What Madonna taught a little black girl about independence & sex

Madonna, the force of nature who turns 60 this week, has always lived by the rule that there are no rules - and so have I

12 August 2018 - 00:00
Madonna on her Girlie Show tour.
Madonna on her Girlie Show tour.
Image: Getty/ Mick Hutson/Redferns

The year I turned 10 was an important, formative one in my life. It was the year I was unable to go to school - for reasons that no longer matter - and, because of that, I immersed myself in magazines, newspapers and pop culture.

It was 1998. Madonna was a new mom. It was her Ray of Light phase - maternal, otherworldly Madonna. Her massive singles were Ray of Light, a trippy electropop tune that sounded like the bubblegum version of something from U2's bloody weird Zooropa album from four years earlier. The other big single was Frozen, for which Madonna went all mystic Goth in a video that is still captivating to this day.

It was this tune that grabbed me. Maybe I didn't know it then, but I was probably in a dark place as a kid and Madonna, in a desert at dusk (it could have been dawn), in a black dress, nails painted black (which became my favourite nail colour), transforming into a flock of black birds and later a black dog, appealed to that darkness and sadness in me.

WATCH | The music video for Madonna's track Frozen

My relationship with Madonna, who turns 60 this week, is strong to this day. I've never met her - of course not - but she has been a guiding force in my life for 20 years. A spiritual mother, if you like.

I can't claim that certain Madonna songs are tied to particular memories of mine, but her music and her persona have greatly influenced how I live my life. I don't go around wondering, "What would Madonna do?", but I have often lived my life according to Madonna's rules. These are: there are no rules, but if there must be, let them be your own.

Throughout her 34-year career, Madonna has not only broken boundaries and rules, she's created her own to live by. Whether she is channelling a filthy Monroe during her Erotica phase (1992 to '93), or she is all salt of the earth in a flannel shirt and a big belt during her Music phase (2000 to '02), or an Abba-sampling disco queen with bouncy curls and in leotards during her Confessions on a Dance Floor phase ('05 to '07), she's always done whatever the hell that she wants.

But what's most inspiring about Madonna is that she's never come across as someone who breaks rules just to break rules. No. Every look and every re-invention has felt like something well thought-out, something with a purpose - and that purpose is to dominate the charts and secure the bag (cool-kid slang for getting money).

What's most inspiring about Madonna is that she's never come across as someone who breaks rules just to break rules

Madonna was never a record-company puppet and that's revolutionary because she debuted at a time when most women in popular music were presenting an image of what their record companies and producers wanted them to be.

In fact, Madonna's entire career has been a revolutionary act.

While in the late '80s she projected the image of the good Catholic girl gone bad, in the 1990s she really embraced her sexuality as a woman. By the time Erotica came out in 1992, Madonna was already one of the biggest stars on Earth. And yes, her dirty lyrics about, no, not lovemaking but rather f*****g - pure carnal pleasure - and her explicit (and gorgeously shot) coffee-table book Sex were intended to shock. And shock they did.

But by being so unapologetic about being a sexual being (in the way that men are allowed to be) and by forcing her sexual image in the world's faces, Madonna normalised female sexuality in a way no one before her had done.

(Let's not forget, however, that "overly sexual" women are still called "sluts" and "hoes", but that's a conversation for another time.)

Madonna has always represented dominance and control - and not just in a sexual context.

Her refusal to be a shrinking violet or demure woman has inspired how I approach relationships and even my career.

Another thing Madonna has taught me is that change will happen, so not only must you embrace it, but a lot of the time you should be the one leading it. "I'm going down my own road and I can make it alone", she sings on Jump. Because honey, in the end, there's no one you can rely on but yourself.

WATCH | The music video for Madonna's track Jump

And while that attitude can be harmful to relationships (I can admit that), that lyric has informed my fierce independence of thought and self. Even in a group, I still do what I want.

Like most great women, Madonna is a polarising figure. When I told people I was writing this piece, I was often met with some rebuttal about how she bullied other famous women. Cue my eye roll.

The flaws of men are lauded (they add to their genius, no doubt) while women are vilified because of their imperfections.

Like any feminist, I'm passionate about how women are portrayed and represented in the media. But one of the problems with positive representation is that, for many, it means showing women as always good human beings, which actually strips us of our humanity. It doesn't give us room to have flaws and to be, well, not very nice.

Yes, Madonna has shown a mean streak - but that's part of why I love her.

She's not here to be palatable or to be liked. And there's something to learn from that.