“Dance and sing. Get up and do your thing.”
The year was 1983 and Madonna’s “Everybody” was everywhere.
At 10-years-old, I happily accepted Madonna’s musical invitation to leave your troubles behind and get lost in the music. I wanted to be anything and anywhere other than who and where I was – a black girl with skinny legs and unruly hair that had to be tamed into two ponytails living with her parents in Camden, NJ.
Like many women of my generation, I feel like I grew up with Madonna. I pranced around professing to be a “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin,” even though I was an actual virgin who didn’t know what the lyrics meant. All my pre-teen self knew was that it was cool to dance in lace and dangle men like an unclasped string of pearls.
I explored my sexuality while attending a women’s college as Madonna detailed her sexual fantasies in the release of her Sex book and “Erotica” album. I settled into my previous marriage and the beginnings of my career when “Ray of Light,” – Madonna’s most groundbreaking album and exploration of celebrity, spirituality, and relationships was released.
For nearly four decades, I rode the crests and crashes of Madonna’s artistic career. I was there for everything because the idea that you could own your sexuality and enjoy it for your own pleasure appealed to me. Maybe it was because I faced sexual assault early in my life that I needed validation that my body belonged to me.
Madonna didn’t do it first. We have empowered examples like Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. But many times Madonna did it best and paved the way for artists like Beyoncé and Janelle Monae to capture the world with stunning visuals steeped in fierce, powerful, and whole-hearted messages about what it feels like for a girl at a certain moment in history.
I stopped listening to Madonna after “Hard Candy,” released in 2008. As my political awareness of what it meant to be a black, creative woman deepened, I could no longer ignore the cultural and ethnic vampiric nature that sometimes seeped into her work.
My 17-year-old self cheered in 1990 while watching Madonna and her girl posse prance across the MTV Awards stage wearing 18th-century costumes while a coterie of handsome, young, men preened and twirled around them. As much as I rank that performance of Vogue among one of her finest, my 40-something self cannot forgive the optics of a white woman being serviced by a group of mostly black and brown women and men while making millions from an important, cultural signifier in 1980s, gay underground culture.
“Plantation mistress or soul sister?” Black cultural critic bell hooks asked about Madonna after the release of her documentary, Truth or Dare, which came out a year after her Marie Antoinette-inspired performance.
I, too, asked the same question about Madonna throughout her career and personal life, especially in 2006 after she adopted a black child from Malawi. The questioned hardened again in 2014 when she referred to her black son as “dis nigga” on Instagram.
However, there comes a point in our 40s when we revisit our childhood. The passage of time makes old things, memories, and people from our past seem new again. We want to connect the synapses between who we are and who we are becoming to counter our looming mortality, find comfort in continuity, and decipher what it might all mean.
Now is that time for me and so, it is with my current fascination with Madonna.
Madonna serves as my creative muse as I experiment as a writer, a subject and producer of a documentary film, and through song and sound. I created a playlist of nearly 100 Madonna songs spanning her career while reading Like an Icon by Lucy O’Brien. The book, which was reissued last month, details Madonna’s evolution as a songwriter and music producer.
As part of my research, I watched Madonna’s speech in 2016 when she accepted Billboard’s Woman of the Year award. In an emotional and sometimes moving speech, she said: “…It also reminded me that I am vulnerable. And in life, there is no real safety except for self-belief. And, an understanding that I am not the owner of my talents.”
Love her or hate her, the one thing you can’t say about Madonna was that she didn’t go for it.
She dared to tell her truth to a public that didn’t always appreciate it. Madonna boldly expressed herself and explored questions of sexuality, religion, and art that were important to her. She led with her curiosity as an artist and a woman.
Some critics blasted Madonna’s speech, saying she cast herself as the victim when she built a career on cultural appropriation and bullied others as she was sometimes bullied. Point taken, but we also have to allow people to grow and change. We have to recognize that flawed and imperfect people sometimes create iconic art.
Whether we are celebrities or not, we are allowed – no, we must – evolve. We must create our lives as we live them. We must try, fail, get up again, and along the way give ourselves and others compassion and grace. Like Madonna, but on a much smaller scale, we must live the ultimate dance of self-invention and reinvention. Dance and sing. Get up and do your thing.