On July 27, 1983, a scrappy singer from Detroit named Madonna released her self-titled debut album.
The album peaked at number eight, but by the end of the year, it had produced its first hit single, “Holiday.” In January of 1984, while promoting that song, Madonna appeared on American Bandstand. When Dick Clark asked what her future plans were, her answer was simple, but prophetic: “to rule the world.”
Thirty five years later, we know Madonna made good on her word. She remains the highest earning female musician in the world, with more top ten singles than any other artist in history. She may not have had a top ten hit since 2008, but that last entry capped off a 25-year run of hits, which is unprecedented in a musical landscape that remains infinitely more unforgiving to women than men. In fact, she’s the fourth biggest selling musical act ever. She’s the Queen of Pop, and it’s unlikely anyone will take that crown from her anytime soon.
But perhaps most importantly, for me and for an entire generation, Madonna is the biggest musical LGBTQ icon of all time. Yes, I realize that she’s a heterosexual woman–it doesn’t matter to me. During the ’80s, when gay pop stars (even Boy George, who was a drag queen!) all hid their sexual orientation from the wrath of a homophobic public, Madonna grabbed a bullhorn and shouted from the rooftops that she was not only a strong ally of the gay community, but that she also owed her gay mentors and friends for the person she had become. Her dance teacher who encouraged her to follow her dreams and move to New York? A gay man. Her costume designers? The same. And on went that list of influential people in her life.
When our own government was ignoring the thousands of mostly gay men dying of AIDS, Madonna was a champion for AIDS activism. Of course, she wasn’t the only star to do this, but she was the biggest and most relevant among young people. Not many 15-year-olds in 1986 cared what Elizabeth Taylor had to say on the subject, but we did listen to Madonna. Her 1989 album “Like A Prayer,” included a pamphlet about AIDS awareness. Many of her concerts were fundraisers for people living with the disease.
Of course, gay men and boys in particular would have idolized her anyway–even without her cultural consciousness and empathy–because her music and videos were grounded in queer sensibility. Madonna made tons of songs and accompanying music videos where the men were the sex objects. How could a young gay man not project themselves into the “Material Girl” video? And in “Justify My Love” and “Erotica,” she made out with gorgeous female models, endearing herself to lesbian and queer fans all around the world and reliably enraging the Reagan/Bush era conservatives. For a gay kid, who was keenly aware the world at large mostly hated him, it meant everything to have the world’s biggest music star on your side.
Her peak moment as a queer icon came in the early ’90s, when two of her dancers, Jose and Luis Xtravaganza from the Harlem “House Ball” scene, (popularized in the documentary Paris is Burning and the current FX series Pose) introduced Madonna to a dance called “Voguing.” Madonna turned that dance into a one of her most iconic songs, and when it came time film the video, she made sure to put those same dancers in the spotlight. When her documentary Truth or Dare was released, she highlighted moments about LGBTQ Pride parades. A scene in which two of her dancers made out was the first time I’d ever seen two guys kiss in a mainstream film before. For a queer kid like me in 1991, this was like stepping into an alternate reality where being gay was something to be celebrated, not demonized.
Today, outside the LGBTQ community, Madonna is not as revered as much as her other ‘80s contemporaries, many of whom have been memorialized after tragic deaths. Among many reasons for this, Madonna refuses to “act her age,” and still sees herself as a sexual being as she approaches 60. For refusing to act like a grandma, she is vilified. But the things that are off-putting about Madonna to heteronormative culture only strengthen her relationship to queer fans. Madonna didn’t only change pop culture with her art, she changed the lives of millions of her young, LGBTQ fans. And hopefully, when grocery stores and Walmarts have stopped playing her old hits and straight society has nearly forgotten her, there will be a gay bar somewhere celebrating her 100th anniversary with a Madonna drag show.
Images: Warner Brothers Music