Arts & Entertainment
8 min

Why we love Madonna

As Sticky & Sweet rolls into town, Xtra West pays tribute to one of the world's biggest gay icons

Credit: John Crossen Illustration

Back in the 1980s, when Paula Gorman was a teenager in Ontario, she hid the famous 1985 issue of Penthouse containing nude photos of Madonna under her bed. Until, that is, the day her parents found it.

“They took me on a long walk and asked me if I was gay,” says Gorman with a laugh. “I didn’t know I was then. Well, I knew, but I just didn’t have a name for it.”

Gorman wasn’t fanatically into Madonna until the singer’s third album, True Blue, her biggest commercial success to date and the followup to 1984’s Like a Virgin, which had propelled the singer into the upper stratosphere of superstardom.

Madonna’s eponymous 1983 debut album, which introduced the first of her signature looks —street urchin chic —and infectious, toe-tapping hooks in chart-toppers like Borderline, Holiday and Lucky Star, had been very successful, especially for a freshman effort.

But it was Madonna’s spirited performance of Like A Virgin while rolling around onstage in a wedding dress accessorized with a belt that said Boy Toy during the very first broadcast of the MTV Video Awards that transformed her into pop royalty sharing throne space with the decade’s other two giants, the much more musically gifted Michael Jackson and Prince.

She’s still on top, her favourite position. Where are they?

While Jackson, Prince and Madonna all benefited from their popularity in gay clubs, and all riffed on queer culture to some extent —each affecting an androgynous, outrageous and supercharged sexual persona —only Madonna credited the gay community. In fact, she glorified it.

After all, we gave her a leg up —and have kept her legs in the air ever since.

Unlike Jackson, Madonna did not go supernova and disintegrate. Nor, like Prince, did she retreat into solipsistic self-indulgence, disregarding what fans wanted in favour of artistic creativity. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Prince, but when Madonna is repeatedly dissed for being arrogant, we need to remember that compared to the aloof megalomania of Prince, Jackson and a whole swack of ageing male rock stars and blinged-out rappers, she’s the girl next door.)

At one point in Prince’s up-and-down career, the diminutive funkster from Minneapolis changed his name into an indecipherable squiggle, something Madonna would never do, knowing the importance of her brand and sticking to it.

Singing was secondary to image. In fact image was everything, an insight Madonna may have gleaned from one of her idols, the famously bisexual, crossdressing, 1930s screen legend Marlene Dietrich.

Dietrich, a very limited singer who was nonetheless mesmerizing and loved by the camera, performed onstage well into her sixties, using every device possible to maintain an air of youth and mystery.

“I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men,” Dietrich once told the media.

There were certainly way “gay-er” pop stars —in other words, stars who were actually gay —floating around when Madonna hit the big-time, but it would be years before the likes of Elton John or George Michael fessed up, and no one knew about Freddie Mercury (Queen) until he died of AIDS in 1992.

While Boy George (Culture Club), Jimmy Somerville (Bronski Beat), Morrissey (The Smiths), Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (Pet Shop Boys), Vince Clarke and Andy Bell (Erasure) were all as out as out could be-and then some-Madonna was an interpreter not a spokesperson, making her more accessible to a bigger mainstream fan base.

Having hung out since she was 16 with gay friends in gay clubs, and having formed strong relationships with emerging LGBT artists, performers and writers, Madonna sampled our wares the way hip-hop artists sampled songs.

Plus, here was a woman in pop and rock who wasn’t part of an otherwise male band, like Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane) or Debbie Harry (Blondie). She wasn’t out of control like Janis Joplin. She wasn’t as hardcore as rockers Joan Jett or Suzie Quatro. She wasn’t dark and ominous like the street poet Patti Smith. She wasn’t a disco diva.

Nor was she a tragic figure with whom downtrodden gay men and women unlucky in love could relate.

Madonna was a chick with balls who announced to the press, “Listen, everyone is entitled to my opinion.”

After performing Holiday in 1984 on a UK top-of-the-pops TV show called The Tube, Madonna told the audience that she wanted to rule the world.

That attitude resonated and continues to resonate with the generation of gay men and women who came of age post-gay liberation and post-women’s liberation, and weren’t going to take being put down anymore.

While earlier feminists had advocated the burning of bras, she was a self-styled sex symbol who wore bras that could poke out a man’s eyes.

When Madonna channelled Marilyn Monroe in the Material Girl video, in an almost carbon copy of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend from the 1954 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her sense of irony was obvious.

Sure, maybe Cher and Bette Midler laid the groundwork, but neither spoke to the awakening albeit confused sexual freedom of young women and gay men in the era of AIDS the way Madonna did. She was an antidote to increasingly conservative times. She was the future.

Today, whenever I hear one of her older songs, I am transported back to the exact time and place I first heard it. Most of those times and places were overshadowed by AIDS. She was a ray of light whose dance tunes helped make the horror a bit more bearable as we danced to the memory of departed friends and lovers. When I hear a Madonna song, I hear a eulogy.

“The first time I really noticed Madonna was the song Papa Don’t Preach,” says Gorman, who has since seen the singer perform four times.

The video of Papa Don’t Preach, a single off True Blue, turned a lot of young dykes’ heads, featuring a short-haired Madonna in a leather jacket defying authority and taking control of her own body —in a song you could dance to! (I preferred the album’s Open Your Heart video, with Madonna camping it up as a stripper whom a young boy tries to mimic in a mirror; been there.)

Papa Don’t Preach also hooked Gorman’s friend, Jane Boxer.

“I guess I was about 20 when True Blue came out and I’m still a fan,” says Boxer, who is going with Gorman to see Madonna when her Sweet & Sticky tour lands in Vancouver on Oct 30.

“She was fun, uplifting, and a strong woman. She pushed buttons and still does.

I wanted to be ballsy like her. I got my hair cut and coloured. All the girls I knew did.

I kind of followed her example until she had a baby. Then I drew the line.”

In 1993, the Province newspaper sponsored a contest for a trip for two to see Madonna’s Girlie Show in Montreal. You had to collect six different puzzle pieces from six different issues that formed the cover of her Erotica album, and send in the completed puzzle for a draw.

“We hit the back alleys searching for papers people had thrown away,” says Boxer. “We even went to stores at the end of the day and bought any remaining copies.”

“We meditated too,” adds Gorman.

“We imagined sending out pink bubbles with positive thoughts. No, really.”

“Even before the winners were announced, we booked off work,” Boxer continues. “We knew we would win.”

And they did.

When they arrived in Montreal, their good fortune continued. They lucked into a taxi driver who knew where Madonna was staying. They paid him $20 to tell them.

“There were hundreds of people,” says Boxer. “Oh great, I thought, 20 bucks wasted.”

But then they snooped around and stumbled across the parking lot where Madonna would emerge.

“She was about three cars away from us,” says Boxer. “We were so awestruck that we couldn’t even take a picture. She was beautiful.”

“She’s the Marilyn Monroe of my generation,” says Sabina Zahn, who has her own memory of the first time she found out about Madonna.

“It was in Calgary in 1983. I was at a party and my friend Sandy comes in with the new Madonna record and says, ‘You’ve got to listen to this straight woman.'”

Zahn was in her 20s at the time. She remembers being struck by Madonna’s Monroe-like pose and visage on the cover.

“She was someone I could relate to.

She came across like she had something to say and she was positive and celebratory. She loved love, loved life and loved freedom of expression.”

Zahn has never been to a Madonna concert and is looking forward to the Sweet & Sticky tour.

“People go out of the way to put her down and call her a bitch,” says Zahn.

“But she calls herself a bitch. I think it’s a compliment.”

Madonna has no shortage of detractors, while straight men in music, industry and politics who are much richer and more powerful, and who do much worse things, are admired.

The one thing Madonna has done that really offends people is being successful.

It’s not religion. It isn’t sex. It’s all about who has power.

Society always did and still does get its knickers in a twist when smart, opinionated and outspoken women and gay men come into power and have a public voice. To think otherwise is naive.

Now Madonna’s being criticized for daring to be sexual at 50. Like Mae West, another gay icon, she’s laughing all the way to the bank.

There are plenty of similarities between the two. West learned her walk, talk and shtick from New York drag queens in the 1920s. She pushed buttons, landing herself in jail by writing and performing in plays like Sex and the homosexually themed The Drag —thus drastically increasing their ticket sales —before becoming the world’s biggest movie star for several years in the 1930s.

“I believe in censorship. It made me a fortune,” West said. Madonna could say the same thing.

My own most memorable Madonna moment is quite recent. Three years ago I was on assignment covering an underwear fashion shoot in El Salvador. We were on location in a 500-year-old colonial town. Confessions on a Dance Floor had just come out and was playing full blast as semi-nude models posed provocatively in the village square beneath an 18th century Catholic church, while ox-drawn carts and women with water jugs and bundles of twigs on their heads walked by, doing double takes.

I’ve never been a die-hard Madonna fan but many of the gay men I know were or are. My gay icon was David Bowie, who wasn’t really gay either. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars got me through high school. just named Ziggy Stardust the gayest album of all time.

Madonna was nuts about Bowie growing up, and strongly influenced by his theatricality, gender fluidity and image smarts. In 1996, she accepted Bowie’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his behalf.

Today, Madonna’s brand is stronger than ever. She is listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most successful female recording artist. She vies with Cher as the richest, with a fortune estimated to be over half a billion dollars.

Hung Up, the first single from 2005’s top-selling Confessions on a Dance Floor, was number one in an unprecedented 45 countries. She’s had more top 10 hits in the US than any other artist, recently surpassing Elvis Presley. Her last two international concert tours, Re-Invention and Confessions, broke box office records. The Sweet & Sticky tour seems to be well on its way to doing the same.

The Advocate recently proclaimed Madonna “the biggest gay icon ever.”

 I’m old enough to remember when people weren’t called icons. To me, an icon is a crucifix in a Russian Orthodox church.

Then again, Madonna is the only star in history who could and did get away with flinging herself Christ-like onto a giant bejewelled cross within spitting distance of the Vatican and singing a song about a gay man who died of AIDS, Live To Tell.

If you’re going to be a gay icon, that’s the way to do it. Let’s hope she keeps on causing a commotion.