In 1990, I had no idea who Madonna was. I was 43 years-old and the last time I had taken an interest in pop music was when I used to watch Dick Clark's American Bandstand and learn the latest songs such as "Earth Angel" and dance crazes like the Slop and the Frug from the Philadelphia bobby soxers. Oh, and I did have a healthy backlog of '60s songs to sing in the shower. "If I Had a Hammer" was perfect for when the water pipes began to make their knocking sounds. But I was a lyrics fiend and I couldn't understand the words to the new music delivered by rock stars that suckled the microphone.
But then, at my daughter's confirmation when she turned 16, the rabbi delivered a sermon railing against Madonna, her wantonness, the terrible influence she was having on teenage girls, instructing them to be Material Girls instead of Girl Scouts, exhorting them to be "Like a Virgin," instead of a real virgin. The language in her songs he couldn't bring himself repeat neither in nor out of temple. And her clothes! "Madonna," the rabbi said, "was promoting cleavage on the bima," meaning that the girls who followed her fashion wore low-cut dresses when they gave their bat mitzvah speeches.
Like the teens themselves, just tell me that I "shouldn't" listen to or watch something and I have to. I just do!
When my daughter wasn't home, I began to surreptitiously watch music videos on MTV, and everything my rabbi said was confirmed for me when I saw Madonna in a scanty black leather costume, a studded iron collar clamped around her neck as she writhed in chains while singing a sultry song. But the more Madonna videos I watched, the more astonished I was with her talent. No matter what color she dyed her hair: black, blonde, brown, however short or long she wore it, she was an iconic beauty that I was sure would be emblazoned on the world's consciousness forever like Marilyn Monroe or Marlene Dietrich. She has a slide trombone voice that can move you in any register. She can sound throaty, nasal, or clipped and tinny as a plucked electric guitar string. Her voice throbs through audiences, working them up to a frenzy. And she can deliver her lyrics with the passion of a Holy Roller speaking in tongues, yet you can understand each word and carry the song away with you.
Although I had to hand it to her as an entertainer, like my rabbi, I didn't want my daughter to dance like Madonna whose choreographer might have used the Kama Sutra for inspiration. I didn't want my daughter flipping through the pages of Madonna's Sex book where Madonna looked like a Richard Lindner painting -- hard-edged, veering on the abstract, but aggressively and assertively erotic. But would I tell my daughter not to listen to Madonna? Absolutely not, unless I wanted her to be Madonna's greatest fan.
Hedging, I asked her, "So, what do you think of Madonna?"
"I like Guns N' Roses better," she said.
Phew, I thought.
And then, two years later when my daughter was on break from college, we were in the Museum of Modern Art looking at a show of Cindy Sherman's photographs of herself as different characters such as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Sophia Loren in Two Women, challenging the traditional role of artist and model and how women were viewed in society, I started to think of all those Madonna videos I'd watched, how she'd entered a character so completely and left indelible images in a viewer's mind. Who could forget her lying in the coffin in "Like a Prayer" or dancing before a backdrop of burning crosses? Who could forget her in the man-tailored suit and short, combed-back, short hair singing, "Express Yourself"? At the end of the exhibit, I read on a placard that Madonna had sponsored Cindy Sherman's show. I stopped, live in my tracks, and reread it. I asked one of the docents about it. She told me that Madonna had not only backed Cindy Sherman's show, but that she was a great supporter of other women artists.
I began to chat Madonna up to my daughter. "Did you hear that?" I said. "Madonna is not only bringing herself forward, but all her sisters, too. She's a real feminist!"
My daughter, who had lived through the consciousness-raising groups I held in my basement, yawned a jaw-clicking yawn. Sure, she yawned. She was never forced to wear a panty girdle or go to a commuter college because "girls should always live at home before they're married." My daughter kayaked rapids, climbed mountains, and went off to college where her dorm bathroom was coed. How liberated can you get?
I dropped the subject. But I never dropped my admiration or interest in Madonna. She continues to inspire me. She has never stopped touring or innovating or broadening her interests. She's constantly breaking new ground. She is a philanthropist, raising awareness of the orphans in Malawi. She's published children's books and launched a clothing line with her daughter and who knows what she'll do next? Whenever I fall into the trap of I'm too old to do this ore that, I think of her still going strong in a youth culture, and I'm renewed.
I'm now confirmed in my belief that Madonna is a great example for my daughter and all our daughters. And to think I have my rabbi to thank for this revelation!
Follow Rochelle Jewel Shapiro on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@rjshapiro