Desperately Seeking Madonna

Music

Desperately Seeking Madonna

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

I

saw Madonna, before I heard her. As a young girl growing up in Delhi, my American pop culture references were more Small Wonder than “Like a Virgin”. Madonna was not age-appropriate for me, but there she was in the back pages of newspaper supplements, wearing a blue saree, hands folded into a namaste, her signature peroxide curls now a blue-black curtain of pin-straight hair.

These were clearly simpler times. The phrase “cultural appropriation” had not yet become a part of the zeitgeist. If memory serves, the article crowed on about how the popstar’s passing interest in the bindi and the saree, was a cultural triumph. But there was a shadow over this supposed victory. It was Madonna, the “slutty” American provocateur who was wearing the bindi, not a more wholesome entity.

And thus, I was introduced to Madonna. I knew she was a singer, I knew she was not kosher, and I knew my parents would definitely not approve. Why would they? Here was a woman who had a coffee-table book titled Sex on her résumé. I had got a taste of Madonna and I wanted more.

Yet, I had to wait a good year before actually getting a taste of Madonna’s musical oeuvre. I was almost 12 when Ray of Light finally came to a Planet M near me and I picked it up, passing over the crowd favourite, Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time”. It was an anti-climax of epic proportions. I thought the album was completely “chaein”, a Delhi colloquialism reserved for things which are downright uncool. I had expected unfettered lusty euphemisms and all I got was a dose of shitty faux-spirituality instead.

But Madonna remained a secret obsession of mine. None of my friends were into her, preferring younger, blonder Madonna-lites like Christina, Kylie, and Britney. But a secret fixation is a more powerful force than open ardour. Meanwhile, the Bollywood factory was churning out Poohs: Girls who played dumb and were proud of it, girls who had fake accents, girls who were ready to give up their miniskirts and independence for “ek chutki sindoor”.

Now, when Madonna pulls a kiss stunt, she becomes a meme. Her last two albums have crashed and burned and even that Queen of Pop title has been usurped by Beyoncé.

I was much happier listening to Madonna tell a selfish lover, “I’m done, I am hanging up on you… Don’t cry for me, I will find my way.” There she was, an entertainer way past her supposed sell-by date, a 45-year-old woman in leotard and fishnets dancing for herself in an empty room covered in mirrors. In Madonna’s universe, she was the most important person. When a man looked at her, she did not bat her lashes or recoil, she met the gaze, often challenging, sometimes welcoming.

As a teenager, growing up in Delhi, I was taught to avoid the gaze at all costs. If a man looks at you, ignore it and move on. A confrontation could lead anywhere. And the woman always pays the price, dictated conventional wisdom. I was, unfortunately, not brave enough to adopt Madonna’s swagger as a teenager but she showed me that I could stake a claim to my own space. I had as much right to the dance floor and the sidewalk as men.

Many termed Madonna’s aggressive sexuality a shtick, pointing to her musical inferiority to contemporaries like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, or even Cyndi Lauper. But for most of Madonna’s fans, her sound is just a tiny part of her appeal. The music is just a medium, her image has always been her true message. The blasphemous crucifix, the androgynous Le Smoking, et al.

My friends finally caught up with the self-styled Queen of Pop when she played tongue tennis with the blondest pop princess of them all, Britney, at an internationally televised awards show. This “lez for attention” act was a watershed moment for everyone who was a teen in the first decade of the century. It wasn’t just the frisson of overt, unapologetic sexuality – Madonna had been doing that for years. It was that you could kiss a girl and like it. And you could remain unfazed by all the slut-shaming that would follow. In short, you could have it all.

And just like that, Madonna had exchanged her Om Shanti-chanting brunette avatar for the persona of a blonde dominatrix out to seduce innocent starlets. It is a role usually reserved for charismatic men, the Warren Beattys and Leonardo DiCaprios of this world. But Madonna has always been the one to blur these lines.

In a career spanning almost four decades now, she has played many roles, reinventing herself to either fit into the conversation or change it. Does this make her completely inauthentic or an ever-evolving artist? It is not a question that has easy answers. But as a fan, I’ve looked for clues everywhere.

This is a woman who publicly spoke of her rape at a time when such a thing could signal the end of a career, she became a single mother during her heydays in the ’90’s, and has been an unabashed “cougar”, by refusing to be shamed for her taste in men. In a music industry, run by men, where young popstars are manufactured every second, she has always seemed in control of her narrative.

But these days, on the rare occasion when the conversation turns to Madonna, I tend to keep mum. The verdicts against her tend to be really loud: she is desperate, she is old, she is irrelevant.

Now, when Madonna pulls a kiss stunt, she becomes a meme. Her last two albums have crashed and burned and even that Queen of Pop title has been usurped by Beyoncé.

But this fan’s heart still beats for Madonna. And till date, I find Madonna’s in-your-face nipple-baring, floor-humping sexuality more attractive than the standard-issue coy, palatable receptacles of the male gaze. You can pry the crucifix from my cold, dead hands.

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