Monday, June 23, 2008

Music and Morals, Part 5: Wannabe [A Guest Post by Really Rosie]

I made it through the wilderness
Somehow I made it through
Didn’t know how lost I was
Until I found you.
I was beat
I’d been had
I was sad and blue
But you made me feel
Yeah, you made me feel
Shiny and new.

When I mention to people that I was a Madonna wannabe (as in “I wanna be like Madonna!”), it makes them laugh. It’s not something you’d expect if you knew me. But somewhere between the time I was a little girl in pink smocked dresses and the time I was a straight-A high-schooler, there was Jamy, and there was Madonna.

We were eleven years old. Jamy was from the outskirts of the city, and I was a suburban girl. She was an only child and a latchkey kid, and the kind of girl who you knew would probably soon be into boys and drugs, but for the time being talked about prank calls and shoplifting and knew what clothes and music were cool. She used to make up elaborate fantasy games at recess, and sometimes I was lucky enough to be allowed to join in.

I adored Jamy, but I never felt secure in her esteem. I thought she was my best friend in the world, but each day when I came to school, she would name a different classmate who was her best friend. I would have done anything for her attention, which she gave to me sparingly and grudgingly. She made fun of me constantly: “Here I am, I’m Rosie, with my sandals and my dresses and my long hair, skipping down the street.” Or once she told me that she knew that whatever she said or did to me, I would still be her friend and follow her around. I would call her every night after dinner, and we would talk for a long time. My mother tried to convince me to skip a night and see if Jamy would call me, but I was sure that she wouldn’t, and that therefore the only way I could talk to her was if I did the calling.

Jamy knew what we should be “into,” and what she was into in 1985 was Madonna. It started with Jamy singing “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” and teaching them to me, and it evolved into full-on hero worship. Soon I was buying record albums with my tooth-fairy money and playing them on my Fisher-Price record player. I was memorizing lyrics and buying fan magazines, cutting out every picture of Madonna I could find, and collaging my bedroom walls. Jamy would sleep over, and we’d play records and dance, tie up our hair with tights and wear ripped clothes and proclaim ourselves “sleazy.”

The music was -- well, I didn’t exactly get it. I had to ask my mother what a virgin was, and I wasn’t quite sure I understood what “material” meant, even after it was explained to me. There was something that scared me a little about the song “Burning Up,” but I liked the opening notes of “Borderline,” and the exuberance of “Lucky Star.” I knew my parents disapproved of the lyrics, the sex, and the pseudo-Catholicism, which onl made me want to love the music more. I enjoyed the looks of shocked disbelief I got when my parents heard me sing a lyric like, “Unlike the others I’d do anything/I’m not the same, I have no shame/I’m on fire!”

I’m not sure when or how things went awry. I started getting into trouble at school. I was frequently made to sit in a chair in the hallway outside the classroom. I double and triple-pierced my ears with safety pins multiple times. I wore eyeliner, rubber bracelets, and fingerless gloves. I started shaving my legs. Once or twice I went to school wearing only a thigh-length black t-shirt and underpants. I started getting into fistfights. I kicked another girl in the head once after I’d already pushed her down. I was angry and hurt and I stopped letting people touch me. Once I half-heartedly tried to strangle myself in the back room at school with the long plastic bead necklace I was wearing. I got suspended and nearly flunked out of sixth grade.

Maybe it was because of Jamy’s fair-weather friendship, or maybe the music that I played constantly but barely understood; but, whatever the reasons, I started hating myself. I used to lie on my bed and gaze up at the life-size poster of Madonna and take everything in, the "Boy Toy" belt, the messy bed-head, the crucifixes, the gloves, the half-closed eyes and half-open mouth. I would wonder who she was, what she was thinking, what she could teach me. And I would wonder who I was. Would Madonna save me from myself if I was her number-one fan? In the rare photos of me taken at that time, I look angry and lost.

When I was twelve, my parents decided at take me and my three younger brothers to Israel in anticipation of my bat mitzvah. I didn’t want to go. Why should I go to a far-away country that had nothing to do with me, to celebrate a milestone that I wasn’t even sure I cared about?

We stayed in Israel for a full month, touring around the country and visiting relatives. My father had hired Laura, a young American ex-pat, to drive us around in a van and serve as our tour guide. And somehow -- starting on the first day we arrived in Israel, and Laura led us through a little Havdalah service, the closing prayers at the end of the Jewish Sabbath, in front of the Western Wall -- I felt something inside me change. There was something familiar to me in the stones of Jerusalem, the green and blue of the Galilee, and the dust of Masada. There was something lyrical in the spoken Hebrew that I’d always found to be so obtuse on the page. Something sweet to be tasted in the persimmons and even the lemons from the tree in my cousins’ backyard. I had always believed in God, but Israel was a whole country of holiness. I opened myself to the experience, and was amazed at what I saw and felt.

And as I am as influenced by people as I am by countries, or music, or literature, I watched Laura. I saw her wait three hours between eating meat and eating dairy and resolved to do the same. She heard me singing in the back of the van and told me I had a nice voice; it made me want to sing more. And I found myself singing not Madonna, but the prayers from the children’s Shabbat service: “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” Laura told me I was pretty; it made me examine myself in the mirror.

When I came back from the trip, I couldn’t wait to finally call Jamy and tell her all about it. I dialed the phone, breathless with excitement, and Jamy answered. Before I could even begin, she said, in her usual scathing tone, “I’d personally never go to that country. So dangerous, with all those Arabs. . .” And I never heard the end of her thought, because I hung up on her. Two or three days later, for the first time ever, Jamy called me. And I told my mother to tell her I wasn’t home.

Perhaps it was right after I had hung up on Jamy, or perhaps it was a day or two later, but I soon realized that I could no longer listen to Madonna. She wasn’t who I wanted to emulate, she wasn’t the direction I wanted my life to take. Where in her music was the music of the Jerusalem souk, the cool salty thickness of the Dead Sea, the green of the olive trees? I had seen and felt beauty, and it wasn’t Madonna. I went into my bedroom and tore down every single picture. For years afterwards, I would have to resist the urge to run when I heard a Madonna song on the radio.

I listened to the song “Like a Virgin” today. It’s bubble-gum pop at its worst: synthesizer, drum machine, untrained vocals. Madonna sounds like she’s singing in a tunnel and using only part of her voice; you want to tell her to try to breathe and use the whole instrument. She sighs; she moans a little. The words fail to titillate or shock me anymore; perhaps they were always this devoid of the forbidden mystery of sex, but I just didn’t know it at eleven.

I suppose we are constantly asking ourselves who we want to be. For a while, it looked like I really could have become a juvenile delinquent. Instead, I threw myself wholeheartedly into Judaism for a time. It still colors my life, my actions, my decisions, the way I see the world. I have been and I am an actor, a wife, a mother. Who I want to be is always evolving. One thing I know for sure, though, especially when I revisit her music: I don’t want to be like Madonna.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. I have posted on Madonna a few times:

She has made a career out of exploiting Christian symbols and mysteries to prop up her own narcissism.

Pentimento said...

Glad to see you, T.Q. Really Rosie may respond, but I want to say hi and tell you that I liked your Madonna posts - thanks for linking to them. I suppose we're all inured to such things by now, but when you stop to think about the Catholic iconography Madonna appropriated in her quest for fame and notoriety (and used in the most self-promoting and idololatrous, if not blasphemous, ways) it certainly gives pause. I'm a certified square so I don't know if she's doing the same thing with her new-found pseudo-Judaism.

dreshny said...

T.Q., I think this video should illustrate your point quite nicely: Watch what she does with the rosary.

Pentimento, I have no idea if she's doing the same thing to Judaism these days. I don't think she is, but I'm out of touch with such things. Though she's been condemned by both the Pope and the head rabbis of Israel.

From her Wiki page:
'Israeli rabbis condemned the song "Isaac" from Confessions on a Dance Floor because they believed it was a tribute to Rabbi Isaac Luria and claimed that Jewish law forbids commercialising a rabbi's name. Madonna denied the accusations, claiming she named it after an Israeli singer and said, "The album isn't even out, so how could Jewish scholars in Israel know what my song is about?"'

Pentimento said...

And now, as the tabloids are screaming from every street corner in NYC, she's breaking up A-Rod's marriage . . . pretty sad.

I don't want to oversimplify, nor overstate the obvious, but her spiritual beliefs, such as they are, are surely not guided by God. I've seen that when you start making it up as you go along spiritually, and start to syncretize and amalgamate this spiritual practice with that one in the quest for "bliss" (which seems to be the goal that the L.A. kabbalists are promoting), it's really easy for your own life to degenerate into personal chaos and immorality.

Dreshny, just to clarify, does that video need a content warning? I mean, what Madonna does with a rosary in it might not be something that everyone would wish to see, or am I wrong about that? Just let me know, as I don't want to offend anyone here.

dreshny said...

Nah, she's totally sincere with what she's doing with the rosary. It's what's suggested by the images that are juxtaposed with it that might be problematic.