Icon, legend, problematic fave Madonna turns 60 today, and we at INTO are taking the occasion to reminisce about the most pivotal and formative memories and moments the pop star brought into our lives. From the early ’80s on, Madonna was queerly and clearly one of us, and through her songs, videos, live performances, and film work, we claimed her as our own.
Ryan Yezak, video editor: Two words: “Hung Up.” This is the moment I became hung up on Madonna. The music video choreography was everything and I would recreate it on the dance floor every weekend during my first year of college (including the stretching and slow motion). I was in awe when she performed with the Gorillaz at the Grammys. Happy birthday Madonna and congratulations on penetrating this gay with your epic music!
Kevin O’Keeffe, weekend editor: When I was a baby gay, I didn’t know much about Madonna. I’d heard “Like a Prayer,” “Like a Virgin,” all the likes. But I didn’t really know her — until I saw the “Hung Up” video. Being an ABBA fan by way of the A*Teens, I immediately recognized the “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” sample. I was quickly hypnotized by the shots of Madonna, alone, stretching in a leotard in an empty dance studio. Years and much education later, I still think “Hung Up” is one of her very best songs, and is probably my personal, sentimental favorite. My Madonna baptism came late, but it came strong.
Mathew Rodriguez, staff writer: I had been a fan of Madonna’s for a long time. My sister owned a lot of her albums and loved her and my mom bopped to some of her tunes. She’s been known for a lot of albums and American Life is not one of them. Underloved and downright maligned, American Life came off as too political and faux-spiritual, especially given the kabbalah-driven masterpiece that was Ray Is Light and the radio-friendly Music which had dropped only three years earlier.
But American Life, for better or worse, was the first album cycle that I was a fully sentient human being for. The album dropped when I was 14 and had come out as queer. I saved money to buy it. I used to listen to the album while playing Enter the Matrix on Xbox.
Though it was such a departure from her other albums, the guitar-driven, confessional American Life has always held so much weight for me. “Love Profusion” is that girl. “X-Static Process” still makes me cry to this day. I know all the words to “Nobody Knows Me.” Sure, you can laugh at her “drinking a soy latte” rap, but given all the rest of the album’s deeper territory, why laugh about her Starbucks run?
Also, in 1985, Madonna hosted the opening episode of Saturday Night Live‘s 11th season. The episode featured a skit called “Pinklisting” about AIDS in which a soap actress refuses to do scenes with someone she doesn’t know, a cover for the fact that she has fear/stigma of HIV/AIDS. The actor who played opposite her was played by Terry Sweeney, SNL‘s only openly gay cast member ever. By the end of the skit, Madonna comes out as an intravenous drug user and turns the idea of HIV stigma on its head.
Bronwyn Lundberg, digital designer: I rented A League Of Their Own almost every weekend of fourth grade and that’s sort of when I knew I was gonna turn out gay. So thanks, Madonna, for contributing to a good cause!
Nico Lang, staff writer: When I was in high school, I got really into Madonna’s song for the Bond soundtrack (the underrated yet low-key nonsensical “Die Another Day”) and I would listen to it all the time on my CD player. At the time, I was a freshman and closeted. I was still in the process of admitting my bisexuality to myself, and given that there were so few models for what that looked like, I never knew that was really an option. I was something I didn’t quite yet have a name for.
One day while I was working on an assignment in German class, I put on my headphones to focus. Another male student in the class asked me what I listening to, and I told him it was Madonna. He snickered and immediately passed the message along to a fellow male classmate: “Oh, he likes Ma-donna.” He made sure to emphasize both syllables, in almost staccato fashion.
The student didn’t have to say it, but I immediately knew what he was getting at: liking Madonna was queer and that made me queer. I’d never considered before that there might be music that specifically appealed to queer audiences—that, for instance, loving Cher wasn’t a universal interest shared by many boys my age. I was, and still am, a slow learner.
But as this realization dawned on me, it was a profound moment of self-realization. Even if he had a problem with me listening to Madonna, I didn’t care what he thought. I liked this song! It was a good song! So I told him to shut up and went back to listening to my CD. I wouldn’t officially start coming out to my classmates for another year, but I consider that day a ceremonial first step.
Andy Cheatwood, product owner: Six-year-old Andy — my friend Celeste got the cassette of Madonna’s titular album for her birthday in the summer of ’83. We wore it out in like a month. I remember a lot of jumping and dancing on her bed to exhaustion. And then when “Like a Virgin” dropped — I definitely had to work to convince the parents to get me my own copy.
Trish Bendix, managing editor: My earliest Madonna memory was from when I was seven, and a peer of mine performed “Like a Virgin” at a group karaoke excursion after a local community theater rehearsal for The Sound of Music. All of the moms at my table looked horrified. Her mom, however, was loving it, and so was I.
Shortly after, Madonna performed an overtly sexual version of “Vogue” on the MTV VMAs and at one point, my mom suggested we should probably change the channel. But I was a stubborn, bossy child (true Sag style!) and refused, enthralled by her agency. It wasn’t long after that I spotted her book SEX at our local library (!?!). Strangely, it was on display (???) but also covered up as to not offend. (For the record, we are both from Michigan, a place that never appreciated her simply because she dared to be daring.)
Obviously, I wanted to see what was in that book, and when I got my first glimpse, I was further intrigued by Madonna’s open exploration of sex and sexuality, which very much included queer people. Later, I’d learn about her dalliances with Ingrid Casares (which is way sexier than her threeway kiss with Britney and Madonna, IMO), and come to appreciate her consistent envelope-pushing. It’s also worth noting that I got the high femme doll of Madonna’s character from Dick Tracy and was obsessed with her boobs. #gay
NAVI, staff writer: I received a package containing Madonna’s Ray of Light on my 9th birthday. In Catholic families, you get godparents and mine thought it would be funny to give my gay ass a Madonna album for my birthday. I wasn’t out yet, but — whew! — were there signs. I probably mentioned I wanted this album to my mom once. Part joke, part sincere show of love, I played that album on repeat for years to come. The track “Little Star” still serves as my arrow to this day.
Kate Sosin: I was 19 driving around South Orange, New Jersey with two friends from college. I had fled the south suburbs of Chicago where I spent the summer closeted and selling condos for my dad. I flew out east for a week for a week for queer respite and spent the better part of that week screaming “Like a Prayer” out of a Dodge Caravan at confused suburbanites.