By Pooja Pande
Originally published on 18 August 2017.
Touched for the very first time/When your heart beats next to mine
Somewhere between an impromptu crooning of Like a Virgin at dinner parties to a bunch of 20-somethings we called aunties and uncles and parents — I’m guessing in hindsight the hostess must have slapped herself for saying, ‘Oh beta, what will you sing for us? Gaana sunao na…’ — and her Woman of the Year speech at the Billboard Women in Music 2016 event, where the lady famously held back tears and called herself a “bad feminist”, lies for me, an entire lifetime of learning, living, loving, and laughing.
Growing up in the middle of nowhere in the 80s — nowhere being Middle East — excitement was never too close, or at least never too close enough for me. But a Thursday evening always seemed to descend with a promise (Fridays were the Sundays’ counterparts in that desert), a tingling feeling of could-it-be excitement! For one, there was that bonus of an extra allowed hour of Chart Attack. And two, did I mention it was the weekend?
I don’t know why they say screens are making and/or marring young lives only now — it’s always been so. Chart Attack was to my life as a 10-year-old in Sharjah, what MTV was to become in Delhi years later. Chart Attack was a music countdown show — top 25, I think — of international (meaning American and British) pop music.
But, try hard as I might — and I try every year around this date — I simply cannot conjure up my first encounter with Her. As I dig and dig, one image stays crackle-snap-sharp and it might just be the earliest memory I have of Madonna. Her face turns around, fast and hard in a quick motion, to face the camera. Two hands picture her face like a frame, one in front of her forehead, the other beneath her chin. It is all in black and white, which makes her mole even more prominent. The music is epic, the dancers are unreal. She is a goddess. It is ‘Vogue’.
I immediately spend the next week memorising all the words off the ‘Greta Garbo and Monroe’ monologue that sits like a centrepiece in that song.
‘Vogue’ is the next party anthem, I decide. I can’t wait for that next dinner party. The other kids got nothing on me — all I have to do is rattle off that monologue. And I do. And they don’t. This is coolth, I know it then. And Madonna, is the Maker of coolth.
Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it.
A couple of years later, I orchestrate a ‘Vogue’ interlude for the annual school function. I now live in Delhi, and I actually know two other teenagers who are die-hard Madonna fans, besides myself. One’s a pretty Himachali living with her guardians in the Alaknanda neighbourhood, and the other’s the daughter of a Saket store-owner with a tendency to suddenly burst into gory Partition tales — “My dadaji used to live in Peshawar…” she’d begin, and we would run away. Ah yes, children are cruel. But that’s because the damn authorities are crueller. Imagine our shock when the programme in-charge busts our practice session after school to tell us we now had “three minutes tops”, because really, “Nobody cares about this Madonna-Shadonna. What is it anyway?” The other kids are doing Vande Mataram, the other kids are doing ‘The Sound of Silence’, somebody’s putting up a whole skit on Shakuntalam, for God’s sake! I might’ve been in that exact frame-pose of ‘Vogue’ when this happened. Or so I’d like to think, at least.
We were enraged. I staged a walk-out, but neither of the girls followed me. “Three minutes bhi kaafi hai, yaar,” they said. I fumed, but I came right back inside. “Okay fine, let’s just do the monologue then,” I said.
The actual performance bombed big time. I don’t remember getting even one synchronisation right and the restlessness of the audience somehow increased geometrically during those 3 minutes. What do they know, I thought. “They sit through SPIC MACAY concerts.” I had a fallout with the Himachali girl, and we were both shocked to learn that the Partition-grandchild had been faking her Madonna-love all along. I refused to speak to her for months, so shocked was I by this deception. But then one day, she pulled a Walkman out of her bag surreptitiously, and told me she had “all the Madonna songs” and we could listen to them together in recess. We heard ‘Lucky Star’, ‘Borderline’, and ‘True Blue’, back to back and we were friends again. And as she sang along, “I’ve had other guys, I’ve looked into their eyes…”, I knew that I was now not only a fan, but one who had created another.
This was getting serious.
Long stem roses are the way to your heart/ But he needs to start with your head.
Satin sheets are very romantic/What happens when you’re not in bed?
Trick question: What do you do when you’re the knower of the Gospel Truth — and in Madonna’s case, this is max-pun-intended territory — when it comes to the business of boyfriends? Answer: You remain single. Cool in that precocious way. But single.
See, she’s drilled a certain standard of relationships and love into your head and nobody around you seems to make the cut. — “Second best is never enough,” she tells me, an anthem I hold close to my heart and hold onto — and swarming around me was what felt like a tsunami of second bests. This is only class 8, after all, these are pretty steep expectations for a bunch of 13-year-old boys whose idea of romance is staging that perfect moment of “proposing”. How could I speak about Express-Yourself-Respect-Yourself to a guy who has timed the water cooler break to mumble on about “I-want-to-propose-to-you?”, with whom I shall have to share the much-looked-forward-to-treat of a cabana ice-cream in the precious seconds of freedom that played out between stepping outside the school gate and boarding the school bus? And will we be like Madonna and Sean Penn in Shanghai Surprise — all sizzling chemistry and this perfect complementing of yin and yang? Could we?
Meanwhile, I have a suspicion that this boy is drooling. He isn’t. Or is he? I leave the water cooler.
Mine were pressing questions. Though somewhere down the line, surging hormones and the perfect understanding of the joy of splitting that cabana shoved aside my questions.
But all through the torturous teen years (an erratic learning curve about boy-girl feelings), I know that Madonna held it together for me. I wasn’t too sure what she meant when she went on and on about demanding respect from boys, teachers, annoying uncles, the world at large, but it felt like a giant slice of cake that had been denied to you and would continue to be denied to you unless you did something about it. I knew I wanted that.
Don’t Tell me to Stop/Tell the Rain Not to Drop
In college, once I had encountered the fine genre of biographies and marked myself a snob in more ways than one (at least in my own head). I read everything the bookshop had to offer on her. In the mid-90s, this wasn’t much, but there was Midland on Janpath, where if you spent hours, you would find a thumbed copy of one ancient Rolling Stone magazine that felt like you’d struck gold. Or, if you were lucky, a coffee table-format of Sex,which you would open and plonk shut straightaway, wondering if the florist has noticed yet, and plotting on the best ways to buy it. The album it came with, Erotica, I had already procured from the very-jugaadu Malviya Nagar cassette shop owner. In the Madonna timeline of my life, a stack of the white tapes on a storefront, sitting next to ‘The Best of the 80s’ stacks in red is a strong visual memory.
I fished out the Guinness Rockopedia in South Ex this one time LSR (my college) was sucking the life out of me and I had bunked and hopped on the bus with no aim in mind, and then found purpose in this yellow tome of a book, which had dedicated an entire double-spread to Madonna’s place in the world of pop music. It featured the Gautier conical bras — with her in them — and it called her a feminist. Oh wow, that’s what she was! That’s what I am! Or want to be… How does one become a feminist, though? Those bras certainly looked very uncomfortable.
For the first time in my life, I wanted to know about her and not just her music — after all, one was an expression of the other. I was hungry for information and Google had not yet been invented. I started reaching out to people I knew who “went abroad” regularly, asking them to get me more. All those unauthorised biographies on her (she has famously shied away from book/documentary deals aching to tell the real story of her life), interviews with her in Variety, Rolling Stone… I watched everything there was to watch. Desperately Seeking Susan and Truth or Dare remain favourites to date, because they capture both her magnetism and her magnetic vulnerability.
I read and I read. I learnt about her Catholic upbringing, her small town roots, the ideas of sins and confessions and punishment and hell she grew up with. I imagined her running away from Detroit, from it all with $26 in her pocket to New York, the only place that must have spelled freedom to her. It was like a pulsating vein in my own head. That city, until I visited myself, years later, and too many decades after she had. And even though it didn’t really feel dirty or dangerous, there were inklings of it, I thought. How freedom can be overwhelming and giddy, and can make you believe what you want to. So dreaming big is a good skill to nurture. As a waitress in Manhattan, I’m quite certain Madonna — then Veronica Louis Ciccone — saw herself as the queen she was meant to be. My favourite bit of trivia from this time of her life is how she spilt coffee over a customer’s shirt purposely, because he was getting on her nerves. I tried to find this Dunkin Donuts outlet on Times Square where she had revealed herself before getting fired. Respect Yourself is a whole lotta attitude to carry around, after all. As is that classic one-liner: “Would it sound better if I were a man?” Oh, how did she know what I was thinking!
But the trick I thought, I think, is to never let it become baggage. That’s when you lose the plot. She teaches you that too, because if you only, simply dance, you’re bound to be light on your feet. Dancing is all she was ever really-really good at, I know this despite my devotion. She can hold a tune and sometimes pretty well too, but she knows this and she sounds off the disclaimer each time she picks up the guitar, live. Or she goes all punk-bordering-on-heavy-metal-dissonance at those jam-packed concerts — a study in performance art, they are. No, really, they study Madonna’s performance art in universities.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions/We only got 4 minutes to save the world.
Because it is when the dancing, so much of which can be solo and for personal pleasure alone, turns into performance that she showcases everything there is to love about her, about life. It’s when she’s telling all of us, all women — me! — that you need to keep that energy going, because else, you might as well be dead, with people walking all over you. A dancer on Broadway once told me how Madonna’s practice sessions prior to touring, are infamous: There is a sacred reporting time, she arrives half-an-hour earlier anyway. There are no air-conditioners or fans, the sweat doesn’t seem to bother her. And there is one break, which she sometimes doesn’t even take. If it sounds punishing, it also sounds like something close to faith, doesn’t it? As if her religion is work, never giving up, always going on. This is the impetus behind her constant re-inventions, her self-confessed Spartan life. There is a reason why we never hear of her excessive partying, why we’ve lost so many of her contemporaries to a lifestyle that kills you. “At home, I’m Mary Poppins,” she flirted with James Corden on his Carpool Karaoke show. And she sometimes makes flighty references to her inherent sense of being organised — “I’m a Leo, so you know, I take notes. He’s an Aquarian, so you know, he erm, doesn’t,” she said in a making-of-Four-Minutes special, taking a dig at Justin Timberlake. It’s a video I’ve watched obsessively, not because it’s a great video, or a phenomenal song, but just for this line. And also, because it lets me vicariously channel fandom through none other than Timberlake. “Madonna wants me to use me as a broom. Not you,” he says, looking us all in the eye, all of us who’ve grown up mesmerised by her power. The lady in question simply sniggers. She’s in the Hall of Fame, for Christ’s sake, inducted by Timberlake—– she’s like been there, done that.
Oh, how I’ve tried to channel this attitude each time I’ve felt like I need to make a point as a woman in the world. I mean, you could say I’ve been practicing a been-there-done-that brand of feminism. Because the lady might have 20 years (and a week) on me, but if you’re gonna mansplain me something — it could be right wing/left wing BS, or Eddie Van Halen’s hooks, or the wheelbarrow position — I’m-a-gonna-go yawn! Please papa, don’t preach.
It has worked like a magic spell.
Lady Gaga is amusing and flattering… reductive.
It was August 16, 2008, and I was at Manhattan, in BB King Blues Club, and in the midst of a sea of Madonna fans: Lots of women, lots of girls, and several gay men. Everyone was screaming, everyone was dancing, and everyone felt connected. It was a Madonnathon — pointless to anyone and everyone who didn’t understand fandom — and it was electric. I was chatting with random strangers and telling them how I had just celebrated my 30th birthday a week ago, and that’s how I know it’s Madonna’s 50th. (Insert eye-roll). A Baby-Spice-kinda-cute girl in a hot pink swimsuit — ‘Hung Up’ is her favourite song — who had bussed it in from out of town on a Greyhound was telling me how she was going to spend another week in the city, trying to break on through to the side of fame. An extremely handsome, gay man was regaling us all with perfect Madonna impersonations: Like that aura she puts up at interviews when she chooses to give them. Like the time she was asked if she thought Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way’ was derivative, and she called it amusing, flattering, and then, bulldozed the discussion by calling it reductive. Oh, how Madonna, no? Mince no words when you choose to speak and then make sure to burn ‘em good. We had a Madonna lookalike sashay up on the stage, dressed in a Human Nature-styled leather outfit, and the collective love and energy of that floor now had a convergence point. I’m sure that lady went home, happy and high.
Weeks later, I checked how Madonna had spent her 50th. Her daughter Lourdes, it seems, had prepared for her mother her very own Madonnathon, a medley of all her hits, dressed in her outfits.
Go hard or go home
It is not easy to be a fan these days. It’s much easier being a feminist. I’m glad I have managed to be both, staying in this unwavering emotion and adoration for a pop star who is not flawless — that Sean Penn marriage going sour, among so many others, spoke to me of my own incompetence and immaturity in relationships. I am glad I can obsess over the detail that she asked to sleep with her personal trainer when she was ready for a child, because he was the fittest person she knew. That she drew up the contract and everything! And glad that I can also, you know, follow her on Twitter.
When people question my choice, and throw Bey at me, I play devil’s advocate. “I’m sure Madonna’s a horrible person,” I say. “Mean and haughty and full of herself. Have you watched the BMW ad with Clive Owen, which Guy Ritchie directed? That must be who she is — Ritchie was married to her then. He’d know!” Because even this — tempered adoration — I’ve learnt from my diva. Take it with a pinch of salt, girl. Take it all with bags of salt. But don’t hold back. When she did a tribute for Michael Jackson, she had tears rolling down her cheeks as she spoke of his special genius and his quirky warmth. And her voice was breaking even as she was condemning what took him away — she was holding MJ himself responsible for his sudden end, at some level.
Anger, love, and that rigid need for discipline to make it in this world, all shining through in that moment. In the one, the only. Madonna.
If it weren’t for Madonna, Pooja Pande would not be Pooja Pande. You can read more of her writing here.