized a foreign adult universe that none of us truly understood, in which grown-ups did things to each other that looked raw and wrong, but somehow stirred desire in us, too.  These photographs also exposed to us the most intimate, captivating, and in some cases, unattractive, qualities of a celebrity who had until now used suggestions (albeit heavy ones) of her sexuality to tease us and draw us closer.  As Madonna crossed the line with this experiment, maybe partly to figure out how loyal her followers were, how deeply they accepted both her self-love and self-loathing, and how resilient she could be in the aftermath of this test, I was heading into my own baffling stage of experimentation and discovery.  In realizing that I didn’t know Madonna as well as I thought I did, was I also admitting to not knowing how far I might push myself on my journey to independence and at the same time, affirmation?

Madonna did not produce concerts for seven years after her Girlie Show World tour in 1993.  When news of her comeback, The Drowned World Tour, reached my live-performance-starved ears in the winter of 2000/2001, I set out to travel as far and wide and pay as gratuitously as necessary in order to get myself into that stadium in Boston.  Clinching tickets through the normal channels proved impossible.  I sought the help of Ace Ticket.  The price tag of $495.00 per admission roused my debt-laden conscience, but failed to bow down to it.  I was going.  My best friend from college, Nina, was traveling from New York to accompany me.

The Ace representative had said to me over the phone, “I can’t tell you exactly where your seats will be, but I will put your name high up on the request list and I promise that they will be REALLY good.”

“REALLY good?” I said.  “Meaning, REALLY close to the stage?”

“Again, I can’t promise WHICH exact seats,” he said, “but I can pretty much GUARANTEE that they will be PRETTY DARN CLOSE to the stage.”

“PRETTY DARN CLOSE?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.  “That’s what I said.  They SHOULD be REALLY GOOD seats.”

Before the show began on August 7, 2001, as I scowled from my spot in the first row of the balcony at the back of the Fleet Center, Nina and I made the mistake of conversing with a girl to our left, only to discover that she had paid $175.00 face value for her seat.  But the nagging knowledge, dusted with guilt, that I had spent a small fortune for the privilege of two hours in Madonna’s company—more distant company than I had expected, with thousands of bodies between her and me—gurgled away down the garbage disposal of my financial conscience the millisecond I saw her figure illuminated by backlights and white smoke.  I grabbed the guardrail in front of me with both hands, sure I would swoon and topple to my death.  The sobs shuddered through me before I could stop their onslaught.

“Are you okay?” Nina asked.

I squeezed my eyelids together and the tears ejected, hot and fast.  “I’m fine,” I said.

The ensuing years brought three more tours (2004, 2006, and 2008) that infused me with relief, awe, and gratefulness…relief that Madonna was not slipping away into the past, retreating to allow up-and-coming stars to surpass her in their youthfulness and relevance, because this surrender would mean that I was aging, too…awe that this woman could continue to reinvent herself again and again, with no apologies and few regrets for the backlash her artistic and political platforms caused…and gratefulness that despite the humoring looks I often received when I admitted to venerating her, the sold-out stadiums rumbling with stomps and cheers affirmed her worthiness and my good taste.

So as I enter into the twenty-eighth year of my affair with Madonna, I find myself incorporating more and more of her passionate and confident life view into my own. I care less about people’s judgment of my personal and professional decisions; I seek any and all opportunities to purge my doubts and frustrations and nurture my spirit through occasionally daring creative expression; I question the role of ultimate, organized religion, yet search to find evidence of an ultimate, organizing power.  Madonna is even teaching crucial lessons about empathy to my six-year-old daughter, who would have me read to her The English Roses (about a group of four cliquey teen princesses who shun the most beautiful girl in their neighborhood, without truly knowing her, out of raging jealousy) every night if I agreed.  Madonna is proof that criticism will accost us at a steady pace, no matter our intentions, our upbringing, our skills, our flaws, so we might as well say “F— it” and make our own goddamn selves happy.

We all harbor unpopular thoughts about the world and suppress taboo interests in order to assimilate.  We all change our minds about who we are, probably hundreds of times from birth until death.  We all wish, at some point, that we could metamorphose into someone else—a Geisha, a cowgirl, a dance-floor maven, a Kabbalist, a heathen, a goddess, a reformed fame-monger, a virgin—and test an alternate identity for a while.  We all imagine what it might be like to possess immense influence and to wield that influence, positive or negative.

Madonna has allowed us to participate in her self-destruction and self-construction.  She has performed her experiences on stage to imitate life on our behalf, so that we can continue to shield our secrets, the secrets we might never be ready to reveal.  At the very least, she has entertained us and kept her name on our lips, thirty years after her debut in American culture.

And, unlike the early years of my relationship with her, when her lyrics seemed to speak of things mysteriously mature and far away, these days I find myself quite easily in her words.

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 goin’ to go insane

There’s a glow of a distant light

Calling you to come outside

To feel the wind on your face and your skin

And it’s here I begin my story

 

Turn up the radio

Turn up the radio

Don’t ask me where I wanna go

We gotta turn up the radio

 

It was time that I opened my eyes

I’m leavin’ the past behind

Nothing’s ever what it seems

Including this time in this crazy dream

I’m stuck like a moth to a flame

I’m so tired of playing this game

I don’t know how I got to this state

Let me out of my cage ’cause I’m dying

 

Turn up the radio

Turn up the radio

Don’t ask me where I wanna go

We gotta turn up the radio

Turn up the radio

Turn up the radio

Don’t ask me where I wanna go

We gotta turn up the radio

I just wanna get in my car

I wanna go fast and I gotta go far

Don’t ask me to explain how I feel

’Cause I don’t want to say where I’m going

Turn down the noise and turn up the volume

Don’t have a choice cause the temperature’s poundin’

If leaving this place is the last thing I do

Then I want to escape with a person just like you

Buzzin’ around like a moth to a flame

I’m so sick and tired of playin’ this game

We gotta have fun if it’s all that we do

Gotta shake up the system and break all the rules

Gotta turn up the radio until the speakers BLOW

Turn up the radio

Turn up the radio

Don’t ask me where I wanna go

We gotta turn up the radio

Turn up the radio

Turn up the radio

There’s some things you don’t need to know

Just let me turn up the radio

Turn up the radio

Just let me turn up the radio

Just let me turn up the radio 

— Madonna, “Turn Up the Radio,” MDNA

Categories: A Girl's Life

7 comments

  1. Awesome, Liz. Your writing, as always, is so eloquent and vivid and leaves me wanting more! You know I am one of your biggest fans. (Oh, and Max Dabrovitch or Chris McMerritt would have been lucky to have you!). 🙂

    • Ha! Thanks — the same back to you. Do you remember that night? I believe he went around the rink with both you and me, one at a time. I could barely stand on the skates!

      I truly treasure your feedback on my blog. I love sharing it with long-time, dear friends like you, who know exactly where I am coming from, both literally and figuratively.

  2. Great! Send it to the Globe immediately, and to Madonna!

  3. I loved the story about the roller rink – Roller Palace was the place when I was in middle school, and my peers were always pairing up on Friday nights there. I always felt self-conscious on skates – I could skate, but was never flashy like the other kids.

    Though I cannot attribute one artist and their music to my life growing up, I am always surprised by how some songs can strike the very emotion you’re feeling. Music is an incredibly powerful outlet which helps you to express feelings of love, anger, disappointment… Thank you for sharing!

    • Ah, my faithful reader! Yes…I used to hold one foot out to the side going around the corners of the rink, praying desperately that I wouldn’t topple over, whereas the guys who played hockey on a regular basis really knew how to skate with finesse, crossing one ankle over the other to make those turns. Roller Palace is now where my daughter wants her 7th birthday party celebration in February. Some things never change! I hope she always feels confident and pretty when she’s there, though.

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