Confessions in a field
OPINION: CHRIS PIGRAM
Madonna has empowered and inspired her gay fans with her ballsy attitude and unapologetic sexuality for over three decades. In his tribute to the pop queen as she turns 60, Chris Pigram remembers how she became a source of resilience during his college days in rural Devon.
In late 2005, I was a new student at Dartington College of Arts in Devon. Of course there are many moments from those early college days which stand out vividly in my memory, but there’s one I recall with particular clarity. A group of us were huddled around the TV in our kitchen in halls of residence one Saturday morning glued to CD:UK (remember that?) when Madonna’s new video for Hung Up came on. I for one was enthralled.
It was my first time living away from home, and while most students find themselves in new cities with countless social possibilities, I isolated myself, surrounded by the Totnes countryside - quite the contrast from the gritty, urban landscape of the Queen of Pop's latest promo.
Being a fresh-faced, naïve 20 year old who was yet to fully embrace his sexuality, Madonna became a go-to for inspiration due to her ballsy attitude, confidence and unapologetic celebration of sexuality, her own and everyone elses. She was someone whose music I’d turn to during any crisis.
For many young outsiders like myself, she’d always been there in popular culture, a guiding light almost, either in the charts with euphoric dance-floor bangers, or on the TV showcasing her pioneering music videos, while empowering young women, gay people and other marginalised groups along the way. Is it any wonder some in our community gave her the title ‘Our Glorious leader’?
My first memory of Madonna was early in my childhood. She seemed to me this mysterious and beautiful music star that grown-ups liked, on a par with the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson. That iconic cone bra, head mic and ponytail from the Blond Ambition tour intrigued me - even at such a young age. I wasn’t even familiar with much of her music but something about her image was compelling. Sure enough, I embarked on a journey to fully embrace her and her work.
Fast forward around fifteen years and I was walking the rolling hills of Devon, along the River Dart, with a serious bout of FOMO (fear of missing out) at being nowhere near a city where life was, I believed, going on.
Despite Madonna living part-time during that time in Wiltshire, riding her horses with husband and kids in tow, lapping up the English country life, she had the luxury of escaping to her London mansion when the need arose.
I instead would get up early for my part time cafe job, listen to Confessions on a Dance Floor on my headphones, only imagining I was blazing a trail through the streets of London or New York, loving and living it up on the party scene. Instead, the countryside had become my refuge. A place where perhaps I still wasn’t ready to be who I really was. Not yet out, and not quite ready to confront certain feelings buried deep inside.
And so it was that my university era was one of profound awakenings for me. Not only was I being educated in theatre studies in many of its abstract, contemporary forms, but at the grand age of 23, sudden realisations about myself were about to rock my very foundations. Everything in life I thought to be true was suddenly being questioned.
By the time I had reached my final year, I realise in hindsight something had shifted which was difficult to substantiate. My grandmother died during my exams and on my return from Ireland for her funeral, I would sit back in my college dorm, watching the morning fog roll in and the horses grazing. Madonna once again became the soundtrack to that tumultuous period. I visited her earlier material, and like the country air, it became my healer.
I became obsessed with nostalgia, perhaps as a way to channel memory and pain. I became nostalgic of my childhood in the 1980s, when life seemed simpler, before grief took hold. I began to question the meaning of nostalgia, and why I was drawn to it. Hell, I was questioning the meaning of everything back then.
I played Live to Tell on repeat on my iPod, a dark brooding anthem about secrets, lies, and hiding the truth, and at once I felt the whoosh of emotions. Again, Madonna became a consoling influence.
As the months rolled on, so did the wait for Madonna's eleventh studio album, what we now know as Hard Candy. By the time the first single 4 Minutes was out, I was a mess emotionally, navigating uncharted waters as a newcomer to the big city. New beginnings collided with feeling uncertain, impatient. Though still feeling like an outsider, I felt an urgency about my new life.
Then I fell in love with a man. It wasn’t exactly ‘touched for the very first time’ but I wasn’t expecting the depth of feelings. But I'm glad I did. Because if I hadn't - who knows how long it would have taken me to realise who I really was? This epiphany brought about some of the hardest struggles - a true somersault of emotions. What would Madonna do, her fans would ask. Like any idol, we’d look to her to help us think things through and overcome problems.
During this time, her Madgesty was embarking on another world tour, juggling her usual mind-blowing juggernaut of her live show with the pain of divorcing once again in the public eye. Her strength was to be applauded, but she now seemed emotionally drained, hardened and angry, which coincided with my own state of mind.
Only I had no performance to throw myself into - no riches, young lovers or a bundle of international homes for solace and in which to occupy my mind. I longed for the refuge of the countryside once more.
Ten years on I’m happy to report that I got through it. Not that it’s been without its bumps along the way, which could also be said for Madonna's two studio offerings since. Yet they too both explored similar themes occuring in my life at the time; freedom, renewal, hope, and above all - love. Love for myself. Which happens when you take time out to just be and allow yourself to breathe. I once again found my healing space.
All life’s challenges - moving out of home, living in London, being broke, dealing with depression, family deaths, reconnecting with family, travel, new jobs - all paved the way for this new found me. Madonna’s latest music was also lighter - more poppy, electronic and had an optimistic youthful sound. It's how I felt too.
So on the approach to her 60th birthday, who better to look to for inspiration when it comes to bettering yourself and being your creative best? Who better to let their music accompany you through life and that road less travelled by. May she continue in outlandish style. Happy birthday your Madgesty.
No one has done it better than the Queen. Look it up.