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What to Make of Madonna Videos

I feel almost obligated to be a Madonna fan. How many artists take on sex and religion and do so with such courage and success on an international scale? In fact, I am a fan of sorts. She is assuredly a terrific entertainer; she burns with passion and star power. She sure can sing.

And Madonna videos make me nervous.

Maybe that’s a good thing — or maybe not. I’m not sure. I do know that feeling unsettled can lead one in new and interesting directions, can point to prejudices and highly defended wrong opinions. In this case, I’m still pondering the question, which comes to mind because her latest tour, for her Rebel Heart album, kicks off tonight, Sept. 9, in Montreal: then round the world in 64 shows.

One thing Madonna and I agree on is a sentiment in the song “Messiah” on this album: “Don’t want to get to the end of my days/Saying I wasn’t amazed.” We also agree that sex and religion/spirituality are integrally and crucially connected.

On the other hand, pole dancers in nuns’ habits feel disrespectful to me. Or, anyway, I do an inward wince on seeing this.


Holy Pole Dancers?

I do know that some readers of my novels feel that mixing religious icons and doctrines of different religions, as I cheerfully do, is disrespectful. I see no disrespect in this — quite the reverse. For me, the use of these simply means that I’m drawn to them, that they arise in me, that I take them each seriously.

Madonna takes both spirituality and sex seriously. And she scrambles images of both in her videos. And that makes me nervous.

I’m pretty sure this has to do with my Methodist upbringing in the 1950s and early ’60s. Sunday school was not sexy. Making out was not spiritual.

My Madonna History

I was 34 years old — no kid — by the time Madonna released her first album. I wasn’t keeping up with new pop music the way I had at 17. I knew who she was, heard some of the songs, didn’t pay a lot of attention.

Seven years later, I ran into a surprise Madonna tribute. I was on the rooftop patio of the flat where I lived in Varanasi while researching my novel Sister India. Three girls of the 10 or 11 year-old age range were playing on the 2nd floor patio of the building next door– a space of maybe 50 feet and one skinny papaya tree between us. They waved to me. I waved back. We started a conversation.

I’d read before I came here that people sometimes asked visitors to sing a song. I’d hoped that this was not so — what an alarming custom! (Digression: my political brother Harry Payne once shared a podium with Joan Mondale in our hometown of Wilmington. He told her shortly before their talks that it was a local tradition for visiting campaigners to lead the audience in singing “America the Beautiful.” Gave her a good scare for a moment there.)

These three little girls were the only people during my three-month stay to ask me to sing a song. I sang “Happy Birthday.” They said, “No! No! Madonna!” And then the three of them sang a complete Madonna song with their own charming and tame version of the choreography.

The mother who was hanging laundry on the rooftop line looked rather stern. I was wowed.

I guess that’s the level of Madonna videos I’m most comfortable with: the elementary school version. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt if that’s going to change.

Where are you on this question of mixed sexual and religious imagery? Mixed icons of different religions? And why?

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  • September 10, 2015 at 12:57 pm Reply

    I <3 Madonna, hard. I love her overlap of religion and sexuality. I am glad, though, that she stopped crawling on the floor to express that overlap.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 10, 2015 at 2:43 pm Reply

      She has amazing charisma– and sounds like you’ve experienced at least a little of the cringe factor.

  • September 10, 2015 at 8:10 pm Reply

    It is one thing to search out the spiritual interconnection between sex and religion, as you so thoughtfully do, and quite another to insert sex into religious iconography in order to shock people and make yourself the center of controversy.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 10, 2015 at 9:19 pm Reply

      You nailed the distinction, Joe, between what I’m shooting for in my work and what’s bugging me in her visual content. And besides that, thanks!

  • September 10, 2015 at 9:56 pm Reply

    I’m with Joe Burgo. Madonna is interesting to watch, but she always makes me feel like wincing and she goes over the line on which I am able to feel comfortable and approving. As she gets older, it is worse.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 10, 2015 at 10:01 pm Reply

      Interesting, kenju. Do you think her act is becoming more extreme or were you expecting her to tone it down with age? Or…?

  • Amey
    September 11, 2015 at 7:23 pm Reply

    Well, my ambivalence is about the selling aspect —— and it is ambivalent —— what exactly is a honest day’s work? I have a lot of interest and sympathy for women getting by in whatever way works for them; at the same time, the sex “industry” can’t help but be scary in some ways not just to the strait-laced. How much has Madonna simplified and endangered both her spirituality and sexuality (and ours) with what she does? I think this is one of those matters in which you can’t maximize all goods. Madonna’s “I won’t be shamed” is one of her best attributes, but may sometimes lead her into unholy alliances. . .

    • Peggy Payne
      September 12, 2015 at 2:45 am Reply

      The “I won’t be shamed thing” is terrific, isn’t it. Hadn’t thought about it that way, Amey. I tend to be pro-selling: being a freelance writer and a merchants’ kid. I don’t understand the shame that is sometimes attached to selling. Selling sex does tend to victimize the seller, though. However — I sure don’t see Madonna as anybody’s victim. She seems well in charge of herself.

  • Joshua Iacona
    September 11, 2015 at 10:03 pm Reply

    I love Madonna and always have. Sometimes I am shocked by the imagery but why is being shocked a bad thing? When did it become wrong to stir things up and provoke dialogue? If you don’t approve or are repulsed by something change the channel not the artist. Then ask yourself why did I react so strongly? I don’t have to do these things or this or feel a certain way. No is forcie any belief system or way of life on me. Open your mind and heart and the rest will follow. To quote Madonna… Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 12, 2015 at 2:48 am Reply

      I agree, Joshua; I’m very much in favor of stirring things up. And don’t think I could ever favor changing an artist. Asking myself why about my reaction to some of Madonna’s visuals is what I’m about here. I sure wouldn’t ask her to change.

  • Amey
    September 13, 2015 at 12:15 am Reply

    Well, the value of a good conversation back and forth certainly comes forth here. Lots of depth and complexity. An astrologist told me as regards my career as an artist that I was “airing my half-clean and half-dirty laundry.” Sigh, I know we can hugely question what ever can or should be termed “clean” or “dirty.” And I think that’s an aspect of what you are probing, Peggy, in this blog, and further, in your work. How I most usefully understood what the astrologist was saying had to do with my own complexities — the material that I could easily stand on, and the material
    that I was more conflicted and ambivalent about. And we often have to go ahead even if, and maybe particularly if, we are mixed/ambivalent. I liked what you said, Peggy, about the value of selling, and I so agree, and have many good salespersons in my own realm, though not so good at it myself, which may be part of what was in evidence. At the same time, I’d still stick to allowing some query about what Madonna is up to, that we, as “consumers,” can still ask. The answers are going to be individual, and that’s a great and interesting thing.

    • Peggy Payne
      September 14, 2015 at 12:30 pm Reply

      Who has anything but clean and dirty laundry, Amey? Interesting comment of hers, though. Hate to think about what she’d say about me. And you’re right, and I’m also still “asking” about Madonna.

  • Marc Brousseau
    October 12, 2015 at 3:04 pm Reply

    As a life long Madonna fan and a somewhat learned artist, who also works in the media, Ive always found people’s dismissal and condemnation of her, when based on assuming she is just combining sex and religious iconography, for the sake of causing controversy, to be a very superficial interpretation of her work. In defense of this, there is no doubt Madonna does thing solely to cause a stir. But those things, like kissing Drake or the like, is almost always based on comedy in her mind, like belching inappropriately for instance… Madonna is very dedicated to her message and fully believes in what she is doing and is motivated by deeper messages. To say that all of that devotion is an act is to ignore a tremendous ammount of tact and hard work on her part that is unthinkable to most of us. One needs only watch a few interviews with Madonna across her career to notice that she has and maintains some very distinct driving philosophies and is not motivated to simply sell.

    • Peggy Payne
      October 12, 2015 at 11:51 pm Reply

      I agree, Marc Brousseau. She seems devoted to her message, quite sincere about it– and it’s one I agree with. I don’t think her devotion is an act, didn’t say or mean to imply that. I don’t see the humor, though. Will have to look for that again. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

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