The gunshots and fake blood splattering onto the motel bed made me flinch and look away from the stage toward my mother. She seemed unbothered, smiling and clapping her hands.
We were at my first Madonna concert. A mere 13-year-old, I had never seen anything like it before.
I had been expecting the 52-year-old singer to simply run through the hits my mom always turned up on the local oldies station. Instead, Madonna opened the concert by falling down from an elevated glass confession box she had shattered with a makeshift rifle. In a skintight black bodysuit, she began belting out a song off her new album that I had never even heard before.
Naturally, my life was changed.
The whole concert was a wonderfully weird, violent mess, and I loved every minute of it. By the end of it, Madonna had pretended to shoot and kill half of her backup dancers, stripped down to her lingerie and rolled around on a piano, whirled around a baton while dressed up as a cheerleader and transformed herself into a nun — all in the span of two hours. I was enthralled, yet also so confused.
This was my SoulCycle-loving, Lululemon-wearing, eye surgeon mother’s hero? The mother who constantly told me to cover up with a sweater before I left the house?
Like most people born in 1998, I’d thought of Madonna as a figure permanently stuck in the ‘80s, forever belting out “Like a Virgin” in an endless, outdated loop. The closer I began to look, however, the more I realized Madonna’s ubiquity, not just in the world but in my daily life.
Legend has it that I first appeared to the world as “Ray of Light” poured into the hospital room from my mother’s birthing CD. And while most kids grew up dancing along to the Wiggles, I jumped along to “Material Girl” and “Like a Prayer.” My bedtime reading was “The English Roses,” a children’s book written by, you guessed it, Madonna. I guess it was only a matter of time before I got on board.
The closer I began to look, however, the more I realized Madonna’s ubiquity, not just in the world but in my daily life.
I began to realize Madonna was everywhere. All the female artists I loved from Rihanna to Ariana Grande had Madonna to thank for their careers and the boundaries they could push. She has a Wikipedia page dedicated solely to her cultural influence.
To celebrate her 60th birthday two years ago, The New York Times cataloged 60 ways she’d shaped American culture. She was credited with breaking the — no pun intended — Madonna-whore complex, bringing yoga to the masses, influencing the modern concert experience, making Broadway and gap teeth cool, normalizing conversations about abortions and being the driving force behind MTV’s popularity in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Not too shabby.
She dipped her foot into almost every aspect of modern culture: fashion, publishing, wellness and film. The beauty of Madonna and her far-reaching appeal is how she has been able to transform herself. She has encompassed so many identities over her four decades in the public eye. From New York City club girl, devout yogi, enemy of the Vatican, mystic Jew, British aristocrat and mother of six to disco diva, Madonna has even reinvented what it means to reinvent. Now at the age of 62, Madonna is still breaking down barriers and fighting against a world that places little to no value on aging women.
That’s why she has such far-reaching appeal across women of different ages all over the world. Every woman at some time or another can identify with a phase of Madonna’s.
I guess that’s why my mother and I, who are very different women, both feel a claim to Madonna and our individual idea of what she represents.
For my mother, a child of the ‘80s, Madonna has been a constant fixture that she has grown up alongside. Parallels can be seen between their lives, both becoming mothers almost a year apart and moving to England for their husbands. Although my mother has yet to be banned by the Vatican.
For me, discovering Madonna coincided with discovering my own body. At the age of 13, I had the developed body of a 30-year-old woman, even though I still had neon blue-colored braces and a smattering of teenage acne. It truly was a winning combination. Still in eighth grade, I began to notice the men who stared at me for a little too long on the street, as well as the whistles I would hear through my headphones, directed my way. The simple possession of a female body caused me to become a fetishized object.
In a male-dominated industry, she was always the one in control of her image and her sensuality, harnessing it not for the male gaze but for her own self-fulfillment.
Yet Madonna changed my relationship with my sexuality. The intersection of all of her different facets, forming one singular woman, showed me that I could be funny, ambitious, smart and sexual at the same time. In a male-dominated industry, she was always the one in control of her image and her sensuality, harnessing it not for the male gaze but for her own self-fulfillment. My teenage mind was blown; nobody had ever taught that to me before.
Even though she represents different things to my mom and me, Madonna has constantly united us over the years. My mom and I have not always been the best at communicating. Our diverging personalities mean that she can often find me too wild and emotional, while I’m constantly trying to break through her outward coldness.
But if we were ever fighting and my mother wanted to watch a concert DVD together, she’d have to prematurely forgive me for my teenage craziness. During my first semester at college away from home, whenever I missed my mother, I’d listen to her Madonna playlist and tune out the rest of the world. Even though we live hundreds of miles away from each other, Madonna is still connecting us. Seeing her in the news or embroiled in a new controversy now just makes me excited because I know it means my mother and I will soon call to debrief.
A couple of months ago, Madonna announced that she was going on tour again. I was excited yet slightly sad, as this would be my first Madonna concert without my mother.
As my best friend and I excitedly took our seats, we looked around and saw that we were at least 20 years younger than everybody else in the audience. While washing our hands in the bathroom, a woman, who had traveled from Canada for the concert, went up to us, confused by our youth.
“How old are you girls? Is this your first Madonna concert?”
“It’s her third,” my friend said. The woman looked at me.
“You must have been a baby at your first concert,” she remarked.
“Actually, I was 13. My mom took me,” I proudly declared.
And as if I didn’t already know it, she told me, “You’re so lucky to have such a cool mom.”