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Tuesday , December 14, 2010
Style Icon: Madonna in the 80s
Kat: I was reading rock/culture critic Chuck Klosterman recently and he talks somewhere about how Madonna is something like a "failed sexual icon" -- someone who desperately wants to be a sexual icon (say, Pamela Anderson or Marilyn Monroe) but fails at it. Now, this statement of Klosterman's confused me, and not for the reasons you may think. I didn't say to myself, "This guy's wack! Madonna's totally a sexual icon!" Rather, I was all, "Dude, of course she's not a sexual icon." It got me thinking a little bit about my reaction, about how, even when she was all Sex-y and rubbing her crotch, I never read her as trying to embody some male sexual fantasy. To me, Madonna is all about the pure joy of being a girl, about getting your flirt on, dancing the night away and having a joyfully indomitable spirit. The fact that this is the truest sentence I'll ever write is probably due to the lucky sociological accident of being born at exactly the right time: being nine years old when Like A Virgin came out, in fact.
It goes something like this: imagine you're a little girl and you spend your childhood years kicking it, having fun, digging around in the dirt, running and shouting like a maniac, making up dances to Miami Sound Machine on the lawn for hours and blissfully driving your neighbors nuts. Suddenly weird things happen and before you know it, everyone's starting to get all up in your grill about behaving and boys and periods and popularity and boobs, making the whole business of being a girl suddenly annoying and complicated. And here comes someone who bounces onto the scene, being kind of obnoxious and cheeky, humping onstage in a white dress like the one worn by your beheaded Barbie doll, and generally indulging in naughty and outrageous behavior -- and she becomes basically the hugest thing in the world because of it. That was the impact of Madonna in 1985: a girl who sings about being a virgin, who has the audacity to rip off Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for her video, who got slagged for having no talent and being too sexy -- and becomes a national phenomenon! No wonder I became a bona-fide Madonna "wannabe," buying jelly bracelets by the pound, using lacy tights as a headband, sneaking into a movie theater to watch Desperately Seeking Susan and trying to convince my Catholic friends to steal rosaries for me to pile around my neck. Hers was the first look I tried to emulate, and it had nothing to do with wanting to be fashionable -- it was all about participating in the greater narrative of female rebellion that she epitomized at the time. Since then I've always been drawn to girl rebels and adventurers of all stripes, but I'll always have a soft spot for the first in my pantheon of awesome lady-ness. Madonna: my girlhood guiding light, and always my lucky star.
My favorite vintage Madonna song, "Burning Up" (I still love the white dress she wears in this):
Liz: I first experienced Madonna at age five or six, "Borderline" playing on MTV in my grandparents' living room one day after school. Pretty soon I started stealing my grandfather's neckties and wearing them tied around my head in imitation of that big-ass bow she's got on in the video. Then, of course, there were the black jelly bracelets, many of which were purchased with skee-ball tickets won at the arcade in the mall. And when it was time for my first communion, the first thing I did with my rosary beads was slip them around my neck like Madonna on the cover of Rolling Stone, and I couldn't understand why mom wouldn't let me go to school that way.
Twenty five years later, I still wear those damn jelly bracelets every now and again. And I still, whenever I'm in New York, drop by Love Saves The Day in hopes that the rhinestone boots or the pyramid jacket from Desperately Seeking Susan might've made their way back to the store. No more neckties in my hair or rosary beads around my neck, but I've got nothing but pride when I look back on either display of goofy ingenuity.
More than anything, though, I can't imagine what early girlhood would've been like without Madonna to worship and mirror, what dress-up games I would've played instead (probably Little House on the Prairie, which no doubt has its merits, but we'll get to that in another entry). And like Kat, I feel hugely lucky to have born just at the right time to end up with such a smart-mouthed and shameless fireball of zany ambition for my number-one pop idol. 'Cause it's the ambition thing that's always mattered most, and that's why this 20-second clip will always encapsulate the Madonna I love more than any other. The images that go along with it are incongruously sophisticated, so close your eyes and conjure up lots of lace, spandex leggings, fingerless gloves, bad hair accessories, and, yes, tons and tons of black jelly bracelets.
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