I remember the first time I heard her voice. It was in the middle of a karate class when I was seven years old. Out of the radio speakers sprang a vibrant, exuberant voice full of life singing over a gentle piano melody. I was transfixed. Sure at the time I was knee-deep into my Whitney phase (I was living for The Bodyguard soundtrack my mama played constantly at the time) but this was different. I didn't know the song's name was "Borderline" or that its singer was a white chick from Michigan named Madonna, but I knew I liked it.
I heard her again late at night, but this time it was a ballad. I can still remember the first time I heard the chorus. It was like being wrapped in silk. "I've always been in love with you/I guess you've always known it's true," she sang, her voice surrounded by romantic strings. As a little black boy growing up in a small southern town, Madonna wasn't on my radar. My musical world consisted mostly of the aforementioned Nippy or Anita Baker, and the old Al Green, Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder records my dad would play in the evening.
Occasionally the classical music I learned in music lessons made its way onto my sonic palette. Gospel music was another dominating sound, along with the occasional dose of homophobia served up in church. The closet was calling. It would be a few years before I heard her again.
"You're frozen/When you're hearts not open," her voice rang out over the school bus speakers. This was supposed to be the new Madonna, the serene New Age thinker who preached spiritual enlightenment and reflective introspection instead of sexual exhibitionism and eroticism. And I didn't like her. At 12 years old I loved Aaliyah, The Spice Girls, Mariah Carey, Usher and TLC. I wanted to dance along to "Are You That Somebody," not think about the state of my soul. I wasn't ready to go there yet.
Junior high came and with it the beginnings of adolescent alienation. My older brother and all my friends were all about No Limit, UGK, Jay-Z, Cash Money and screwed/chopped up rap that was pouring out of Texas. I bought a few rap albums like the Chronic 2001, 400 Degreez and Ghetto D, but for the most part I was feigning interest, nodding my head to keep from arising even more suspicion that had been peaked with my previous musical choices (did I mention I danced to Janet's "I Get Lonely" too?). The music was cool to dance to, but I didn't feel it. Something was missing.
"Haven't we met/You're some kind of beautiful stranger," she sang to me as she gyrated across the screen. Now this was the voice I heard on "Borderline." Full of cool energy with just a hint of smart-ass wit. Something about "Beautiful Stranger," captured me in a way "Back That Ass Up" Or "Forgot About Dre" never did. I had to know more about her.
Luckily older fans had created websites full of old interviews, photoshoots and videos for me to discover (even though this was still during the dark ages of dial-up). I devoured everything Madonna. Looking back I think was unconsciously drawn to her take-it-or-leave attitude, her brashness, her support of sexual liberation and the way she challenged gender stereotypes.
Even though at 13 years old I was nowhere near ready to say the words "I'm gay" something about Madonna's world--full of theatrics, catchy pop hooks and fun--felt safe. Listening to The Immaculate Collection and Like A Prayer provided a daily antidote to the awkwardness and isolation I felt at school and home as my difference became more pronounced. Dancing to "Music," "Vogue," or "Into The Groove" and watching the "Express Yourself" video went beyond simple fandom. It felt I was learning something important, character traits I would need to survive.
As I entered high school and enveloped myself in a cocoon of self-loathing and depression, she continued to be my guide. My musical tastes expanded to thrash, goth and heavy metal. Harsh, dark music that acted as a shield against the hell of high school. But Madonna was still there, the Erotica and Bedtime Stories albums reflecting a deeper maturity that spoke to my vulnerable emotional state. Of course you know the rest. I woke up from the haze, came out and left my delusions of becoming straight behind. Other artists may have tried to take her place--Marilyn Manson, Metallica Green Day, Kanye, Alicia Keys, Mary J--but have never succeeded.
Sorry Whitney. I'll holla Mariah and Beyonce. Love ya' Janet and Aaliyah. But Madonna is my Grand Diva. I admit it. I'm a complete Madge stan. I believe in 100 years her work will be studied by cultural scholars and historians. I feel a sense of total liberation and joy when I listen to her music. It's almost spiritual. "Vogue," "Holiday," "Rescue Me," "Ray Of Light" "Deeper and Deeper," "Hung Up"--the songs not only make me want to get up and dance and always put me in a good mood. Meanwhile the ballads--"Oh Father, "Live To Tell," "I'll Remember," "Bad Girl," Inside Of Me" "Love Tried To Welcome Me," "Drowned World"--make me think deeply about my relationships, my family and life in general.
Her live shows, often full of multiple meanings, extravagant staging, glamorous costumes and irreverent antics, leave me breathless. Her photo shoots can be fun and flirty or dark and provocative, depending or whatever mood this clever chameleon is in.
Madonna inspires me with her work ethic and her inner strength to overcome tragedy and adversity in her life. I love her constant artistic growth, how she can pull inspiration from virtually anywhere and present it to her audience in an alluring, engaging way. She is my favorite female artist, if not my favorite artist period. In short, I love that bitch!
So who's your Grand Diva? Tell me in the comments:).