by Diego Costa
I remember watching this short video at an LGBT film festival several years ago that established a kind of viral kinship to Madonna. The experimental essay film juxtaposed images of the icon to the filmmaker’s melancholy voice-over narration, in which he told us how he had mapped his anxieties about being a horny gay man in the 80s to Madonna’s oeuvre. He would only allow himself to finally purchase her “True Blue” album once he got tested for HIV and the results came out negative. Unfortunately, then, he was never able to buy the album. A Madonna-less HIV-positive man in the early 90s trying to make do with only the accidental encounters with the diva’s music, when he happened to tune in to a radio station precisely when they were playing one of her songs. Of course, he could never have exercised such self-control when it came to channeling his own sex drive. Leaving it up to happenstance for pleasurable encounters to occur would, in the 80s, 90s and today, probably leave many a gay man on the verge of a very dry nervous breakdown. So why Madonna masochism? What is it about Madonna that inspired the filmmaker to elect her as the ultimate reward for a fantasized sexuality that doesn’t come back to haunt the queer “male” body in the ass?
The relationship between Madonna and gay men are, of course, as clichéd as her post-2005 lyrics. Following the narrative of the bad faghag who leads her fag to believe she will always be forever his (no matter how many times he drops her in the middle of the dancefloor ride-less for a hot trick, as Margaret Cho would have it), only to then drop him ride-less when her own trick comes along, her Guy Ritchie years allowed us to look elsewhere. We found comfort in the easy-to-digest liberal essentialism of Gaga, who told us our monstrosity was legitimate only because it was genetic. After the divorce, and we had a feeling that faghags, like fags, don’t do longevity very well, we were ready to be seduced by Madonna’s unapologetically unintellectual affect all over again. The video for “Girl Gone Wild” illustrates well one of the fundamental differences between Gaga and the Queen: the first is stuck in the politics of categorization of identity politics, the latter bypasses “language” altogether by inhabiting Desire itself. Madonna, most importantly, has always taken charge of her own objecthood. Like a bitter bottom queen, too well-seasoned to strive for some kind of impossible agency that only a very laborious masculinity could buy, she has taught us that there is pleasure in being a thing too. That one can both act and direct, one can cum without moving, one can script entire scenes from the comfort of one’s silk-covered bed. “Justify My Love,” one of Madonna’s many video masterpieces, transforms the walk of shame into a walk of victory. She begins the video as an anxiety-filled, migraine-suffering woman carrying her luggage through hallway, wishing to make love in Paris and hold hands in Rome, and ends with the post-coital smirk of the hungry liberated tourist fag who goes to Le Depot for the first time, blows every butch top in sight and leaves unrepentant. “Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another” are the words she leaves us with, condensing pages and pages of much drier Queer Theory work that 1991, the year the video came out and was promptly banned by MTV, would inaugurate into one single (and sexy!) sentence.
And what about Madonna making love to the television set in “Take a Bow,” dwelling on the loss of her toreador lover, or the desperate self-humiliating Madonna of “One More Chance,” who, in quintessentially gay male form, “rolls the dice but never show[s]” her hand? Or the Madonna of “I’ll Remember,” who, with the retrospective wisdom of a redeemed hedonist, realizes she says good-bye in order to avoid “knowing how to cry,” and knows that inside she is a child “That could not mend a broken wing.” She knows the impossibility for happiness and the present tense to ever coincide. In “Ray of Light,” a swan song album of sorts (she will favor bathos after this), the yogi Madonna reminds us that the only way to deal with a closed heart is to let it go, as “there is no greater power than the power of good-bye.”
The truth is it has become increasingly difficult to justify our adoration for Madonna since she pulled her last attempt at being conceptual in 2003. In a post-9/11 dread she pulled the video for “American Life,” featuring a mini-skirt-Burqa and a fashion show headlined by Bush and Saddam, claiming she “had children,” and needed to protect them. The album flopped. Ever since then we have had to make do with a remembrance of the unapologetic Madonna, and a fantasy that, eventually, her disrespect for “the permission of another” would return. Hopefully before she looked too old, before our viral loads became unmanageable.
Time is running out. The vast majority of my 20-year-old students barely know who she is, or that she has a new album out. Her rhetoric seems disturbingly normative (she calls M.I.A.’s bird-flipping teenage irrelevance and sings the praises of discipline “and prayer”), her references passé (Brando, Dean, Michael Jordan in 2012?), her language gratuitously violent (“Gang Bang” is about vengeful murder, not multi-body pleasure), her goals sterile (she speaks of only wanting to craft an asexual “feast for the eyes” both for her Superbowl spectacle and new world tour), her iconography overplayed (same old crosses), her songs too verbose (a jarringly prolix divorcée’s bitching to electronica thumping is what “MDNA” is).
It’s also true that Madonna’s conceptual decline says much more about ourselves than Her Majesty. Every single review of her new album places her age as a fundamental element of her failures. If Madonna’s sexual agency of yesterday triggered our anxieties about the female desire, today it is her age that allows us to direct our hatred and general disdain for the female body into one figure. As if we would never be 53. As if good music depended on extreme youth. As if there were an age-limit to dancing. As if we wouldn’t come up with other nasty things to say about her if she decided to retire and defend animal rights from a remote castle in the South of France. The question is still, How dare her?
“Masterpiece,” one of the many songs from “MDNA” that will never become a single (either because they aren’t “radio-friendly” or because they are basically unlistenable, as “Some Girls,” “Beautiful Killer,” “Bday song,” and “I’m a Sinner.” Although the album does have some gems, as “Love Spent,” “Turn Up The Radio,” and “I Fucked Up,” one of her best songs ever), works as a kind of ode to the rise and fall of the phallus. Akin to her own promises of god-like atemporal longevity (brought to a halt by an ageist, gynophobic culture that isn’t interested in female bodies it cannot confess it wants to fuck), here she seems to mourn the acknowledgment that what she once took for phallic is actually a dildo-like penile thing (Preciado, Manifeste Contra-Sexuel). What she took for a Mona Lisa, a priceless work of art (“‘a look but please don’t touch’ type”), was only so because of the velvet ropes surrounding it. Yes, she is in love with it, she admits, and it hurts. But it gives her solace to finally know that “nothing’s indestructible.” And that, “honestly, it can’t be fun to always be the chosen one.” So maybe it takes a fine comb to find the queering force in Madonna these days. And while she is out laboring away to provide us with a “feast for the eyes” without middle-fingers, girl-on-girl kisses or impromptu public nudity at pizza parlors, it will be the unaccounted-for, unplanned, un-scripted ugliness we will be looking for. The ugliness travestied in glamour, the redemptive masquerade that has thus far enabled us to survive despite our condition. Plus we know that we never liked Madonna for her music, but for the way she gives interviews, attacking the interviewers’ questions like a bitchy unimpeachable goddess whose divinity is as unquestionable as our our own lack of masterpiece status.