Madonna by Nick Levine
Illustration by James Davison.
Nick Levine is a writer and journalist from south London via south Buckinghamshire. He writes about music, pop culture and LGBTQ+ issues for publications including Gay Times, Refinery29, i-D, NME, Time Out and GQ, and has interviewed the likes of Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande and Britney Spears.
The bond between queer pop fans and a glamorous, self-actualising female pop star can be a fairly superficial one. These days, what cishet pop diva doesn't say the right things when she's asked about LGBT rights, or shown photos of drag queens "doing" her? "Wow, they could teach me a thing or two!" I'm not suggesting any particular performer has cultivated a queer fanbase for cynical reasons; I'm just saying it's pretty obvious in 2018 that your new favourite pop star is going to be pro-equal rights. Calling yourself an LGBT ally just isn't difficult or controversial any more.
But the bond between queer pop fans and Madonna is a little bit different, I think, and a lot more deep-rooted. Before she became the "Queen of Pop", a title it's hard to remember her ever not having, Madonna Louise Ciccone was a scrappy misfit from Michigan whose formative years were frequently shaped by gay men. Her first big queer influence was her teenage ballet teacher Christopher Flynn. "He was the first man - the first human being - who made me feel good about myself and special," Madonna told Interview magazine in 2010. "He was the first person who told me that I was beautiful or that I had something to offer the world, and he encouraged me to believe in my dreams, to go to New York. He was such an important person in my life."
When Madonna moved to New York City in 1978, with just $35 in her pocket according to legend, she was drawn to cool and creative types, people she felt she could learn something from. For a time, she slept on pop artist Keith Haring's sofa. Martin Burgoyne, an artist who tended bar at the legendary Studio 54 nightclub, became her best friend. Both were young gay guys and as HIV/AIDS ravaged the city's queer community in the 1980s, both tested positive. By the end of the decade, their pal Madonna was no longer a super-driven wannabe living in a dingy apartment on the Lower East Side. She was a pop superstar who used her fame and influence to raise awareness of the disease that was hurting the people she'd come up with, a disease so stigmatised that President Ronald Reagan wouldn't even say its name in public.
In 1989, she and Christopher Flynn laid on a high-profile AIDS benefit, a dance marathon, in New York City. The same year, she included an AIDS fact sheet with her Like a Prayer album, which went on to sell 15 million copies worldwide. "People with AIDS - regardless of their sexual orientation - deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry," the sheet stated. The following year, Keith Haring and Christopher Flynn lost their lives to AIDS-related illnesses. Martin Burgoyne had already succumbed back in 1986.
During her imperial phrase, which I'd probably peg as 1985 through 1990, queer culture informed Madonna's art as well as her activism. Most famously, her iconic 1990 single and video Vogue spotlighted a dance form that originated on the Harlem ball scene, a place where gay and trans people, mainly gay and trans people of colour, could live out their own fantasies of becoming a superstar. Some commentators have argued that Vogue is cultural appropriation: a wealthy white woman had made herself the face of a queer subculture rooted in oppression and a lack of privilege. Others cite it as an example of Madonna's genius for taking underground ideas into mainstream. Either way, I reckon she had an instinctual grasp of what that scene was all about. "When all else fails and you long to be something better than you are today," she sings on Vogue’s first verse. "I know a place where you can get away - it's called a dance floor, and here's what it's for."
Madonna spotlighted queer lives more overtly in her influential 1991 documentary film Truth or Dare (aka In Bed with Madonna), which followed her on 1990's fabulously controversial Blond Ambition World Tour. (A quick recap: she simulated masturbation on stage while performing one of her biggest hits, Like a Virgin, and the Pope called for a boycott.) Obviously Madonna was the film's leading lady, but her gay male dancers were its witty, vital, and inspiringly open supporting players: two of them even shared a backstage kiss, pretty risqué stuff at the time. The dancers' interactions had such an impact on young gay boys that they were later celebrated in their own documentary film, 2016's Strike a Pose.
Madonna's music has fluctuated since 1990: sometimes it's been tremendous; other times, less than tremendous. But her bond with queer pop fans has never weakened, even if today's LGBT teens probably regard her as a Cher-style "legend", rather than the cultural lightning rod she was to the generation above. There are so many reasons why Madonna appeals to queer people: she's unapologetic, shocking, camp, principled, never quite satisfied. She refuses to let anyone else police her body or how she chooses to dress. Her best music, like 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor album, just makes you want to move.
My own "Madonna moment" came during a Religious Studies class at my all-boys secondary school - weird in a way, but also strangely appropriate given Madonna's love/hate relationship with the Catholic faith. Her 1998 album Ray of Light had just come out to pretty ecstatic reviews, and my teacher, clearly a fellow queer, decided to base an entire lesson on the themes it explored: spirituality, parenthood, emotional growth, confronting your demons. Who knows what my classmates made of the lesson, but closeted, spotty, awkward little 13-year-old me felt, well, touched for the very first time.
Madonna may not be a perfect queer icon or a perfect queer ally. But she is an authentic and loyal one who's played a significant part in helping to normalise queer culture. As her almost unbearably poignant World AIDS Day Instagram post shows, she hasn't forgotten our past. When she did a Reddit AMA in 2013, a fan asked her: "If you were a gay man, would you be a top or bottom?" Madonna's response: "I am a gay man." Normally I hate it when cishet women say this kind of thing, but I think this particular cishet woman has earned herself a pass.
James Davison is an illustrator and painter currently based in London. His work is known for its suggestive humour and camp aesthetic, often blending digital and analogue approaches. He works regularly with publications such as i-D, LOVE and GQ.
During fashion month he can be seen front row and backstage, sketching shows such as Balmain, Vivienne Westwood and Moschino.