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Gay People's Court: Madonna v. Boy Scouts v. Lady Gaga

Posted by Scott Kearnan  March 18, 2013 09:56 AM

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If, like me, you were out on Saturday night doing something way cool that definitely did not involve watching videos on the Internet (WINK FACE), you may have missed that Madonna showed up to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Awards in New York City. She gave a two-minute speech honoring Anderson Cooper for his work as an out journalist. She preceded it with an eight-minute speech honoring herself for being the most awesomely supportive gay icon of all time, and if you dare disagree she will cut you with the Swiss Army knife hidden under the brim of her Smokey the Bear hat.

Oh yeah, that. Madonna was dressed as a Cub Scout to publicly repudiate the Boy Scouts of America’s increasingly maligned no-gays-allowed policy. It was the latest bold move in an ongoing war among singing stars for gay hearts, loyalties, and (enter cynicism) consumer dollars. In recent years the LGBT demographic community has become a coveted prize for those peddling pop music. But when determining the difference between "support" and "exploitation," there's important evidence to consider: history. Unlike bush-league performers who warble paint-by-numbers Message Songs about being born this way like perfect fireworks or whatever, Madonna has been sticking up for the gay community since the days when it was a potential career-killer. That earns her a pass – and good faith in her sincerity – even when she pulls off gimmicky PR stunts that would seem patronizing coming from others.


Synopsis: Madonna tells off-color jokes, banters with audience, blasts Boy Scouts, plugs concert, says “love thy neighbor,” hates Internet, plugs concert, hates bullying, hates Russia, toots own horn, says “Not to toot my own horn,” winks a lot, plugs concert, delivers thinly-veiled death threat to Lady Gaga, plugs concert, flirts with Anderson Cooper. Fini.

Madonna’s appearance at the GLAAD awards earned a lot of pre-press, for obvious reasons. Madonna speaking at a gala of affluent gay power brokers is sort of like the Queen Mother making a transatlantic voyage to address the colonies. It’s a special moment.

But the announcement of her appearance elicited backlash from a contingent of Lady Gaga fans, AKA “Little Monsters,” AKA the online fan world’s equivalent of a fringe militia. Totally not trying to be funny, they petitioned GLAAD to rescind its invitation on the grounds that Madonna does not care about gay people and probably tried to give them AIDS. Sigh.

The original petition (since removed from the website where it was posted):

Dear GLAAD:

It has come to the attention to Little Monsters everywhere that you are letting Madonna give an award to Anderson Cooper. Not only is this an insult to a true gay rights activist like Lady Gaga, but it insults every gay man and woman on this planet.

Madonna is one of the major reasons for AIDS. Back in the 1980’s, she encouraged gay men to have unprotected sex. While she certainly didn’t start the disease, she and her lack of morals helped it spread.

Please rethink your choice of having Madonna as a presenter. If you don’t, we Little Monsters will strike back in a way you won’t like.

Sincerely,
Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters

This letter is tragic. Not just because, ironically, it exhumes from the 1980s the homophobic insinuation that gay men’s sexual proclivities wrought the AIDS epidemic.

It’s tragic because it shows a lack of knowledge of pop music history. And in this case, pop music history is linked to political history. Lady Gaga arrived on the scene about half a decade after same-sex marriage did. (Massachusetts became the first state to allow it in 2004.) To suggest the bravery of her social justice contributions somehow surpasses that of Madonna, whose biography is drenched in gay culture, is to reveal oneself as an LGBT “activist” with no grasp of LGBT media history. And anyone with a supposed passion for something has a responsibility to understand its roots, whether that requires tracing back a music sample from a song or appreciating the sentiment behind a political statement.

MadonnaInsta2.jpg

Left: Madonna posted a photo from backstage at the GLAAD awards on her Instagram account. (And we know, Ms. Ciccone. We've seen the "Sex" book.)

So for those just joining the program, here's the super-condensed version of Madonna's connections to the gay world: Christopher Flynn, her ballet instructor and oft-cited mentor, immersed a teenage Madonna in the arts – and the gay discos of Detroit, where she honed her street moves and an attitude one MAC makeup shade away from that of a boa-whipping Motor City drag queen. At Flynn’s suggestion Madonna moved to NYC to become a professional dancer; she became a first-rate couch-surfer, living off popcorn and the kindness of strangers while she eked out a living through nude modeling and gigs with ragtag punk bands. She spent her days shacking up with edgy artists like good pal Keith Haring. She spent her nights at gay clubs, shopping her pop-dance demo tapes from DJ to DJ. Often in tow was her gay younger brother, Christopher, who eventually became her tour designer.

Madonna’s pavement pounding paid off, and she used her newfound notoriety to achieve greater visibility for the LGBT community that fostered her fame. At the height of ‘80s-era homophobia, she actually celebrated the effeminacies of her most flamboyant dancers in her music videos, live shows and movies: particularly her tour documentary Truth or Dare, which in typically histrionic fashion depicted her as a messianic mama rescuing gay crew, like stray cats, from familial abandonment and a cruel, hostile world. She specifically engaged queer people of color; “Vogue” was inspired by a dance movement derived from the African- and Latino-American gay club scene. And after watching friends like Haring and Flynn succumb to the epidemic, Madonna became an early and outspoken AIDS activist, using benefit concerts and television PSAs to educate about the disease and its stigma. Her Like a Prayer album came packaged with a fact sheet about AIDS and safe sex guidelines, and she used a pro-condom message to open her famous Sex book, which depicted her engaged with (and/or assisting) every combination of genders in various states of titillating tomfoolery.

The public outcry over Sex, her album Erotica and its accompanying MTV-banned music videos, all heavily influenced by the leather and fetish clubs of the NYC underground, marked the end of Madonna's most overtly sexual oeuvre. By extension, her more obvious tributes to gay culture grew tamer: think guest spots on Will & Grace and her painful "best pal comedy" with Rupert Everett, The Next Best Thing. No matter. The commitment was clear.

And that is why what's good for the goose isn't always good for the Gaga. It's sweet when younger pop stars stick up for gay rights, but in an age that requires little moxie to do so, it can also smack of condescension.

Madonna's recent appearance is not unimpugnable either. Like everything she does, it was mostly about herself. It's obvious she is as much interested in wresting back the gay icon crown from younger stars as she is in furthering any particular cause. As always, whether you find her unique brand of childlike narcissism to be more charming than offensive is a matter of taste.

And her speech about bullying and Boy Scouts sort of meandered between pro-gay bullet points strung together by blown kisses. It was heartfelt, but heavy-handed. Madonna knows that in the age of Twitter, subtlety doesn't work. "Express Yourself" needs to become "Born This Way."

By Madonna’s standards, Saturday's appearance was a touch... reductive. But hey, at least by now she’s earned the right to steal from her own catalogue.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

Scott Kearnan (@thewritestuffSK) is a Boston-based writer, editor, and communications consultant focusing on lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment. He's also a part-time smart aleck and buffalo wing connoisseur. "Media Remix" is where couch potatoes meet pop culture criticism. More »

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