Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Take a Bow, Madonna

If you asked nearly anyone in 1981 what they imagined when they heard the word “Madonna,” they would have answered the Virgin Mary or another idealized woman cloaked in modesty — submissive, gentle, embracing, calm. If you asked the same question a decade later, the answer would have been radically different.

By then, the world had discovered a new Madonna, a corset-wearing, ballsy provocateur from Michigan. That Madonna said what she wanted, did what she pleased and dared others to do so, too. That Madonna was a showgirl and most definitely not a virgin.

Madonna turns 65 this week. During her 40 years in the spotlight, she has been loved and loathed in equal measure. It is safe to say no other artist of her renown stirs such passionate debate. At the heart of it lies a basic misconception as to who she is. Though she is most often described as such, Madonna is not merely a blinding blue star in a vast celebrity galaxy. She has accomplished what few artists — and even fewer female artists — have done: She has changed the world. Though you wouldn’t know that from her press coverage.

From 1984, when she nearly killed her nascent career by flashing her panties while performing “Like a Virgin” at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, up to today’s press and social media fixation on how she looks and whom she dates, facile headlines screaming “sex” and “outrage” have dogged her career and defined Madonna for many people. While there have been plenty of both in her life, those words don’t begin to explain the challenge she poses, much less the source of her allure. Not sex but power. Not outrage but courage.

Madonna is a cultural wrecking ball who has dared to be everything — performer, songwriter, producer, actor, director, children’s book author, muse — at a time when women were encouraged to stick to one lane. She has broken through social barriers, too, using her words and her work to confront the music industry, Hollywood, the Taliban, the Putin regime and the Vatican, to name just a few of her adversaries, over sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia and hypocrisy.

Because she is a woman and a pop star, critics generally dismiss her political statements as opportunistic grandstanding. But young people looking toward a future that seems closed to them see past that criticism. The novelist Soniah Kamal was introduced to Madonna’s music as a child while living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She said Madonna represented “pure, unadulterated, raw sexual liberation” and hope: “Hope that sexy girls did not necessarily die bad deaths, hope that sexy girls lived to tell their tales, hope that sexy girls could rule the world. And do.”

Madonna’s fans have come to know her story almost as a fairy tale: a middle-class girl from Middle America without a single professional connection in New York who worked hard, really hard, to become the person she dreamed of without compromising herself as a woman or as an artist. When her first single, “Everybody,” was released in 1982, she was as surprised as anyone to hear her voice coming out of the radio.

The timing of Madonna’s arrival was critical to her impact. It was the start of the Reagan presidency, which was emboldened by the first Republican-controlled Senate since 1954. The political right and religious right believed they finally had the power to reverse liberal gains made during the previous two decades on women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights.

By contrast, the world that Madonna inhabited was New York’s all-night dance clubs, places like Danceteria, the Roxy and the Paradise Garage. This was a discrimination-free zone where gender, race and sexual diversity weren’t debated; they were celebrated. Possibility was the byword. Humor the password. Collaboration the method.

Madonna’s earliest work, especially her star turn in Susan Seidelman’s 1985 film “Desperately Seeking Susan introduced fans to a place free from convention and restraint where a woman could be a remarkable creature, herself rather than what society expected of her. Madonna opened her “Virgin Tour” that year with a message: “Don’t be afraid. It’s gonna be all right.” They believed her, and a new generation of feminists was born. Some became the third wavers, postfeminists, riot grrrls and the girl power tribe of the 1990s.

But women and girls weren’t the only people who heard her exhortation to live without fear. H.I.V./AIDS was killing gay men by the thousands by 1985. As “wrath of God” murmurs spread by powerful nationally broadcast radio preachers grew louder, the men who had long been considered outcasts were now shunned, shamed and abandoned as pariahs.

A few older celebrities — Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Rivers, Burt Lancaster — made early public and impassioned calls on behalf of those living with AIDS. But in the lust-fueled pop and rock world of MTV, being an advocate for people with an infection linked to sex wasn’t considered a savvy career move.

Madonna’s world was peopled with gay men she loved, some of whom she would lose to AIDS. Gay men had been among her earliest and most important supporters. There was no way she would turn her back on them.

She decided to fight the AIDS crisis on two fronts. As an advocate for people with H.I.V./AIDS, she spread safe sex messages and raised money for AIDS organizations. As an artist, she used her work to celebrate gay life at a time when the dominant narrative involved death.

Madonna produced unforgettable statements featuring beautiful, talented gay and bisexual men (some H.I.V. positive), starting with her “Cherish” and “Vogue” videos, her “Blond Ambition” tour and her revolutionary performance at another MTV awards show, in 1990. Madonna and her dancers, dressed as Marie Antoinette and her courtiers, stormed that Bastille of macho heterosexuality with a full camp version of “Vogue.”

At that crucial moment, she forced mainstream society — globally — to see gay men as she did, with admiration, not scorn. Madonna also helped gay men view themselves differently, with pride. In the years since, her embrace of and by the queer community is undiminished. As the journalist Anderson Cooper said in 2019, “No single ally has been a better friend or had a bigger impact on acceptance for the L.G.B.T.Q. community than Madonna. It’s that simple.”

In the 1980s, when Madonna was in her late 20s, the press began musing aloud about when she might retire. Women in pop music had a use-by date, and hers was seen as fast approaching. With each decade, the same question persisted with varying degrees of cruelty. During a 2017 interview with the writer Roxane Gay (now a contributing Opinion writer for The Times), Madonna called it out for what it is: sexist. “Does somebody ask Steven Spielberg why he’s still making movies? Hasn’t he had enough success?” she said. She added, “Did somebody go to Pablo Picasso and say, ‘OK, you’re 80 years old. Haven’t you painted enough paintings?’ No.”

Madonna isn’t finished. The battle against bigotry that she has fought throughout her career is far from over, and she has something to say about it. As she prepares to begin her “Celebration” tour in October, that’s great news for us. If her past is any indication, we can expect to be shocked, inspired, challenged and entertained. We will also be enlightened.

So happy birthday, Madonna, and thank you.

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Mary Gabriel is the author of “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler, Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art” and the forthcoming ”Madonna: A Rebel Life.”

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